With the return of baseball in question amid the coronavirus outbreak, we’re ranking the Nationals’ 10 biggest strengths that we’re looking forward to watching once play finally does resume. Up first is the range Victor Robles displayed in center field as a rookie last season.
When the Nationals decided to anoint Victor Robles the starting center fielder ahead of last season, they hoped at the very least to see some flashes of the five-tool player his scouting report said he could be.
It would’ve been understandable if the 22-year-old struggled at the major-league level, so long as the signs were there that he was capable of developing into a complete player. And struggles there were, particularly at the plate. Robles racked up 140 strikeouts and reached base at a clip of only .326, making it clear his hit tool needs the most polish.
“If you look at Vic’s numbers in the minor leagues, his on-base percentage was actually pretty good,” manager Davey Martinez told reporters in February. “We’re trying to get him—we want him to be aggressive in the strike zone and stay within himself. That’s something we talked to him last year when he left and I know that [hitting coach Kevin] Long is going to harp on it this year. Be aggressive in the strike zone, take your walks.”
But as for the other four tools, Robles didn’t disappoint.
The speed was undeniable; his sprint speed of 29.3 feet per second ranked second on the team behind only Trea Turner. He swiped 28 bases, although he was also caught stealing nine times—perhaps indicating he may need to be more selective in picking his chances.
Seventeen home runs may not scream power hitter, but consider this: Only four National League players under the age of 23 had at least 50 extra-base hits last season—Ozzie Albies, Juan Soto, Ronald Acuña Jr. and Robles. That’s not too bad of company to be in for a player who’s expected to grow into his power.
Easily the most impressive of all those tools were the ones he showed in the field. As a rookie in center field, he was often tested by runners hoping to tack on an extra base or run. Robles showed his arm was no joke, racking up more outfield assists (12) than any other full-time center fielder.
Yet, what really cemented Robles as a Gold Glove candidate was his range. Outs Above Average is a Statcast-based defensive metric that measures how many outs a fielder saves based on how difficult the plays were to make. Robles led all outfielders last season with +23 OAA, a total that not only topped the majors by a wide margin but was the second-highest mark recorded since MLB began tracking in 2017.
Robles was a vacuum in center field, reigning in 97.3 percent of hit balls that he had at least a 50 percent chance of catching (as determined by Statcast). But those are the plays he was expected to make. He separated himself by making plays outside of a typical center fielder’s range. FanGraphs tabbed him at 106 outs collected outside of his zone, which tied Mookie Betts for the most in baseball.
That range even helped make Soto look better in left. Robles added +10 OAA on plays to his right (more than any other outfielder in baseball), shrinking the amount of ground Soto had to cover. Soto, like Robles, was a Gold Glove finalist, but that was more a result of the sheer number of innings he played in left rather than his prowess in the field.
Although it’s uncommon for a rookie to receive a Gold Glove award, Robles was as big a snub as any. Just take a look at the numbers for the three NL finalists in center field.
Brewers CF Lorenzo Cain (winner): 1,771.1 innings, .994 fielding percentage, 2 errors, 5 outfield assists, 22 defensive runs saved, 7.0 ultimate zone rating, 14 outs above average, 69.1 catch rate on playable balls
Cardinals CF Harrison Bader: 909.2 innings, .984 fielding percentage, 4 errors, 8 outfield assists, 14 defensive runs saved, 12.9 ultimate zone rating*, 13 outs above average, 77.8 catch rate on playable balls*
Nationals CF Victor Robles: 1,308.2 innings, .984 fielding percentage, 6 errors, 12 outfield assists*, 25 defensive runs saved*, 7.0 ultimate zone rating, 23 outs above average*, 75.5 catch rate on playable balls
*indicates best among NL center fielders
Not only did Robles display the best arm of the three, his range easily outstretched that of Cain and bested Bader in two of the three most well-recognized defensive sabermetrics (DRS, UZR and OAA). What really held him back was the errors—a shame, especially considering he entered September with only three on the year before picking up three more over the team’s final 26 games.
Of course, Gold Glove awards are often based more on reputation than numbers alone. It’s difficult for a rookie to make enough of an impression in just a few months to change the minds of the opposing coaches and managers who decide on the winners. Although Cain had never won a Gold Glove, he’s been widely regarded as one of the best center fielders in the game for years.
Given his age, Robles is expected to be in Gold Glove contention for a long time. He showed plenty of flashes of being a complete five-tool player as a rookie in 2019, but no tool was a well-refined as his range in center field. If the rest of his game steps up to par, the Nationals have one of the most dangerous outfielders in baseball on their hands.
“Victor is gonna get better and better,” Long said at the Nationals’ annual WinterFest event in January. “I think he learned a lot last year and I think his future is very bright. He held his own. If you asked him, he’s gonna tell you he can do better and I believe he can and I think we’ll see that.”
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