Victor Robles has long been tipped as the “leadoff hitter of the future” for the Washington Nationals.
His combination of elite speed and good on-base skills, as well as the ability to drive the ball, had the front office drooling at his potential at the top of the lineup. That’s exactly why they held onto him despite a plethora of rumors that they would trade him away to win now.
In his first few stints with the big league club though, he fell victim to the team’s wealth of talent at the top of the order and only started 19 games atop the lineup between 2016-20.
After some of that talent left for greener pastures, entering Spring Training this year, the Nationals wanted to give Robles every chance to lead off for the team ahead of the 2021 campaign.
Robles opened the first eight games of the season in the leadoff spot for the Nats as they dealt with a COVID outbreak, going just 6-for-28 with a .214/.353/.286 slash line.
The cavalry returned from the COVID IL shortly after, and he was then demoted to the ninth spot in the order, with manager Dave Martinez citing the fact that he didn’t think Robles was capitalizing enough on good pitches to hit in the strike zone.
“He just needs to get good pitches to hit and put them in play,” Martinez said at the time.
“As of late, he’s had some pitches to hit, he’s been fouling them off, in Spring Training he didn’t foul those ball off, so we got to get him to stop missing those pitches.”
With the offense continuing to struggle for consistency and looking for a spark, it’s fair to wonder whether moving Robles back to the leadoff spot is on the table in the near future.
It might not be right away as Robles is still relatively fresh off of the Injured List after a right ankle sprain kept him on the shelf for 12 days, but it’s something the Nationals have had in the back of their minds ever since they dropped Robles in the order.
Before they make that move though, they want to see more consistency in a few areas first.
“We talk a lot about him,” Martinez said over the weekend. “One is working on counts, which he’s been doing better. Once he learns when to bunt, how to bunt, that’s part of it, getting him accustomed to doing it. He’s done it in the minor leagues, obviously, it’s different here. It’s different.
“You face different pitchers here. It’s not the same thing, you know. We just want to see some consistency, like I said, right now he just got back off the IL.”
The consistency Martinez was looking for appeared to be coming around in May before the injury.
During the Nationals’ two series against the Arizona Diamondbacks and Chicago Cubs, Robles went 7-for-17 with five doubles and could’ve had another on the play that he injured his ankle on in Chicago. He also had an average exit velocity of 91.0mph in those games.
Robles has also shown vastly improved discipline at the plate this season, strengthening his case to sit atop the order on a more regular basis.
So far in 2021, the young outfielder has a career-best 10.1% walk rate thanks to a career-low 21.7% chase percentage, according to Statcast, meaning he’s chasing fewer pitches outside the zone, setting himself up for more favorable counts to either do damage or draw a walk.
“This probably would have happened a little sooner, because he was swinging the bat well, now we’ve just got to get him back,” Martinez said. “I always say, hey, when you go on the IL and you don’t have that week or two to get at-bats again in the minor leagues, you got to get back in the rhythm, get back in the swing of things.
“I said this before and I’ll say it again, we’d be a lot better if Robles could lead off for us so we could push the other guys back, I’m hoping that will happen, but we have to get him going.”
Now the Nationals have to find the balance between ensuring that they don’t throw Robles in at the deep end in the leadoff spot too soon and getting him accustomed to what would appear to be his long-term home in the batting order, at least in Martinez’s mind.
So, what does that balance look like for the Nationals skipper?
“We always talk about how Victor is still young and he’s still learning a lot about the game and learning about himself as a hitter,” Martinez explained.
“Two, is about confidence. All of a sudden we stick him up there and things don’t go as well for him, I don’t want to set him back.
“And he’s really starting to understand the strike zone, he’s understanding which balls he can hit hard, and he’s getting better, so I want him to continue to get better.
“Now the other part of it is accepting your walks, and he’s done better at that, leading off, and also we’re teaching him a lot about the whole base-stealing thing, when to go, when not to go, bunting, when’s a good time to bunt, when is a good time not to bunt, because in this day and age — bunting is frowned upon, but if you’re leading off a game and you’ve got the speed he’s got, bunting can start a big rally for us early. We’re slowly but surely teaching him how to do all those things...
“He’s taking better swings, he’s trying to stay on top of the ball which is great. Hopefully, in the next couple days, he’ll get back to where he was before he got injured.”
It wasn’t a great start for Robles after returning from the IL as he went 0-for-17 in his first six games.
There were signs of life though in Sunday’s series finale as the center fielder picked up a pair of doubles in three at-bats, both of which had exit velocities north of 90mph.
As Martinez said before, now it’s a matter of consistency doing that in a game that matters.
With a few more outings like that though, the Nationals could look to shift their toolsy young outfielder back to the top of the order to try and lengthen their order and get more traffic on the bases for the middle-of-the-order sluggers...