Slimmer Robles ready to reassert himself on defense, at bat

Victor Robles heard the whispers last season. That the 15 pounds he put on during the coronavirus pandemic backfired, making his first-step reaction times in the outfield slower and hampering his swing. In short, he bulked up a little too much and paid the price for it.

So instead of relaxing this winter, Robles packed up his gear and headed to his native Dominican Republic, where he focused on refining his game by trimming some weight from a 6-foot frame that had become noticeably bigger than it was during the 2019 season.

The numbers - and not the ones on the scale - didn’t lie. After slashing .255/.326/.419 with 17 homers, 65 RBIs and 28 stolen bases as the Nationals charged to a World Series championship in 2019, Robles slumped to .220/.293/.315 with three homers, 15 RBIs and four steals in the truncated 2020 campaign. He walked only nine times in 2020 and his strikeout percentage increased from 25 percent to 31 percent. A year after being named a Gold Glove finalist in center field, Robles had trouble coming in on balls, couldn’t reach shallow flies and his sterling defense regressed.

“The extra little weight I was carrying possibly affected my play a little bit,” Robles said via interpreter Octavio Martinez on Friday afternoon during a Zoom conference call with reporters. “I still felt I had the ability that I’ve always had, it’s just that I noticed the difference because of the extra weight I had on my body. Thank God right now I feel great and I’m planning on having a great year.”

The 23-year-old reported to camp much slimmer and in better shape, manager Davey Martinez said. And after slashing .234/.362/.404 in 13 games with Aguilas in the Dominican Winter League, Robles is ready to erase last season’s disappointments.

“It was definitely a weird year for everyone. At the end, (Robles) didn’t hit how he wanted to hit. So I think for him, he was a little disappointed,” Martinez said in his Friday Zoom call. “So I told him, ‘Hey, you’re young, you’re learning, let’s use this as a learning curve and move forward.’ I told him, ‘I think 2021 is going to be a good year for you, so come to spring training ready.’ Like I said, he slimmed down a little bit, so ‘Let’s get you back on your feet. We know you’re really good and we’ll go from there.’”

Robles-Diving-Catch-Gray-Sidebar.jpgWith the added weight now gone, Robles is eager to reassert himself as a premier defender and take on a bigger role in the Nationals offense.

“I really want to improve on my baserunning,” he said. “I know that I have the speed for it; I just need to improve with being a little bit more smarter. That’s what I’m going to focus on.”

Robles’ elite speed has always been his calling card, giving him the ability to swiftly glide toward balls in the gaps and creating the potential for havoc on the basepaths. One thing Martinez thinks could help Robles harness his offensive firepower is the opportunity to hit leadoff in the lineup, where he would be a table-setter for guys like Trea Turner, Juan Soto, Josh Bell and Kyle Schwarber.

Hitting leadoff is nothing new for Robles; he hit atop the order through much of his minor league career, slashing .300/.392/.457 over parts of five seasons on the farm. With the Nationals, he’s hit mostly in the bottom third of the lineup, though he flourished in the leadoff role, albeit in a small sample size, hitting .306/.362/.518 in 21 career games.

“I’ve hit in that lineup spot all throughout my minor league career, so I feel very comfortable hitting leadoff,” Robles said. “Basically, if I get the opportunity, the main goal is to get on base, because once I’m on base, I can definitely do some damage, helping the team out any way I can. The main goal is to get on base any way I can and use all my tools to do that, and take advantage of it once I am on base.”

Robles admits he’d be more comfortable in the leadoff role than hitting seventh, eighth or ninth.

“If it was my decision, I would say I would love to lead off more times than not,” he said. “My main goal once I’m in that lineup is to do my job to help the team win, so wherever I’m at, any way I can help the team, that’s my main priority.”

Robles has always tantalized with an intriguing blend of speed and power. For a time, it was Robles, not Soto, who was considered the organization’s top outfield prospect. Martinez thinks Robles is back on the path toward realizing his immense potential.

“You don’t have to be this big guy to have power,” Martinez said. “He came back this year (and) he’s slimmer, but he’s hitting the ball really well. What I like is that he looks agile. I’m watching him run around in the outfield, going to get balls, and his first step is a lot better now than he was last year. And he’s moving around a little better, so I think - and I’ve said this before - there’s so much upside in Victor in what he can do.

“So hopefully, he feels better about himself this spring, He looks really good. He’s another guy who comes in, he’s got this big smile on his face all the time. He’s got a lot of energy. That’s the kind of guy that I was used to when I first met him, and that’s what I want him to be. Like I said, we’re going to get him as many at-bats as possible. He revamped his swing and we talk a lot about him going gap to gap and using his speed.”

This spring, Robles will be working to get used to a new left fielder in Schwarber, with Soto moving from left to right. Robles is comfortable playing alongside Soto, but more may be asked of him because of Schwarber’s defensive limitations. Schwarber has a reputation of catching what he gets to, but no one would ever confuse him with a gazelle.

All of which makes the slimmed-down version of Robles that reported to West Palm Beach more important to the overall defensive scheme.

“Right now, I’m trying to focus just a little more on and learning how to play with (Schwarber),” Robles said. “Knowing how much of a range he has. I’ve played with Juan and whether he’s in left field or right field, I know what balls he’s able to get to and which ones he won’t be able to. I’m just trying to familiarize myself better with Schwarber and what kind of a range he has. It’s not like I’m going to make a huge adjustment. It’s just getting used to playing with him.”

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