If I had asked who would be leading the Nationals in on-base percentage six games into the season, how many of you would have said Victor Robles?
Those of you with your hands raised are lying.
But it’s true, as the 25-year-old center fielder currently leads his team by getting on base at a .476 clip through the season’s first two series.
“For me, his on-base percentage,” manager Davey Martinez said when asked what numbers will be most significant in judging Robles’ success this year. “We talk a lot about team at-bats, too, and what they do in team at-bats. So he's a guy that needs to be very situational, whether it's bunting a guy over, getting a guy over from second base with no outs, driving in free runs from third base with less than two outs. Those are the little things that I want to see Victor do.”
It’s a small sample size, sure, but keep in mind where we’re coming from. Robles posted a career-low .273 on-base percentage in 132 games last year and he hasn’t come anywhere near his career-best rate of .348 in 2018 (which came in only 21 games).
“Just be patient, look for my pitch and try to get on base as much as possible,” Robles said of his early-season success, via interpreter Octavio Martinez.
Look no further than his walk and strikeout rates to see how he has improved in getting on base. Robles has had a strikeout rate above 22 percent in each of the last four seasons. Over that same time frame, his walk rate topped out at 8.9 percent in 2021, but was under 5.7 percent every other year.
So far this year, he’s already walked four times and only struck out once. And that one strikeout came Tuesday night on a close sweeper low and inside after he battled back from 0-2 to run the count full.
“He's doing everything we asked him to do this spring. He really is,” Davey Martinez said. “He's seeing pitches, he's laying off the tough sliders and he's trying to stay in the middle of the field, which is great.”
Robles hit .163 with 53 strikeouts on breaking pitches last year, by far his worst numbers against a certain type of pitch. Unsurprisingly, he’s already seen them 35 percent of the time this year, but he’s 1-for-4 with only one strikeout against them. He understands that’s not his pitch to hit, so he’s waiting for the right one.
“Like I said earlier, just be more patient and look for my pitch,” he said. “I've opened up a little bit and it's helped me be a little bit more stable on the plate.”
Robles is 6-for-17 with one double, which came with an RBI in yesterday’s loss to the Rays for his second straight multi-hit game. The Nationals sure would like to see those singles go for extra bases at a higher rate, but they’ll take him getting on base any way possible, especially with his speed.
“It'll be awesome because all of a sudden now he starts getting in a hitter's count, and that's when he starts to hit the ball hard,” Davey Martinez said of Robles’ improving patience. “So instead of being 0-1 all the time, or 0-2, when you're basically fighting for your life up there, all of a sudden now you become more selective and you get the 1-0s and the 2-0s and the 2-1s, where you might get a really good pitch to hit and drive the ball. So that's kind of how we're approaching it with him.”
In somewhat of a judgment season for him, Robles is off to a good start by staying patient.
“Patience at the plate has helped me a lot,” he said. “Just by looking at pitches and I think, thank God, at this point in the season it's helped me create more walks as well.”
“He's been great. He's been absolutely wonderful,” the skipper said. “And he's really, really, really, really taken everything we told him this spring to heart and really, really trying to work on just getting on base. And it's been great. He's been our base for us quite a bit already. But that's all him wanting to do it now, which is nice. Took a few years, but we finally got instilled in him that, 'Hey, you can do this. I know you can do this.' And the home runs, I think, will come for him. He's strong and he's been hitting the ball fairly hard, but you can't force it. Just play the game.”