Even with his five-tool plus-plus ratings and top-prospect accolades, there would be growing pains. It would be a trial by fire in some sense, and it has been. But with every play, the 21-year-old Robles is learning from his mistakes and building to get better.
The two biggest points of emphasis for Robles from the first three games of 2019: reads on center field hits and awareness of what to do while on base.
Against the New York Mets, Robles had a couple of plays where he could have made the catch on balls hit to the gap and over his head.
On the bases, he was caught between third and home plate on a ball hit to third base. The next day, he was picked off first base after another base hit.
One thing he has done well consistently is swing the bat. Robles went 5-for-11 (.455) with three doubles, one homer and two RBIs in the three-game series with the Mets.
Defensively in the three games, he made six putouts in seven total chances with one error for an .857 fielding percentage.
Manager Davey Martinez, who was an outfielder in his playing days to the tune of 1,580 games, knows a thing or two about what it takes to play well at that spot. He said Robles is open to listening and to making changes to get better on defense.
“He’s very receptive to learning,” Martinez said. “And he’s very open-minded. Bobby (Henley, the Nats’ outfield coordinator) and I talk to him about some of the things that have transpired, but he’s really good. You got to remember he’s 21, he’s young. And he’s really exciting to watch. Speed. He’s got a cannon. He hits, hits for power, so it’s just building blocks. And we have to keep continuing to teach and continuing to talk to him.”
Martinez focused the talks on attacking the baseball, preparing for the well hit ball and thinking about the correct base to throw to if the ball comes to you.
“I just keep telling him, we want you to be aggressive, but aggressively smart,” Martinez said. “And we talked about the baserunning after he got picked off, and he understood. I know it’s the first two games, and he really wants to help us win, and I told him ‘You’re going to do that.’ I said ‘Just don’t let the game speed up on you. Slow everything down and keep continuing to be you. You’re going to go through those moments and you’re going to learn and you’re going to clean it up.’”
One major responsibility of playing center field is the job of being the quarterback of the outfield. You direct the other two outfielders and tell them where to situate for each batter. The center fielder coordinates the plan of what to do when the ball is hit to the gaps, determining which outfielder will take which ball. Veteran right fielder Adam Eaton said that Robles, despite being only 21 and new to the league, is not intimidated with Eaton to his left, even with Eaton’s 604 games of big league experience.
Eaton said he has worked to learn Spanish to help communication with Robles and left fielder Juan Soto. The former Chicago White Sox star also said Robles has worked to perfect his English when speaking to Eaton.
“We both dabble in both,” Eaton said. “That was one thing that we really worked on in spring training was communication. He’s a young player, especially (Juan) Soto. They’re reserved. They’re not really the loudest guys in the clubhouse. They don’t really exuberate their voice. That was one thing every single day (during spring training games) I would come up to him: ‘Make sure you tell me where the wind is playing, be smart with the runner, tell me. If the ground is wet, tell me.’”
Eaton said it was important for him to visualize the way Robles sees the game too. They went over every scenario in spring training for game situations. Eaton said it helped that he has played a lot of center field and realizes the responsibility the position entails. It is not easy for anyone to quickly pick up, especially a kid who has only a handful of games under his belt at the major league level. He needs in-game experience.
“Because I know, of course, I’m a center fielder (too), I think along with the game, and I want to see his mindset, especially in spring training,” Eaton explained. “If there are two fast runners on, I want them to tell me there is two fast runners on. If there’s a guy that will drive the ball there I want him to tell me that. That was something we really worked on this spring training. Don’t be scared to tell me, tell your backside guy, constant communication. (Opening day) was great. He was whistling at me, telling me where to go, how to do things. Making sure when he would rotate, ‘Hey you got my backside, OK, I’m coming with you.’ He’s really taking it in stride. I love it.”
Eaton said Robles is not quiet on the field. He is not shy about making sure each of the outfielders know what he will do with each play.
“Egos left at the door with me, and I know it is with Soto because he’s just a freak of nature,” Eaton said. “I don’t have any problem taking orders. I love that he has taken to that and ran with it. Very stern with his commands. That’s what we want out there. You want a guy who’s confident, and you live and die by your center fielder. I love that about him. And I think that’s the good part about it is that ‘Go do it.’ Even if I don’t think it’s a good call, it’s his call. He’s the chief out there, he’s the captain, I’m going to follow him.”
But Eaton understands that sometimes there will be a mistake made, or a bad read. The ball is coming at you at 110 mph off the bat. You have to make a split-second decision.
“Whatever he wants to do, you have to live with that,” Eaton said. “Whatever it may be, maybe we benefit from it if it’s a good play. If he doesn’t (make the play), he learns from it. I love that he is taking the reins on it, and he’s been awesome. You just watch us out there for two or three innings. You’ll see us communicate literally almost every pitch.”
Martinez made sure Robles knows that he has to run the plan out in center field so Soto and Eaton know what he wants to do on every pitch.
“Yeah, we talked a lot about that and worked on it this spring with him,” Martinez said. “Letting him know that he’s the captain out there but yet he’s got a veteran outfielder next to him that he could work with as well, so just work together. And they do. They communicate a lot.
“Funny because the ball he caught off of (Wilson) Ramos (in game one) he actually moved himself as I was watching him. If he hadn’t moved he would have never caught that ball. So that’s pretty cool to see him do that. Definitely helps, the fact that he feels comfortable doing it again. Definitely helps him moving forward. He won’t think about it.”
Martinez said Robles worked a lot on the off-day Friday trying to catch outfield fly balls directly in the sun. The skipper said Robles switched to a darker tint for his flip-down sunglasses.
“He caught a ball (Friday) in the sun,” Martinez said. “He mentioned it to me. He said, ‘I got it!’. I said ‘Hey, you did good, you turned sideways, you did good.’”
And one of the best plays Robles has made so far in the field was a diving catch of that sinking liner off of Ramos’s bat late in Thursday’s opener. He dove forward to make the spectacular catch - a move similar to the play when he injured his elbow in April of last season.
“I felt great. Like I’ve said before, it’s instinct,” Robles said via team interpreter Octavio Martinez. “That’s one of those things you do as a ballplayer with instinct. It felt great making the catch, and despite what has happened in the past, the situations I’ve been through, it’s just something we have in us. You just naturally do it without thinking about it.”
Playing on instinct, listening to his coaches and teammates and letting his talent take over through experience will all help Victor Robles get better with each start in the outfield for the Nationals.
After all, he’s only 21. His whole baseball career is right in front of him.