Hillsboro, Oregon —— Robby Rinn never expected he’d finish one swing away from winning the home run derby at the Northwest League/Pioneer League All-Star Game on Tuesday night. The Kansas City Royals first base prospect wasn’t even expecting to participate in the contest at all, and when he was asked to do it in the first place, he almost didn’t believe it.
“My approach has never been to hit home runs, so I kind of laughed when I was asked to do the home run derby,” Rinn told Baseball Census minutes after finishing runner-up at the derby behind Colorado Rockies outfielder Daniel Jipping. “I didn’t think I was going to do very well, and then I got a little bit further than what I expected. Especially with [Los Angeles Dodgers prospect Luis] Paz in the home run derby, I figured he was going to blow everyone out of the water, but I actually had a good chance to win it.”
Rinn paused, and grinned, shaking his head.
“I kind of blew it in that last round.”
Exhausted from earlier last-second heroics just to force the final tiebreaker round, the Kansas City Royals first baseman sputtered out in his final minute, and Jipping pulled away with a decisive victory. But if you think Robby Rinn is just a home run derby story, you haven’t been paying attention to the season he’s put together with the Idaho Falls Chukars.
Entering second half play on Friday night, Rinn is slashing a monster .362/.455/.533/.988 with Idaho Falls. He leads the Pioneer League in hits (55), sits second in doubles (12), fourth in on-base percentage, fourth in runs (34), fifth in average, fifth in walks (24), sixth in OPS, and he’s struck out just 17 times, to boot. (No one in the Pioneer League has as many at-bats as Robby Rinn with as few strikeouts.) When you start to consider what he’s been able to do in game action, then, suddenly a near-miss at the home run derby doesn’t loom so significant.
“Every day I try to hit the ball hard up the middle,” he said when asked about what’s led to such significant success, even for a traditionally hitter-friendly league. “Look for that fastball in the middle of the plate, or away, and try to do some damage with it while leaving the off-speed down. The approach they teach here is the same one I took in college. Just get on the fastball, and depending on what they give you, hitting the ball the other way is good. You don’t have to yank the fastball.”
That Robby Rinn mentions his college—Bryant University in Rhode Island—is important, because even now in his second year of pro ball he still holds his college experience very closely. That’s partly a product of it being a northeastern college, of course. Baseball programs in the northeast have a certain pride about how they carry themselves; always with a chip on their shoulder, always eager to prove they belong with the powerhouses in California, and Texas, and Florida.
“You’re never going to be the most sought-after person,” Rinn said. “I wasn’t out of high school, and I wasn’t out of college. So you accept that and take it with you wherever you go. Being from a northeast school, we never really played some of those big southern schools, and so right off the bat when you get to this level you have to go show them that you belong here.”
“And I always come out with a chip on my shoulder,” he continued. “I’m doing this back for the guys at Bryant, for the coaches there who did a phenomenal job with me. We’ve got six, seven guys still involved lately in pro ball [from Bryant], and everyone has that same mindset. It’s taught there.”
Another thing that’s taught at Bryant—as it’s clearly taught with the Kansas City Royals—is a two-strike approach. More remarkable than any power numbers or stat-sheet filling Robby Rinn has accomplished this summer has been his ability to put the ball in play with authority. It doesn’t matter the level, you won’t find many power hitters with almost 50% more walks (24) than strikeouts (17) nearly 200 plate appearances into a pro season. And yet there’s Robby Rinn, mystifying Pioneer League pitching by both hitting for power and showing impressive contact skills.
“Two strikes, you just have to battle as hard as you can, and that’s a huge thing they teach at Bryant,” Rinn said. “It’s something the Royals are big on, too. With two strikes you’ve got to choke up and hit the ball hard somewhere.”
“I was a doubles hitter in college, too, and I’ve never really been a home run guy,” Rinn continued. “But I didn’t strike out a lot then either, and I think that’s a pride thing. It’s always been the goal to keep strikeouts low and be a tough out. Even if you have two strikes, you never want to be walking back to the dugout.”
Maybe it’s ironic, then, that the Kansas City Royals prospect fell just short at the home run derby, for it’s one of the few times this season he’s walked back to the dugout head down, full of regret for what could have been. And while the season’s second half—and the rest of his career—are more important to Rinn than losing a home run derby, a win would’ve been a nice feather in the cap of the man who has made himself into a legitimate Pioneer League MVP candidate this year.
“I worried too much about getting under the ball in that final minute, and I didn’t have to, I had the metal bat,” Rinn admitted, shaking his head again. “The first twenty seconds with the metal bat is tough, it’s just different. At least I got the last second one to force the tiebreaker [in the previous round], but yeah, I could have easily won and I didn’t.”
Rinn paused again, before shrugging and breaking into a smile.
“This is something I may never get again, so I’ve really been trying to enjoy it,” he grinned. “And I think I proved some of my teammates wrong, so that’s good. I can take that back with me.”