SMITHFIELD, R.I. -- Of all the decisions Bryant University senior first baseman Robby Rinn (Warwick, R.I.) has made in his life, arguably one of the most important came prior to the 2011-12 academic year.
Rinn, who graduated from the prestigious Moses Brown School, opted to spend a year at Worcester Academy instead of enrolling in a college, even though he was voted First Team All-State.
“I put myself in a spot where I could play Division II or Division III so I took the year at Worcester,” said Rinn. “It helped me get my grades up. And I was exposed to (then-head coach) Dana Forsberg. He was an unbelievable guy as was (then-assistant coach) Mark Gafur. They opened my eyes and taught me a lot about baseball that I didn’t know before.
“The caliber (of baseball) there was a little higher and it also gave me the opportunity to come (to Bryant). Without that year, I wouldn’t have been able to do that. I got my grades up and I became a much better baseball player when I was there.”
Bryant coach Steve Owens was quick to admit how important it was for Rinn to spend a year at Worcester Academy.
“Obviously, he had a year to become more physically mature,” said Owens, whose team through May 6 is 33-8; ranked 20th in the nation in Perfect Game’s top 25 Poll; and has an RPI of 26. “I think if he had come into our program out of high school he might have been behind the eight-ball so much that he never would have had a chance to catch up.
“As it turned out, he came in and maybe he wasn’t ready right away in the fall but by the time the season came around, he was playing regularly as a freshman. He beat out everyone that’s competed against him at that position.”
Due in part to that year at Worcester Academy, Rinn is ranked the No. 13 first baseman in the country by D1Baseball.com; was named to Perfect Game’s pre-season, All-Northeast Conference Team; and is ranked ninth on Baseball America’s top 10 prospect list of NEC players who are draft eligible.
As a junior he was First Team All-NEC, First Team All-New England and Second Team All-ECAC.
And recently he received the Ronald Machtley (i.e. Bryant’s President) Career Award as the “graduating male senior who’s had an exceptional athletic career.”
Impressive statistics: How “exceptional” has been Rinn’s career?
In 209 career games:
* His batting average is .324.
* He ranks second in Bryant’s Division I history in hits, doubles, RBI and runs scored.
* His fielding percentage is .989 (19 errors in 1,768 total chances).
Through the Bulldogs’ first 41 games this season, Rinn is hitting .378 replete with only 13 strikeouts in 164 at-bats and a mind-boggling 1.010 OPS.
Rinn’s proficiency at first base underscores the adage that a team doesn’t appreciate a good defensive first baseman until it doesn’t have one.
“It’s something that always was important to me,” said Rinn. “But when I got here as a freshman I stayed in the lineup because of my defensive play. “I wasn’t hitting as a freshman. Coach Owens kept me in the lineup because of my defensive play. Without that, I don’t know if I would have had the opportunity to play like I have because I was better than the other guys were defensively.
“He took pride in that.”
Given how many plays in which a first baseman can be involved during the course of a game, Owens knows how important Rinn’s proficiency has been to Bryant’s success.
“On average it’s two a game,” Owens said while referring to how many errors Rinn prevents in a game. “It’s not just his picking balls out of the dirt. It’s his footwork around first base and how easily he reads the throw and knows where he has to go at the right time to span the base and catch the ball.
“He’s improved every year. It’s almost impossible to teach. You can learn it on your own by working every day. But he’s one of the best if not the best I’ve had (i.e. Owens is in his 25th year as a head coach at three different universities).”
Owens also noted Rinn’s ability to read throws and the speed of a runner. And he’s adamant that Rinn is “fearless.”
“He goes up the line and catches the ball and makes tags in tons of situations,” said Owens. “And he’s a good thrower. He’s an all-around, excellent player at that position. It’s really important because (a first baseman) can handle the ball 15 to 20 times a game.”
Knowing the strike zone: To a certain extent, Rinn’s fielding prowess overshadows what he does with a bat in his hands.
Over the course of his career he’s fanned only 69 times and drawn 85 walks in 722 at-bats.
“The amount that (coach Owens) has helped me I can’t put into words,” said Owens. “I used to swing really open and he had me close off between my sophomore and junior year and that made a huge difference.
“My biggest stride was when I went from an open stance to closing off.”
Owens places Rinn in a key spot in his lineup for a distinct purpose.
“He doesn’t strike out,” said Owens. “We’re relying on him to hit more and drive in runs because he’s in the middle of our lineup.I think he’s developed a nice balance between being too aggressive and too passive.”
Not surprisingly, Rinn’s overall play has caught the attention of other coaches.
“I think that all the teams we’ve played this year, when we leave the field at the end of the series, the other coach says ‘That kid’s a really good player,’” said Owens. “He’s not only a presence in our lineup but he runs the bases well and plays great defense.
“He’s performed in the clutch. That’s a true testament of a great athlete -- how they do when it’s meaningful. Robby Rinn has been a meaningful player for us. He gets things done when lesser players fail.”