Nats' penchant to bunt catching many by surprise

When Victor Robles came up to bat in the bottom of the third Saturday afternoon, moments after teammate Luis Garcia had led off the inning with a single, anyone inside Nationals Park who has been paying attention this season knew what was about to happen.

Sure enough, as Brewers left-hander Eric Lauer began his delivery toward the plate, Robles squared around to bunt. And when he proceeded to pop up that bunt attempt, right to first baseman Rowdy Tellez for an easy out, the crowd moaned, annoyed both with the result of the play but perhaps also the fact it happened in the first place.

That’s not necessarily how the Nationals dugout reacted to the botched bunt attempt.

“Look, it’s got to be part of his game, right? We want him to bunt in certain situations,” manager Davey Martinez said Sunday morning. “I thought yesterday he had the right idea, but he caught the ball back and had his hands up close to his body. So he couldn’t really see the ball hit the bat. He’s got to understand that when he does do that, he’s got to get to the ball out front.”

Officially, it went down as Robles’ 12th sacrifice bunt attempt this season, only six of which have been successful. Those 12 attempts lead the majors. And as a matter of fact, only five teams have attempted more sacrifice bunts this year than Robles has attempted on his own.

But one caveat to that stat should be noted: Many of those aren’t actually attempted sacrifice bunt attempts but rather attempts by Robles to beat out a bunt and emerge with a single.

“He’s bunting for a hit, unless we give him the bunt sign,” Martinez said. “They shift him, so he’s like: ‘Man, all I’ve got to do is get the ball over there.’ … Once it’s by the pitcher, you’ll beat him to the base. I like when he does that, because I know he’s really paying attention to what’s going on. But he’s got to get the bunt down.”

That’s been the problem more than anything. Robles’ 50 percent success rate on bunts designated as sacrifice attempts is below the league average of 55.3 percent. It’s one thing to attempt so many bunts. It’s another to actually convert them at a reasonable rate.

How does Robles improve his success rate? Martinez believes it begins with his hands, which were too close to his body when he squared around during Saturday’s game. The manager prefers his bunters to hold the bat further away from the body, making it easier to adjust to the pitch’s location or movement.

“I like the fact he’s thinking about it,” Martinez said. “For me, right now that’s got to be part of his game. The only thing I don’t like is he bunts with one strike. I tell him all the time not to do that. Because if he does foul the ball off, now he’s sitting 0-2 or 1-2, and we all know your chances after that of getting a hit is slim. If he’s going to do it, I like for him to do it early.”

Robles isn’t the only occasionally bunt-happy member of the Nationals lineup. During the first inning of Sunday’s game, Juan Soto came up to bat with one out and a man on first. And when he proceeded to square around and drop a perfect bunt down the third base line for a single, the crowd nearly gasped in surprise.

So did his manager.

“I did not have Soto bunt, by the way,” Martinez said with a laugh, unprompted during Sunday’s postgame press conference.

And his reaction to that bunt single by his star slugger?

“I walked down the steps,” Martinez said. “There’s no analytics for that, right?”

Soto’s thought process, it appears, was to take the easy single the shifted Brewers defense was giving him, and then leave a couple runners on base for the recently red-hot Nelson Cruz and Josh Bell. Except it didn’t work out, because Cruz promptly flied out and Bell promptly grounded out to end the inning.

Martinez, suffice it to say, didn’t love the decision. Though it grew on him as the rest of the day played out.

“He saw an opportunity, thought he could get the ball down,” the manager said. “It’s early in the game. And it was a good bunt. These guys, they’re starting to think about things a little bit. He figured he’s got two guys behind him, if he can get on base and start something off early. I really was semi-OK with it.”

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