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Victor Robles becomes the Washington Nationals’ leadoff man of the present

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Robles was always a leadoff man in the minors; Now Davey Martinez is trying the 23-year-old at the top of the order in his second full big league season.

Washington Nationals v Atlanta Braves Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images

We’ve always been told that Victor Robles was the Washington Nationals’ leadoff man of the future.

After going 6-for-17, scoring three runs, and driving in another over the past four games, maybe the future is now.

Since signing as a free agent from the Dominican Republic in 2013, the Nats have touted Robles’ skill set as that of a leadoff man, and he was at the top of the order throughout his four-year minor league career and in the Arizona Fall League.

But for the majority of his first full season in 2019 and the first 31 games of 2020, Robles remained the Nats’ leadoff hitter of the future, hitting seventh or eighth in most of his 2019 appearances before settling in as the No. 9 hitter at the start of this season.

Now, he’s the Nationals’ leadoff hitter of the present, appearing at the top of manager Davey Martinez’s batting order in every game since the opener of Friday night’s doubleheader in Atlanta. Martinez stopped short of installing Robles as a full-time leadoff man, but says he wants to see his center fielder in position to score runs.

“He seems comfortable up there,” Martinez said, even after Robles went 0-for-4 in Sunday’s 10-3 loss to Atlanta.

“I looked at some of his numbers from the minor leagues, not that it means a whole lot, but he did do well down there leading off.”

So what took him so long to slot Robles in a position he seems well suited for? Martinez was waiting to see something from the 23-year-old, who’s in just his second full major league season.

“I’ve been wanting to do it, but I kind of wanted to see him...” said Martinez, without specifying, after Saturday’s 10-4 win over the Braves.

“Then I just decided let’s do it and see what he does. He’s been good.”

Maybe Martinez was concerned that Robles struck out 140 times last season compared to 130 hits. But what it came down to this season was finding someone to get on base for Trea Turner and Juan Soto. At 1.047 and 1.227 OPS respectively they are more effective when they can hit with speedy runners on base. An injury to Adam Eaton in the finale of the Philadelphia series made it appropriate to put Robles in the leadoff spot to see if he could be that table-setter.

“When he gets on he definitely makes things happen,” said Martinez. “He’s been swinging at better pitches, he’s getting hit, taking his walks, bunting, trying to steal. I like him up there.”

A relatively high strikeout rate and a .259 career average haven’t kept Robles from getting on base at a .329 career clip, which is what a leadoff hitter is supposed to do. In fact, in 18 games atop the order before Sunday, his .356/.400/.603 career line looks like that of an All-Star leadoff hitter. Since Martinez put him at the top of the 2020 order, he’s done his job, hitting .353/.421/.353, even with a pair of 0-for-4 games.

Robles’s speed on base early was crucial in Saturday’s victory over Atlanta. He helped the Nats pull of their first double steal of the season in the top of the first, when he took third against Max Fried as Trea Turner swiped second. Both later scored to put the Nats ahead.

Martinez says Robles’s strong left/right splits, with a .467/.529/.533 line against left-handers this year, could play into his lineup decisions.

“It could be something where I lead him off against left-handed pitching, and lead off Eaton against right-handed pitching. You might see that,” Martinez said.