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Is Victor Robles the long-term answer for the Washington Nationals?

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Victor Robles was one of the more highly regarded prospects in baseball just a few years ago. Three years in, he seems to have lost some of that luster. Does Robles have what it takes to be a key player when the Nats are ready to contend again?

MLB: Philadelphia Phillies at Washington Nationals
Victor Robles hit the first pitch out of the park last night, but he’s struggled at the plate all year. Can he turn things around?
Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been a week now since the first of the trades that changed everything for the Washington Nationals. The Nats made six trades over the final 36 hours before last Friday’s trade deadline, clearly signaling that it was time to concede that their nearly decade long run of contention was over. They did win a World Series during that window of contention, which is something that many of us will never forget. While we can all look back fondly upon the memories of the past decade, it’s time to move forward.

Over the remainder of the season, I’m going to highlight one or two players from the major league roster each week to see if and how they figure into the Nationals’ future plans. Some of the young players who have already reached the big club will be in it for the long haul. Many more will likely stick around for a couple of years. Others probably just aren’t going to cut the mustard. Today we’re going to start with Victor Robles.

Background

Victor Robles signed with the Washington Nationals as an international free agent out of the Dominican Republic in 2013. After dominating mainly in rookie ball for each of his first two pro seasons, Robles gained notoriety as one of the better prospects in baseball. Prior to the 2016 season, he was ranked 29th by Baseball Prospectus, 33rd by Baseball America, and 63rd by MLB.com. He would climb even higher the next season after slashing .280/.376/.423 with nine homers, 37 steals, and 34 extra base hits between Hagerstown and Potomac.

In 2017, Robles was considered one of the top ten prospects in all of baseball by most publications. Baseball America had him at #7, MLB at #8, and Baseball Prospectus ranked him 13th. He responded yet again, mashing between High A Potomac and AA Harrisburg to the tune of .300/.382/.493. He ended his minor league campaign with 10 homers, 55 extra base hits, and 27 steals before getting a cup of coffee with the big league club in September.

The 2018 season was supposed to be Robles’s coming out party. After a second straight dominant minor league campaign, he found himself ranked 2nd by Baseball Prospectus, 5th by Baseball America, and 6th by MLB. The consensus top prospect in the Nationals’ organization was expected to start the year in AAA before challenging Michael A. Taylor, Brian Goodwin, and Adam Eaton for playing time. Instead, Robles suffered an injury to his left elbow diving for a ball in the outfield in early April that would keep him out for three months. The remainder of the 2018 season was all about getting Robles healthy and showing he could handle AAA. He looked fine at Syracuse, slashing .278/.356/.386. The Isolated Power certainly took a hit, but it could reasonably be excused by the fact that he was coming off of an injury that cost him significant time.

The 2019 campaign is where Robles finally had his chance to shine with the big league club. Bryce Harper had left for greener (literally) pastures in Philadelphia. Juan Soto had emerged as a superstar corner outfielder during the 2018 season*. Adam Eaton had plenty of experience as a center fielder, but he seemed to have lost a step or two defensively. Michael A. Taylor was elite defensively, but he had enough offensive deficiencies so that Robles saw the bulk of the playing time to start the year.

* Ironically, Soto got the call to the majors as a 19-year-old in May of 2018, just a few weeks after Robles’s injury. Had Robles been healthy, he almost certainly would have been called up to the majors rather than Soto.

In that first season, Robles looked like he was still on track to be a star. He busted onto the scene with 17 homers and 28 steals as a rookie while turning in a solid .255/.326/.419 line at the plate. He provided Gold Glove caliber defense in center field, leading all MLB outfielders with 25 Defensive Runs Saved (DRS). While Robles had to settle for sixth in the NL Rookie of the Year voting, he did record the final putout in the Wild Card game and the NLCS as the Nats went on to win the World Series. Since the beginning of 2020, though, Robles has struggled offensively.

What’s going wrong?

Let’s give you a chance to see some visuals on Victor Robles’ numbers. Let’s start with some of the obvious issues that Robles has had so that we can see if we can work out why he’s struggling and if these are areas where he’s likely to improve. There are two glaringly obvious areas where Robles has declined.

  1. The batting average
  2. The power production

Let’s start with the batting average. To take a look at this, we’re going to examine how often Robles is making contact with the ball, what type of contact he’s making when he does put it in play, and how that batted ball data is affecting his BABIP. As we see Robles batting just .198 heading into Wednesday’s game, it’s notable that his BABIP is hovering way down at .268. While we’ll likely find that some of this is due to what type of contact he’s making, a player with Robles’s speed should benefit a little more in the BABIP department than others. He has managed just 8 infield hits (4 each season) since the start of the 2020 campaign.

As a rookie in 2019, Robles finished the year with a 22.7% strikeout rate. That’s obviously not ideal, but it’s not unreasonably high for a rookie that hit 17 homers and had a .165 ISO. Based on his minor league track record, Robles struck out in 14.8% of his plate appearances as he climbed through the system. With the exception of his two split seasons at High-A Potomac, Robles maintained a strikeout rate of 14.8% or lower every step of the way.

Unfortunately, things haven’t played out as Robles’s minor league track record would suggest so far. Many of his 2020 problems were due to his strikeout rate, which spiked from 22.7% to 28.0%. That amounts to 1 (extra) guaranteed out in every 18.8 plate appearances. Based on last year’s shortened season, the math is pretty easy here. Robles had 189 plate appearances, so he struck out 10 more times in 2020 than he would have if he’d maintained the same strikeout rate he had in 2019. In 2021 (23.0%), Robles’s strikeout rate has returned to his 2019 rookie levels, but it hasn’t helped him turn things around with his batting average.

How about better contact?

We’ll start with a traditional look at Robles’s line drive, ground ball, and fly ball rates and compare them to the league average.

  • Line Drive: Robles 25.6%, League Average 20.9%
  • Ground Ball: Robles 36.0%, League Average 43.2%
  • Fly Ball: Robles 38.4%, League Average 35.9%

For starters, line drives are most likely to end up being base hits, particularly if they’re struck hard. You want to see that number above the league average. It’s also stronger than it was in 2019 (23.0%). Ground balls are more likely to turn into hits than fly balls. This should be particularly useful with a faster runner such as Robles. The fact that he’s hitting more fly balls than ground balls is troubling, especially since he’s not hitting the ball out of the park very often.

Since Robles is hitting the ball in the air so often, it’s time to take a look at how hard the contact he’s making has been. Let’s look at this against the league averages as well.

  • Average Exit Velocity: Robles 83.8 MPH, League Average 88.8 MPH
  • Barrel: Robles 2.7%, League Average 8.0%
  • Hard Hit%: Robles 26.8%, League Average 38.7%

We’re starting to see an ugly profile here. He’s hitting the ball in the air far more often than the league average. He’s also hitting the ball in the air far more often than he did in that strong rookie showing. While his Hard Hit% is actually up a bit from that rookie season, he’s barreling the ball up at just 2.7% this year compared to 4.6% in 2019. All of these figures are well below league average. In fact, they’re well below what former Nats’ center fielder Michael A. Taylor did when he was in D.C.

The combination of a lot of fly balls and a relatively low exit velocity could well be behind a lot of the BABIP problem. Those softly hit fly balls are generally getting caught. He also has an atrocious 19.1% Infield Fly Ball Percentage. Basically, Vic is nearing the point where the Nats should be giving him the Willie Mays Hayes treatment. Make him do push-ups any time he pops the ball up.

The third offensive problem

Robles has shown a bit of improvement in the TOOTBLAN department as the season has worn on, but that doesn’t change the fact that he’s generally been a terrible baserunner. He gets too aggressive on the basepaths frequently, running into outs trying to take the extra base. He gets caught napping sometimes. He’s fast, but he’s not particularly adept at stealing bases. Thus far in 2021, he’s accounted for -2.6 Baserunning Runs Above Average. He was a combined +5.5 in his first two seasons.

I’m not sure this is going to get a whole lot better, though. Maybe he’ll figure out how to be more competent running the bases as he gains experience. I’m just not so sure the tools are there for him to be a great base stealer. The speed is there, but he was 130 for 175 throughout his minor league career. In the majors, he’s been a bit worse (43 for 61). He doesn’t have to be Carlos Beltran (86.4%) or Tim Raines (84.6%), but he needs to be successful 75% of the time in order to be a net positive. This season, he’s 8 for 13.

Let’s find some positives

  • Robles does still provide plus defense at a premium position, which means there’s always going to be a spot for him if he can keep his bat close to league average.
  • There is an area offensively where Robles has shown massive improvement. As a rookie in 2019, he walked just 5.7% of the time. Last season, he got even worse in that area, walking at a 4.8% clip. So far this season, Robles has drawn a walk in 10.5% of his plate appearances. Despite having just a .198 batting average on the year, his .321 OBP is right there with where it was in 2019 (.326) when he hit .255.
  • He’s still just 24. We’ve seen throughout his minor league career that there is a little more power that he’s capable of adding. It’s possible that the 17 homer rookie season may end up being an outlier due to the baseballs being juiced though.
  • He has three remaining years of club control that should be relatively affordable. Robles will hit arbitration for the first time this offseason, which means he’s definitely going to see a raise. His play thus far in his career certainly doesn’t indicate that he’s going to be shattering records through arbitration. One of the nice things about the arbitration system from a team standpoint is that they don’t have to gamble on Robles suddenly taking a big step forward at the plate with a long-term extension. They can take it year by year and see how he progresses.

Is Victor Robles the Nationals’ center fielder when they’re ready to contend again?

One of the things about rebuilding is that you can never be sure if or when it’s going to pan out. Personally, I can say that I endured 25 years as an Expos fan when they were perpetually retooling. They’d have some good years, but when it seemed like they were finally ready to contend, either MLB would cancel the World Series or a third of their roster would leave via trade or free agency. My favorite hockey team has been rebuilding since 2012, having more number one overall picks (2) since then than playoff trips (1). Sometimes you get lucky. Sometimes it takes a lot longer than you think it will.

I share that story to suggest that we should be, hmm, cautiously optimistic. As a fan, if you go into this offseason thinking that the Nats are going to be trying to put together a team to compete in 2022 or even 2023, you’re likely to be sorely disappointed. If you go into this rebuild hoping that they’ll be contending for a wildcard spot by 2025, you can be pleasantly surprised if they exceed those expectations.

All of this is just a long-winded way of saying that the jury is still out on Robles. There are some definite warts to his game at this point in his career, but there’s still room for him to improve. The safest bet for the Nats at this point is to evaluate Robles on a year by year basis. At worst, he’s a defensive stud who can handle any of the outfield spots and provide some occasional sparks offensively for the next three years.