Davey Martinez talked often last season about Victor Robles’s struggles at the plate and out in center field, after a noticeably bigger version of the 23-year-old outfielder showed up for Spring Training 2.0 late (through no fault of his own after coming into contact with someone who’d tested positive for COVID-19), and didn’t quite look like the player he was coming up in the minors or over his first three seasons in D.C.
Robles finished 2020’s 60-game COVID campaign with a .220/.293/.315 line, five doubles, and three home runs in 52 games and 189 plate appearances, over which he was worth -0.2 fWAR, after a 2019 season which saw him put up a .255/.326/.419 line with 33 doubles and 17 HRs in 155 games and 617 plate appearances in a 2.5 fWAR run.
He took a step back defensively as well. Robles finished the 2019 season at +23 Defensive Runs Saved (DRS), but he ended up -4 DRS over 52 games in 2020, with an Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR), that fell from +5.3 in 1,199 innings in ‘19, to a -3.6 UZR in 422 2⁄3 innings out in center field in 2020.
Earlier this winter, the Nationals’ manager reiterated that the additional muscle Robles did add last winter was something they talked to him about during the season and going into the offseason when they discussed his defensive struggles in 2020.
“We talked to him about it, and ... it’s a lot about agility drills, getting his quickness back,” Martinez explained. “He’s a beast. He’s got such an unbelievable physique, but he cannot lose his quickness, his speed, because that’s who he is, that’s how he plays, so with that being said, we’ve got eyes on him, I know [Strength and Conditioning Coach Matt Eiden] has been talking to him,” as well as the trainer who was with Robles as he played ball this winter in the Dominican Republic.
“He wanted to play to hone in on his swing, and he is swinging a lot better,” Martinez said.
“But I told him he’s going to have to spend January really, really focusing on his quickness and his speed.”
Nationals’ GM Mike Rizzo said he thought that along with the additional muscle Robles put on, the abrupt end of Spring Training 1.0 in mid-March, and late start to Spring Training 2.0 for their center fielder played a role in his struggles.
Rizzo said he had faith in the highly-regarded prospect would return to form in 2021.
“To me, it’s all about history of players,” he said, “and you go back to 2019, we were one of the top defensive outfields in the game and we won the World Series. I think that had a lot to do with it. Victor was one of the Gold Glove finalists, and at his age, I don’t see regressing that quickly. So I am going to put a little bit on preparation as far as the game plan going into the season. I think the COVID stop and go had a lot to do with how he came into camp, and believe me when I say that it’s been a conversation that we’ve had with our strength and conditioning coordinator, our manager, and our center fielder on several occasions.”
In addition to his first step, speed, reads, and agility in the outfield, Martinez said in an MLB Network Radio interview this past weekend, that Robles has to continue to work to improve his pitch recognition and discipline at the plate.
Robles’s K% jumped in 2020 from 22.2% in 27 PAs in 2017, 18.2% in 77 PAs in 2018, and 22.7% in 617 PAs in his first full season in the majors in 2019, to 28.0% in 189 PAs, and he swung at more pitches out of the zone (34.2% O-Swing%), made less contact in the zone (80.9% after he’d put up a 87-88% Z-Contact percentages in his first three seasons), and saw his SwStr% rise from 9.0% in 2018 and 10.5% in 2019, to 12.8% in 2020’s abbreviated campaign.
“One thing that we know from him,” Martinez said, “he puts a lot of balls in play, a lot of bad pitches in play, so we want him to be more selective in the strike zone.
“The upside with him is incredible. He’s unbelievably talented. He can do everything. He can hit.
“As you know he hit 17 HRs, but we still feel like he’s got more in the tank. The biggest thing with Victor is he needs to create his own identity and know who he is. I often talk to him about getting on base, hitting 40 doubles, scoring runs, being a better baserunner, and being a Gold Glover every year, that’s what I envision Victor being, and he’s going to be there, he’s going to get there, but he’s got to bring that every day, and he’s got to stop chasing and thinking that he can hit every ball, because he goes up there sometimes and he feels like he can hit every pitch and hit it hard, but we want to get him more in the zone and put those balls in play and hit those balls hard.”