Just because Victor Robles is struggling at the plate and has lost his stranglehold on the Nationals’ center field job doesn’t mean manager Davey Martinez has lost confidence in the enigmatic 24-year-old.
It wasn’t that long ago that Robles was atop the club’s prospect list - yes, even ahead of Juan Soto - and the fact that he’s followed the club’s instructions to shed the bulk that created problems for him last year is an indication that he can rebound, Martinez said Sunday.
“(It’s) just consistency,” Martinez said before the finale of the Nats’ series against the Orioles at Camden Yards. “We know what he can do in the outfield. ... He’s done a lot better with swinging at balls in the strike zone, but once he gets to the balls, we want him to start hitting the balls hard. We haven’t seen that, consistent-wise.”
Robles continues to work with hitting coach Kevin Long in hopes of resurrecting his swing. Back in spring training, the Nats were hoping Robles could seize the leadoff spot in their batting order, bumping Trea Turner and Soto into more run-production opportunities; now they’re hoping they can get even minimal offense out of Robles to go along with his strong defense.
“We’re trying to get his swing right, and I told him, ‘If you can prove to me that you can consistently go out there and hit the ball hard, ... you’re getting good at-bats and hitting the ball hard, you’ll see some more playing time,’ ” Martinez said.
After slashing .255/.326/.419 in 2019, Robles slipped to .220/.293/.315 last season. This year, his slash line has cratered to .203/.320/.294 as he fails to make consistent hard contact. Robles was 0-for-4 yesterday, but did have a couple of well-struck balls.
Martinez thinks Robles’ problems can be fixed.
“We think this guy has a bright future ahead of him,” Martinez said. “I’ve said that before. We want to make sure he stays positive, moving in the right direction, and we hope that he finds his swing here soon.”
While that process occurs, Robles has lost playing time to Andrew Stevenson in center field. While it’s not a firm platoon, Martinez seems comfortable in letting Robles work out the kinks in his swing against left-handed pitching while Stevenson faces mostly right-handers.
Dropping the bulk he picked up during the shortened 2020 campaign last offseason has been a step in the right direction. Martinez hopes that will help him be able to more quickly adapt to the fine-tuning Long has done with his swing.
“It’s just mechanics,” the manager said. “He set up a little late. We’re just trying to get him to understand that (being) early is better than being late. Trying to use the whole field. Like I said before, in spring training, he looked good. He swung the bat really well in spring training. ... We’re trying to get him back to that.”
What Robles is missing is hard contact.
“I’m not looking for hits, as far as results-wise,” Martinez said. “I’m looking for just good at-bats, hitting the ball hard consistently, taking his walks, bunting on occasion. We talk a lot about him using his speed and bunting for base hits. Just playing the game ... the way we see he can play it. ... I know he has it in him. I just want to give him a little break, let him work on some things with K-Long. Hopefully, he finds it and we get him back in there.”
All young hitters face adversity, and Martinez knows failure can be a good teacher if a player is open to learning from it.
Carter Kieboom is a prime example of a guy who has taken his knocks but persevered. And Martinez thinks Kieboom’s positive attitude is among the reasons not to give up too soon on a guy who has struggled to find offensive consistency.
“He’s a very confident kid,” Martinez said of Kieboom. “He feels like he belongs here, which is always good. He’s just got to have some consistency up here, and that’s what we always talk about with him. Not trying to do too much. I know you come up here sometimes and press and try to do more than you’re capable of doing. I always tell him, ‘Just go out there and you be you. You hit the ball to right-center and left-center field, swing at strikes, take your walks and put the ball in play and play good defense.’ “