As he drops in lineup, Robles rediscovering old form in outfield

Maybe it was the diving catch in deep left-center after a long run from his position in the middle of the outfield. Maybe it was the 270-yard bullseye he hit on the fly from the base of the center field wall to second base to nab a greedy runner.

Whatever moment you choose, chances are you’ve at some point in the last two weeks watched Victor Robles in the field and thought to yourself: He looks like his 2019 version again.

It’s been hard not to notice it. After a major regression in defense last season, Robles has recaptured the form he showed as a rookie, when he was a finalist for a Gold Glove Award.

Thumbnail image for Robles-Diving-Catch-Gray-Sidebar.jpg“We challenge him all the time,” manager Davey Martinez said Monday during a Zoom session with reporters. “He was so close in ‘19 to becoming a Gold Glover. In 2020, he didn’t look like that guy. Now he’s starting to look like that guy that he was in 2019, which is nice. We talk to him all the time about his defense. His defense, for us, is going to help us win games.”

It may not have made that tangible a difference through the season’s first 14 games, but if Robles keeps this up, he will wind up making a play that does turn a likely loss into an assured victory. The improvement is impossible to miss.

All this comes after Robles’ disappointing 2020 season, one in which the young outfielder ranked among the worst at his position. He couldn’t make plays up against the wall. He couldn’t come charging in and snag a sinking liner. He would airmail some of his throws.

The Nationals attributed Robles’ defensive struggles to the extra weight he gained during last year’s pandemic shutdown. Attempting to bulk up and supply more power to the lineup, he wound up hurting himself in the field. His first step off the crack of the bat was slow. He didn’t have the agility to make up ground on a ball in the gap.

What’s led to the improvement so far this year? Robles did report to spring training slimmed down, pleasing club officials. And because he’s got an extra bounce in his step now, the Nationals have been able to position him a little deeper in center field without worrying about too many bloopers falling to the ground in front of him.

“The biggest thing for me is his angles,” Martinez said. “His angles are much better going back on balls. That ball (Friday night) that was hit to left-center that he caught, I watched it 10 times, and his angle, it was a straight line to where he needed to be to catch the ball, instead of starting shallow, going back a few and then angling the other way. He cut some distance off. Where he’s at right now, I love watching him play. I feel like when the ball’s up in the air, it’s an out when he’s out there. That’s always awesome.”

Robles also has been able to show off his arm. During Sunday’s game, he fielded an Asdrúbal Cabrera drive off the center field wall, then fired a perfect strike on the fly to second base to nail Cabrera trying to stretch the hit into a double. The ball traveled approximately 270 feet in the air.

“That was very impressive,” Martinez said. “To play a ball off the wall like that, turn and fire it on the money, it’s like throwing a strike from (270) feet.”

Things haven’t gone perfectly for Robles. He continues to struggle at the plate and after leading off for his first eight games, he’s been relegated to the bottom of the order since.

But the Nationals recognize he’s still a work in progress as a hitter. In the field, he has regained his former status as one of the best in the league.

“It’s not just his hitting,” Martinez said. “He’s got to play good defense for us. He’s always the captain out there in center field. We want him to catch every ball possible, and he’s done that this year.”

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