Washington Nationals’ GM Mike Rizzo talked towards the end of the 2020 campaign about a few of the young players on the roster the club hopes will take the next step forward in 2021 after some of them took “a side-step” this past season.
Though he didn’t mention any players by name, Victor Robles, 22, (who missed time early in Spring Training 2.0 after coming into contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19 as players traveled back to the nation’s capital in July), took a step back, or a side-step in his development in 2020, both at the plate and in center field.
Robles finished the 60-game season with a .220/.293/.315 line, five doubles, one triple, and three homers in 52 games and 189 plate appearances, over which he was worth -0.2 fWAR.
In 2019, the outfielder put up a .255/.326/.419 line with 33 doubles, three triples, and 17 HRs in 155 games and 617 PAs in his first full season in the majors, over which he was worth +2.5 fWAR.
His strikeout percentage (28.0 K%) was up (from 22.7% in 2019), he chased pitches out of the zone more often (34.2% O-Swing% - “percentage of pitches a batter swings at outside the strike zone” which was up from 28.6% in 2018 and 31.9% in 2019), and his Z-contact% (the number of pitches on which contact was made on pitches inside the zone/Swings on pitches inside the zone), was down from 86-87% over his first three seasons to 80.9% this past season, and his overall Contact% fell as well (73.9%, down from 80.4% in ‘18 and 78.3% in ‘19).
Defensively, Robles, who finished the 2019 campaign at +23 Defensive Runs Saved (DRS), ended up at -4 DRS in 2020, with his Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) falling from +5.3 in 1,199 innings in 2019 to -3.6 in 422 2⁄3 innings in center in 2020.
Manager Davey Martinez talked towards the end of the season about speaking with Robles in the annual exit meetings he has to address how they want him to prepare for 2021, after he’d bulked up while preparing for the 2020 campaign and came into camp bigger (but in great shape) and struggled in terms of speed and agility throughout the campaign.
“I’m going to have these exit meetings with individual players,” Martinez explained. “I want to talk to [Robles] — and so when I have these meetings, it’s more about I want them to assess how they did and what they felt throughout this few months, and tell them — I want to hear their thoughts before I go into what I think. So we’ll see, we’re going to have this conversation, and then we’ll go from there and we’ll see what transpires.”
Martinez wasn’t sure if Robles would play Winter Ball at home in the Dominican Republic, or elsewhere, but said he didn’t think it was necessarily a bad idea.
“If he feels like he wants to go get at bats, I’m not opposed to it, but I definitely do think that he needs to come into Spring Training well-rested and ready to go come Spring Training.”
While he noted that Robles’s weight gain was all muscle, he said it wasn’t necessarily about the weight as much as the result of the additional bulk.
“We don’t talk to him about necessarily the weight gain,” Martinez said.
“We talk to him about his flexibility, his speed, agility, his first step, I mean, stuff like that.
“If he feels like he can carry the weight, then we really want him to really hone in on his flexibility and his first-step quickness.
“We’re putting a plan together for him so he can establish that, and get on that. Like I said, not by any means is he out of shape.
“He’s in great shape. I watch him in the gym. He’s a beast. He’s a big kid. But I definitely don’t want him to lose his speed. And that’s a huge part of his game.”
Asked during the last week of the season if he saw the additional muscle playing a role in Robles’s struggles at the plate, Martinez said he thought it was more an issue of the still-young outfielder pressing a bit at the plate when things didn’t go well.
“A lot of it has to do with — or should I say a little bit of it has to do with mechanics, a lot of it has to do with, when you feel like you’re struggling you try to do too much, and I think that’s where he’s gotten to. He’s just trying to do too much. He’s trying to get five hits in one swing, and that happens to a young player.
“I just want him ... [to] go out there, have fun, relax, and just try to make good, solid contact.
“He can’t guide where the ball goes. I tell him just go out there and try to hit the ball hard somewhere, if you get a hit, great, if you don’t, live on that and just build off of that.
“But just try to make good, solid contact, and go have fun. I think this winter he knows what he has to do, we talked about it. He still wants to stay strong, but he also wants to work on his speed, work on his hitting, his two-strike approach and all that kind of stuff.”
Robles finished the 2020 campaign with a .134/.190/.186 line and 53 Ks in 105 PAs in two-strike counts.
“So, I think come next year in Spring Training, you’ll see a different Victor Robles,” Martinez continued.
“You’ll see the guy that we saw last year throughout the whole year and maybe better.”
Martinez was clear, however, that if Robles feels he needs the extra weight/bulk, he needs to make some other adjustments.
“If he wants to be — thinks he needs to be that big and that strong, he’s going to learn this winter that he understands that he needs to work on his feet, work on his agility, work on his first step. All that stuff, so he’s going to work. That kid works diligently every day. He’s in that gym every day. He’s in that cage.
“I think yesterday he took 1,000 swings earlier. He’s constantly trying to get better. And he wants to get better, and I know he wants to help us win.”
The manager, who signed a multi-year extension with the club late this season, was asked if he thought Robles’s position in the batting order mattered to him and if he, Martinez, would keep him at the bottom of the order as a type of second leadoff man after hitting Robles 9th the majority of the time in 2020’s 60-game campaign (during which both leagues used the designated hitter).
“I honestly think that he has accepted it,” Martinez said. “He knows his role. For me, we talk about this with him all the time, he is an extra leadoff hitter for us at the bottom there. When he gets on, he makes things happen and he understands that. For him, I really believe that he wants to do so much to help us win, that sometimes I just tell him to just play the game, know the situations of the game, and just play the game.
“Sometimes we just need a sacrifice bunt. Sometimes we need a bunt for a base hit.
“Sometimes we just need a walk, for you to get on base to steal second. The little things, I always talk to him about the little things.
“It’s not always about hitting home runs and hitting a gapper or a triple, those things are great, but remember who you are and what you can do.
“I challenge him all the time about, hey, I really believe that he could have 20 bunt base hits a year, and if he did that, and if he’s hitting .240, you add 20 bunt base hits, all of a sudden he’s hitting .270. So this is stuff as he starts to understand a little bit more of what he wants to be and who he wants to be and what he can be, these things, I think in the future will help him.”