Manager Davey Martinez made a point heading into this offseason to get better in outfield defense as the Nationals look to return to the top of the National League East after a fourth-place finish in 2020.
In 2019, center fielder Victor Robles led the major leagues with 23 Outs Above Average (OAA) over 155 games. In 2020, in just 52 games, Robles reached only 2 OAA. Adam Eaton had a minus-1 OAA and Juan Soto a minus-2 OAA. Outfielders Michael A. Taylor and Andrew Stevenson did not register an OAA rating.
In 2019, Soto had a 6 OAA, Eaton a 1 OAA and Taylor a 2 OAA.
A lot was made of how good Robles looked as he got ready to play the 2020 campaign. In 2019, Baseball Almanac listed Robles at 6 feet, 190 lbs. In 2020, MLB.com had him at 6 feet and 205 lbs. One could see the work Robles had done to his upper body in the weight room. He looked bigger and stronger.
But the Nats defense did not deliver in 2020, and some pointed to the play of the outfield as one reason the club did not reach its goal of returning to the postseason. Plays that Robles had made in 2019 were not being made at the same level in 2020. There were communication issues between Robles and Eaton as fly balls were dropped in right-center that were normally caught in past games.
Did Robles' bulking up to add power to his game actually take away from his speed and agility?
"To me, it's all about history of players," said general manager Mike Rizzo during a Zoom call with reporters Tuesday. "You go back to 2019, we were one of the top defensive outfields in the game and won the World Series. That had a lot to do with it. Victor was one of the Gold Glove finalists. At his age, I don't see you 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 it's been a conversation that we've had with our strength and conditioning coordinator, our manager and our center fielder on several occasions."
Nationals strength and conditioning coach Matt Eiden is definitely a big part of the conversation. Martinez said the Nats have been in communication with Eiden and the trainer in the Dominican Republic about Robles, as the star center fielder plays winter ball. The skipper said Robles knows what they would like him to do to get better on defense in 2021.
"We talked to him about it," Martinez said about Robles during his Tuesday Zoom call with reporters. "It's a lot about agility drills, getting his quickness back. He's a beast. He's got such an unbelievable physique. But he cannot lose his quickness, his speed. That's who he is. That's how he plays. We got eyes on him. I know Matt's been talking to a trainer there that has been with him.
"You want him to play to hone in on his swing and he is swinging a lot better. I told him he's going to have to spend January really, really focusing in on his quickness and his speed."
Robles' swing also suffered in 2020. His slugging percentage dropped from .419 to .315 and his strikeouts per at-bat jumped from .256 to .315 from 2019 to 2020. His batting average went from .255 to .220.
And it is not just Robles that the skipper hopes to get better on defense. Martinez wants the entire team to improve on that facet. He believes focused individual work with the outfielders later in the morning during spring training will be a good place to start. It's an idea that came to him during June workouts at Nats Park.
"What I learned a lot about in our spring training 2.0 last year, because we had to do what we did as far as getting guys in and doing more individual work, I really liked it," Martinez said. "I want to do more of that in spring training this year, where we do a lot of individual work and really hone in on their weaknesses and get them better.
"That is something I sat down with (bench coach Tim) Bogar and our coaching staff (to) try to put a plan together. Obviously, spring training is based around our pitchers getting ready for the season, but I think there is a way we can incorporate a lot of individual work. We always talk about doing early work at 8 a.m. in the morning, but my plan is to bring guys at different times of the day and get individual work. Not bring them in at 8 a.m. when they are probably half asleep, but get them in there 9 a.m., 10 a.mm., 11 a.m., and then after that, go into some batting practice and doing our team fundamentals. We are going to do a lot more individual work, get these guys ready to go."
The ability is there for Robles to continue to be that all-around elite player. This offseason focus is not only getting his bat going again at a higher consistent level, but also to get the 23-year-old back to where he was catching everything in the outfield in 2019.