Nats still trying to get Robles back to 2019 form

PLAYER REVIEW: VICTOR ROBLES

Age on opening day 2023: 25

How acquired: Signed as international free agent, July 2013

MLB service time: 4 years, 33 days

2022 salary: $1.65 million

Contract status: Arbitration-eligible, free agent in 2025

2022 stats: 132 G, 407 PA, 366 AB, 42 R, 82 H, 10 2B, 2 3B, 6 HR, 33 RBI, 15 SB, 4 CS, 17 BB, 104 SO, .224 AVG, .273 OBP, .311 SLG, .584 OPS, 70 OPS+, 12 DRS, 0.3 fWAR, 1.8 bWAR

Quotable: “I know what he can do. I know things haven’t worked out for him thus far, but we’re much better when he plays center field. I understand that. I know that. The rest of the game, for him, he needs to start doing the right things. That’s what we’re looking for. He needs to start running the bases correctly. He needs to start throwing to the right bases. He needs to start doing the little things. When he does that … we won with Victor as our center fielder. He did really well that year. We want to get him back to that. Not by any means have I given up on him, but he needs to understand that he needs to get better to be a complete ballplayer.” – Davey Martinez

2022 analysis: This wasn’t the first time the Nationals entered a season hoping Victor Robles would seize the everyday center field job and become the all-around player they’ve always believed he could be. And this isn’t the first time they’ve ended a season disappointed in Robles’ performance, yet still intrigued just enough to believe there’s still hope.

Things got off to a terrible start for Robles, who opened the year 0-for-18 with one walk and seven strikeouts. Those first 10 games alone cost him 12 points in his final batting average. But then he got red-hot in late April and intrigued everyone enough to stick with him before going cold again at the plate.

That’s how things went for the better part of the season. At times, Robles was so ineffective he was buried on the bench. At other times, he would step back into the lineup and do enough to merit more playing time. Throughout, he would get himself into trouble making poor baserunning decisions – between caught stealing, pickoffs and outs trying to advance or retreat, he made 11 total outs on the basepaths.

Where Robles did excel was in center field, with a return to his elite 2019 form. He finished the season with 12 Defensive Runs Saved, third among all major league center fielders and tops in the National League.

2023 outlook: Robles has now been a big leaguer for four full big league seasons, and the Nationals don’t appear to be any closer to deciding if he really is a keeper or not. They do know his defense remains strong enough to stick with him, but they also know he’s going to have to show some actual progress at the plate before long.

Robles’ offensive woes really boil down to these two factors: He fails to make contact enough, and when he does, he doesn’t hit the ball hard with enough frequency. His average exit velocity of 84.6 mph this season ranked among the bottom 1 percent in the majors. He made “weak” contact on 16.6 percent of the balls he put into play, way higher than the league’s 3.8 percent average rate. Making matters worse, he posted a career-low 4.2 percent walk rate and made contact on only 49.8 percent of his swings on pitches out of the strike zone (the league average was 58.3 percent).

Robles was better in all of these departments as a rookie in 2019. So why hasn’t he been able to recapture that form? The most notable difference appears to be his struggles hitting breaking balls, specifically sliders. He slugged .426 off all breaking balls in 2019, .362 off sliders. This year, he slugged a paltry .246 off breaking balls, an even worse .152 off sliders. Is it any wonder opposing pitchers throw him more breaking balls now than they did his rookie season?

Martinez talks about Robles’ need to be better at “the little things,” and to be sure he needs to be a better bunter, better at moving runners up, better at not making outs on the bases. But more than anything else, he just needs to get on base more. That requires a more selective approach at the plate, fewer swings at pitches out of the zone and more solid contact on pitches in the zone.

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