Following a promising rookie season in 2019, the Washington Nationals thought they were watching Victor Robles begin to blossom into the All-Star center fielder they always thought he would be after signing him and refusing to trade him away while in minors.
The young Dominican slashed a solid .255/.326/.419 with 17 home runs and 28 stolen bases. But it was his breathtaking defense that really caught the eye, finishing the year as a Gold Glove finalist, showing off his superior range and fearsome arm frequently from center field.
Robles seemed primed to take another step forward at the plate and potentially go one step further in the field and take home a Gold Glove of his own. Then 2020 happened.
He was poor with the bat in the shortened season, falling to a measly .220/.293/.315 slash line, while his defense noticeably regressed too, looking far more sluggish in the outfield compared to his electric defensive-self in his rookie campaign.
Those struggles in the field weren’t something that escaped the gaze of General Manager, Mike Rizzo, who seemed to hint at a plan to get Robles back on form in the outfield when he spoke with reporters in December.
“To me, it’s all about history of players,” Rizzo said. “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 we 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.”
The defense of their young center fielder could become even more important to the success of the team in 2021.
This offseason, the Nationals have seemingly made the decision to shift Juan Soto back to right field, where he predominantly played in the minor leagues, while new acquisition Kyle Schwarber looks set to get the lion’s share of starts as the team’s left fielder.
While neither projects to be absolutely awful in the field, both are likely to fall in the below-average-to-average range in terms of their performance on defense in the outfield.
That puts a lot of pressure on Robles to get back to his 2019 form where he could’ve easily won a Gold Glove.
That begs the question, how does he return to form again defensively?
According to Statcast, Robles accumulated the most Outs Above Average in 2019. Something that was helped in large part due to what Statcast calls Burst, which ranked among the best in the major leagues in 2019.
Burst on Statcast is how much ground a player covers 1.5 seconds after the ball has been hit. Obviously, with the top-level speed that Robles displayed that season, it’s not a shock that he excelled in this area of the Statcast fielding metrics.
In 2020 though, Robles dropped from having one of the best Burst metrics in the league to below-average, according to Statcast, a clear sign that speed was his issue on defense.
“We talked to him about it,” manager Dave Martinez told reporters in December. “It’s a lot about agility drills, getting his quickness back.
“Like I said, 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, the trainer there that’s been with him [in the Dominican Winter League].
“He wanted to play to hone in on his swing, and he is swinging a lot better. But I told him he’s going to have to spend January really, really focusing on his quickness and his speed.”
If Robles can find that same speed he had previously, which is entirely possible given his age — I doubt Father Time surprises 23-year-olds and saps them of their speed in an instant — then it will be crucial to an outfield that won’t have the defensive supporting cast.
The onus is now on Robles to show that 2020 was just an aberration as he looks to get back on track as a key piece for the Nationals next season and beyond.
“The biggest thing with Victor is he needs to create his own identity and know who he is,” Martinez told MLB Network earlier in January.
“I often talk to him about getting on base, hitting 40 doubles, scoring runs, being a better base runner, and being a Gold Glover every year, that’s what I envision Victor being.”