Andrew Stevenson has played an important role for the Nationals since debuting in 2017. A left-handed hitter who can play all three outfield positions with a great glove and speed that also poses a threat on the basepaths is a manager's dream player off the bench.
The only role Stevenson hasn't played is that of a regular starter, aside from filing in for players dealing with long-term injuries.
Could that possibly be changing as we see him get more starts in center field over Victor Robles?
Since returning on July 9 after missing 18 games with a right oblique strain, Stevenson has only made five starts, all in center field. The first start was the first game of a doubleheader against the Giants. The other four have come this week, including last night's series opener in Baltimore, in which he went 1-for-2 with a double and a walk.
In the same time frame, Robles has made five starts (though last Friday's was cut short after just two innings after he felt dizzy and sick in the D.C. heat and humidity) but only one this week, on Tuesday against the Marlins and left-hander Trevor Rogers.
So is manager Davey Martinez treating center field as a platoon or is this a sign of more Stevenson and less Robles on the way?
"You know, Andrew went down, he worked to get back, he was swinging the bat well when he was down in Rochester," Martinez said in a Zoom session with reporters. "So we got him back up here and I wanted to give him an opportunity to play against some righties and put Victor in against the lefties. Right now, it just seemed to work that way. It's not going to be a straight platoon. There are some right-handed pitchers that I like righties, right-handed batters against. But I talked to Victor about it, but we want to try and get Victor right. I know he's working every day with K-Long (hitting coach Kevin Long), he's hitting early, he's doing a bunch of different things, so we need to get him going."
On the season, Stevenson is slashing .229/.298/.321 with two home runs, four doubles, 12 RBIs, eight walks and one stolen base. Robles is slashing .208/.326/.301 with one home run, 16 doubles, one triple, 12 RBIs, 27 walks and eight stolen bases. But their splits tell a slightly different story.
Stevenson is slashing .231/.307/.308 against right-handers and a similar .222/.250/.389 against left-handers. Robles, on the other hand, has reverse splits by slashing .218/.312/.315 against righties and just .180/.359/.262 against lefties, even though historically he has fared way better against southpaws in his career.
So it would appear Stevenson's more consistent hitting regardless of who's pitching has given him a leg up over the inconsistent Robles.
"Yeah, he's had a trend of hitting lefties a lot better," Martinez said of Robles' career splits. "But like I said, there will be some matchups against right-handed pitchers that I like him on, then he'll play. You know, obviously, his defense is, he's one of the best out in center field, so when he's not playing, we miss a little bit of that defense. So I do want to get him out there and playing. Not by any means do we feel like we've given up on him, and I've talked to him about that. You know, for me, he's still the future here. But you know, he struggled as of late and we want to get him back, we want him to get his swing back, and when he starts hitting the ball hard again - and I'm not talking about just getting hits, just talking about making contact and hitting the ball hard - and we'll get him back in there regularly."
Robles is on pace to set new career highs in walks and on-base percentage this year, something he's been working on since the Nationals wanted him to be their leadoff hitter back in spring training.
But it's not just the numbers that are keeping Robles out of the lineup. It's also the numerous baserunning blunders and an overly aggressive approach at the plate. The eye test would say Robles seems to be pressing too much in all aspects of his offensive game, though he does deserve credit for getting his defense back to a Gold Glove-caliber level and sustaining it despite his offensive struggles.
The Orioles are throwing right-hander Matt Harvey tonight and left-hander John Means in the series finale tomorrow. You can probably expect Stevenson to start in center tonight with Robles starting on Sunday.
And just to reiterate Martinez's sentiment, the Nationals have not given up on Robles. They want him to be the everyday center fielder that he has always projected to be.
I've seen comments on this blog from readers suggesting that the Nats are giving Stevenson more playing time so he can be seen as a potential trade chip, or that Robles should be traded because he's playing less. Whether or not either of those scenarios is true remains to be seen as we are now less than a week away before the trade deadline with the Nationals getting dangerously close to sell mode.
If they are going to be buyers at the deadline, the Nats need to win a few more games this week to convince ownership and the front office that they need another piece to make a run in the National League East. And as of right now, and as long as the matchups dictate, it seems that they think Stevenson starting in center field instead of Robles gives them the best chance to do that.