Five ways of looking at Ryan Raburn
1. He’s a mediocre hitter who heats up as the season wears on but doesn’t really seem to learn much as the years advance. To wit, his strikeouts have been nearly dead even with—or eclipsed—his hit total every year he’s recorded stats in the majors.
Despite having played alongside some of the best hitters in terms of creating quality at bats—Placido Polanco, Miguel Cabrera—Raburn seems, more often than not, to just swing at whatever pitch comes after strike two. And miss. As a fan, that’s frustrating. How can he not learn? Doesn’t the osmotic effect of just sharing an oxygen supply with these hitters translate into more plate discipline?
2. He’s a defensive nightmare.
He misplays the ball in left more often than he gets it right, almost to comic effect. (Side note: that he sometimes laughs it off is either endearing or maddening, take your pick.)
Remember when Raburn botched the grab early in the season against the (allegedly cellar-dwelling) Seattle Mariners, sending the ball into the seats for a homerun and contributing, in his own small way, to an embarrassing homestand that saw the Tigers get swept by the (allegedly cellar-dwelling) M’s?
And of course, there are legions of Tigers fans who heap all the blame for the bonus game loss to the Minnesota Twins—which officially eliminated the Tigers from the playoffs, something they’d been desperately trying to do on their own since the All-Star break—on Raburn because he, yes, misplayed the ball.
3. Raburn’s just a guy in need of, as someone said of a colleague I cannot believe will ever rise to meet his job duties, just a little more confidence. But looking at him, you wonder if maybe that’s not part of it.
My coach reminds me that production at the plate starts with confidence: confidence that you’re making the right choice in laying off that ball out of the strike zone even though your protect-the-plate instinct is trigger happy with any count ending in -2, and—compounding and augmenting that first choice—confidence that you can put the strike that is coming in play.
I remember, as a young player, sometimes swinging just to strike out rather than face the anxiety and pressure head on; having to produce when that’s exactly what’s required is probably the most challenging aspect of baseball, and the reason why a shade above mediocrity, by some standards, is greatness.
4. “I’m just a country boy,” he’s said countless times.
He was a country boy of 22 years when he was the major casualty of what can only be described as a hellish all-terrain vehicle accident that left him with a dislocated hip and a few broken bones that were never diagnosed, simply because the doctors never thought to check anything but the horrific, obvious injury of a hip and leg stuck at an impossible angle.
The Detroit News had a superb story on it last year toward the end of the season; the link is now expired. A detail I’ll not forget anytime soon: that he had to be driven on bumpy, rural roads—sans painkillers—for hours to the nearest hospital. Imagine that. Shudder.
Suffice to say that playing baseball again—at all—was not even a remote certainty, and sometimes you wonder if Raburn doesn’t need to be reminded that this opportunity in the Majors is one he’s earned. Indeed, it’s one he had to earn more than once, and he owes it to himself—and every moment he dedicated to what had to have been a nightmare of a recovery and rehab—to just take that last step and reach his potential, even if that potential tops out at .280.
5. Sometimes, he’s a victim. As Pat Caputo points out, Raburn’s best position is second base. And, as baseball writer Jon Morosi noted during another sub-par outfield performance last week, it’s hard to fault Raburn for his left-field letdowns when manager Jim Leyland names him the everyday 2B and then promptly goes a week without playing him at the bag.
Maybe, like a toddler, he needs a few things: a little more discipline (at the plate), a little more love (and confidence), and a set schedule—like starting at second base for the rest of the season.
It’s almost as if, for a guy like Raburn, the perception creates the reality. When he feels secure, he flourishes—as in Sunday’s timely, desperately-needed blast that plated four runs when the Tigers were down.
Where’d that bit of security come from? Teammate Miguel Cabrera:
“His game is like waves,” Miguel Cabrera said. “Right now, he’s worried because he’s not hitting too much, he’s not hitting for average. I said, ‘Don’t worry. It’s going to be your time. Get your timing, be ready. It’s a long season. We’re going to need you.’ And you see what happened today. He got a big home run for us today.”
Cabrera had been giving encouragement to Raburn in recent days as he saw Raburn continue to press. He had been kidding with him, too, that the second half was just around the corner and that’s when he gets hot.
“It’s going to take one day at a time. You don’t get big numbers in one day. You have to do something every day, play hard every day, and at the end of the season, I think the numbers are going to be there. That’s why I told him, ‘Don’t worry about that.’”