SAN FRANCISCO – When he stepped into the on-deck circle in the top of the second Friday night, Victor Robles immediately heard Davey Martinez say it.
“Get your hands up!” the Nationals manager implored his center fielder from his dugout perch only a few feet away.
When he stepped into the on-deck circle again in the top of the third, Robles again heard the same message from his manager.
“Yeah, every time,” Robles said, via interpreter Octavio Martinez. “Every time I go into the on-deck circle, he reminds me.”
Yep, it happened again in the top of the sixth, then the top of the seventh, then the top of the eighth. At some point, Robles didn’t even wait for his manager to say it. He jumped the gun and said it himself before the message could be delivered.
“He started laughing a couple times,” Martinez said. “He was saying: ‘You better get those hands up!’ ”
Why so much repeated usage of the exact same message? Because it works. More than anything else the Nationals have tried with Robles over the last two frustrating seasons, this simple reminder may be the key to fixing his swing and getting him back on track to realize his full potential as a hitter.
“If he keeps his hands up and doesn’t drop them – cause sometimes he’ll start up here and all of a sudden he starts creeping down – he can work down through the ball,” Martinez said, moving his hands through all the various positions to demonstrate the difference. “He stayed on top of the ball, which is beautiful.”
The work Martinez and Nationals hitting coach Darnell Coles have put in with Robles go back to March in West Palm Beach, Fla. But until this weekend, the results simply weren’t there to back up the message. Robles came to San Francisco with a .152 batting average, .239 slugging percentage and .443 OPS. Paltry sums, each of them.
Now, after going 6-for-8 with a walk, a double and four RBIs, Robles heads into today’s series finale against the Giants batting .241, slugging .333 and with an OPS of .626. Those numbers obviously aren’t going to cut it in the long run, but it’s a dramatic turn in the right direction at last, and perhaps the beginning of a larger turnaround two years in the making.
“I felt great, and thank God for that,” Robles said. “I’ve been making the adjustments that have been working for me lately. I keep working at it, and it’s been working, so I’m going to keep doing it.”
On the heels of back-to-back dismal seasons, the second of which ended with a month-long stint at Triple-A Rochester, Robles faced a make-or-break scenario this season. For the first time since his rookie season, he was assured of nothing entering spring training.
Why, then, did Coles not start working on this new batting position, with hands held high near his ear at the time a pitch is delivered, until late in March? Shouldn’t that process have begun over the winter, after Coles was hired to replace Kevin Long as hitting coach?
Ideally, yes. But this was no ordinary offseason across baseball. With the league locking out players from Dec. 1-March 10, coaches were prohibited from engaging in any conversations with players or providing any instruction.
So, Coles couldn’t actually begin working with Robles until the delayed spring training began at last in mid-March. Not the best time to try to make significant changes to a player’s swing, but they had no choice.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Robles got off to a ragged start to the season. He opened in an 0-for-18 funk before finally notching his first hit April 17 in Pittsburgh. As recently as April 21, he was still batting a miniscule .094.
Since then, at last, some positive results. Over his last eight games, Robles is batting a robust .455 (10-for-22) with four doubles, two walks and six runs scored.
“His work that he’s done the last couple days has been great,” teammate Juan Soto said. “I think now he’s picking up whatever he’s been working on. I feel really happy for him. We’re really, really going need him in the bottom of the lineup, and I’m really happy that he’s getting success.”
How dramatic has the turnaround been? Well, when they arrive at the ballpark today, Robles and Soto each will be sporting a .241 batting average.
That’s not a particularly good sign of the current state of Soto’s production, but nobody’s worried about that in the long run. For now, everyone’s far more pleased to see Robles delivering consistently effective at-bats at last.
Thanks, of course, to that simple message he keeps hearing over and over: “Get your hands up!”
“I feel like I feel my hands more free,” Robles said. “And I think that’s just going to add more bat speed to my swing.”