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Victor Robles could be a valuable No. 9 hitter for the Washington Nationals...

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Washington Nationals top prospect Victor Robles hasn’t proved himself enough to hit at the top of the order, but that doesn’t mean the team can’t still put him in a position to succeed.

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at Washington Nationals Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Over the course of the 2018 regular season, Washington Nationals manager Davey Martinez penciled in his starting pitcher at the No. 8 spot of the batting order 29 times.

Prior to that, the last time any Nats manager batted his pitcher eighth was June 23, 2011, when Jim Riggleman slotted starter Jason Marquis there in what would be the former skipper’s final game before resigning due to the uncertainty surrounding his future with the team.

Needless to say, this hasn’t been a familiar sight for Nationals fans over the years. However, the team’s front office signaled it was ready to try some new strategies when it brought on Martinez, the right-hand man of Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon, last offseason.

A plethora of injuries forced Martinez to get creative with his lineup construction, using only two batting orders more than three times and overall trotting out 150 different combinations. Given a clean slate in 2019, Martinez will now be tasked with finding fits for the new additions to his everyday lineup: Brian Dozier, Kurt Suzuki (or Yan Gomes), and Victor Robles.

Robles is the most interesting case. The 21-year-old center fielder will be getting his first real chance to make an impact at the major-league level. Yet despite his high ceiling and the success he had during his 21-game stint in the majors last September, the Nationals likely don’t want to thrust Robles into too many high-leverage situations out of the gate.

“He got hurt obviously, but when he came back and I saw him play in September, I really feel like he’s ready to play,” Martinez said earlier this winter. “He really is. He just needs repetition to get out and play. I don’t want him to do anything different. We talked about that already, I want him to go out and play baseball and have fun.”

If Washington wants to give Robles an opportunity to score some runs and put the team in a position to win while minimizing the risk of him getting off to a slow start and hindering the offense, the No. 9 spot would be the perfect place for him to hit.

In 2018, non-pitchers had 13,999 plate appearances batting ninth between the American and National Leagues. Those hitters eventually scored 10.8 percent of the time they stepped to the plate. That may not seem like a lot, but let’s compare it to how hitters in the other spots of the order fare.

MLB Scoring Rate of Non-Pitchers by Batting Position, 2018

Spot in Lineup Plate Appearances On-Base Percentage Runs Scored Scoring Rate
Spot in Lineup Plate Appearances On-Base Percentage Runs Scored Scoring Rate
1st 22,624 0.333 3,175 14.0%
2nd 22,118 0.335 2,890 13.1%
3rd 21,611 0.344 2,684 12.4%
4th 21,115 0.332 2,543 12.0%
5th 20,623 0.322 2,339 11.3%
6th 20,084 0.316 2,163 10.8%
7th 19,512 0.307 2,051 10.5%
8th 18,346 0.306 1,833 10.0%
9th 13,999 0.292 1,506 10.8%
Hitters batting ninth scored just as often as No. 6 hitters in 2018. Data courtesy of FanGraphs

Despite posting the lowest on-base percentage of any spot in the lineup, position players slotted ninth scored more often than batters who hit seventh or eighth in 2018.

When looking at just the NL, the picture becomes even clearer...

NL Scoring Rate of Non-Pitchers by Batting Position, 2018

Spot in Lineup Plate Appearances On-Base Percentage Runs Scored Scoring Rate
Spot in Lineup Plate Appearances On-Base Percentage Runs Scored Scoring Rate
1st 11,327 0.334 1,593 14.1%
2nd 11,089 0.335 1,460 13.2%
3rd 10,853 0.345 1,348 12.4%
4th 10,596 0.337 1,272 12.0%
5th 10,347 0.332 1,178 11.4%
6th 10,076 0.315 1,076 10.7%
7th 9,779 0.312 998 10.2%
8th 8,908 0.313 873 9.8%
9th 5,139 0.296 556 10.8%
Data courtesy of FanGraphs

By hitting Robles ninth, Martinez would be giving the Nationals a second leadoff man who could get on base ahead of top-of-the-order hitters Adam Eaton, Juan Soto and Anthony Rendon. Steamer projects Robles to have a .335 on-base percentage and steal 25 bases in 2019, which suggests he could score at a much higher rate than the average No. 9 hitter.

MLB.com lists Robles at 190 lbs, indicating that he likely won’t meet the full potential of his power in his rookie season. As a result, the Nationals shouldn’t rely on him to drive in runs, rather letting him either set the table for a fresh inning or try to extend frames with two outs.

“You look at the athlete, the physical size, you don’t look at him and you don’t go, ‘Wow, this guy’s built like Juan Soto or Robinson Cano, or A-Rod, or one of those guys,’” hitting coach Kevin Long said at Winterfest in early December.

“You look at [Andrew] McCutchen, and he’s more in that physical build than he is the other, so yeah I can see that comparison. And there’s the fast-twitch, explosive movement that you see when he hits and even when he runs and tracks down balls, he’s an exciting player.”

MLB: New York Mets at Washington Nationals
Robles smiles after hitting a triple during the eighth inning against the New York Mets at Nationals Park on Sept. 23.
Amber Searls-USA TODAY Sports

If Robles produces as hoped, the team can always move him up in the order. However, the Nats could also keep him in the ninth spot, similar to how the Cincinnati Reds used Billy Hamilton (412 PAs batting ninth) in 2018.

Hamilton, who posted a .311 OBP as the Reds’ No. 9 hitter with 31 stolen bases, scored following 12.6 percent of his plate appearances — 1.8 percent higher than the MLB average. That number might’ve been even higher if it weren’t for the fact that Cincinnati ranked 20th in slugging percentage (.401) last year.

The Nationals finished 10th in slugging (.419) and while that number is expected to regress following the losses of Bryce Harper [ed. note - “Insert caveat about how the Nats could still re-sign him here.”] and Daniel Murphy, a full season of Soto and the walk-year status of Rendon should still make the team’s offense a potent one.

The MLB record for the most runs scored by a No. 9 hitter is 72, held by Kevin Elster (Rangers, 1996) and Harold Reynolds (Mariners, 1987). If the Nationals keep Robles there for the entirety of the 2019 season, he has the potential to beat that number.

Martinez has already said the Nationals will “score runs in a different manner” next season by manufacturing offense through putting the ball in play and good baserunning rather than relying on the long ball. Who better to be the face of that new-look offense than Robles, who can make an immediate impact for Washington at the bottom of the order?