Will Robles return to 2019 form on defense?

Victor Robles came into the 2020 season bigger and stronger, but did that extra bulk and weight affect his defensive efficiency in center field?

The outfield analytical numbers from 2019 were eye-popping.

Robles led the major leagues in Outs Above Average with 23. In a shortened 2020 campaign, Robles was tied for 54th with just two Outs Above Average. His success rate on defense was still good at 90 percent. In 2019, he reached a 93 percent success rate on defense. Of course, Robles only played in 52 games in 2020, so only .015 attempts on defense resulted in an out above average, versus a mark of .057 when he led the league in that category during the World Series title season.

Nationals outfield/baserunning coordinator Gary Thurman, who played outfield in the major leagues for parts of nine seasons, believes Robles not being able to participate in summer training until very late contributed to those unusual defensive statistics.

Robles-Running-Catch-Gray-Sidebar.jpg“I worked with him all the way through the minor leagues,” Thurman said. “I worked with Victor his whole career. He came in during a couple weeks that he couldn’t even work out (with the team). So he was behind the eight ball from the very beginning because he couldn’t work out with the team. Myself and (infield coordinator) Jeff Garber had to play some outfield because Robles and Juan Soto were out. We were playing intrasquad games and a week and half into spring training and they haven’t done anything.”

But it was obvious from the Zoom media availability that Robles did not sit around during the coronavirus shutdown. He hit the weight room and appeared to have gained at least 10-15 lbs., mostly muscle in his upper body.

“To me, he did look a little bit different,” Thurman said. “He was bigger. He did get bigger, so maybe that affected his agility a little bit. I don’t know how much weight he gained, but that could have affected his first step. But I didn’t get to work with him a lot during the second spring training because he wasn’t there, and then I had to go to our alternate site.

“So this is just from what I saw on television, He just did not look the same. He wasn’t the sleek, slender, strong Robles. He was a little bit bigger and a little bit bulkier and a little bit stiffer.”

Thurman is not concerned about Robles adding muscle to his game. The coordinator knows that the Nats’ strength and conditioning team will focus on the young outfielder’s speed and agility heading into 2021. After all, the kid is still only 23 and has played for really just the last two full seasons. His 155 games in 2019 were a career high. By contrast, Robles has played in only 86 games in the other three seasons combined.

“He is still a baby. He’s 23. He can get back into fit,” Thurman said of Robles. “Everybody is talking about being big and strong. He probably can be on some sort of agility program and keep his weight probably what it was in 2019 because he moved like a cheetah. All directions, everywhere, it didn’t matter. His first-step quickness was tremendous and his top speed was tremendous. I just didn’t think he had either one of those this year and he didn’t have the range that he did this year. To be honest, I think sometimes he knew it.

“Sometimes in my career, as I got older, I remember thinking, ‘Gosh, I used to get to that ball easy.’ I think there was some balls where he said like, ‘Man, I remember last year I would get to that ball easy.’ “

And if 2020 was a real season, Thurman postulates we might have seen Robles play through the slow start in the outfield. Some of the plays that were not made were because of communication issues with Adam Eaton. If Soto plays in right field in 2021, the duo has demonstrated they have a good rapport when balls are hit to left-center area and can call each other off. They should have no trouble continuing that rhythm if Soto is moved to the other corner next season.

“He would have been on a regular routine,” Thurman said of what should have been a normal 162-game season. “Robles probably wouldn’t have hit the weights as hard because he would be playing every single day. You don’t have to time to hit the weights as hard as you do when you are just sitting at home. I think throughout the season, he would’ve got slimmer. He only had a week of spring training before we started playing games. He didn’t get any reps, he didn’t get any balls off the bat. That’s huge. You just can’t go home for four months and come back the way you left unless you have some (in-game) preparation.”

Robles got work in this offseason playing games in the Dominican Winter League. Heading into spring training 2021, the Nats will work with Robles to find a program that marries strength with agility to help showcase his defensive skills. Those in-game reps this winter should also help Robles stay in game shape and hopefully return to showing off the speed, agility and ability that brought him top defensive outfield numbers from 2019.

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