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Nationals' Strengths No. 10: Victor Robles’ range

Nationals' Strengths No. 10: Victor Robles’ range

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.

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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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If teams start 19-31 like the Nationals, it really is over in a 50-game season

If teams start 19-31 like the Nationals, it really is over in a 50-game season

To put 50 games in context, just flashback to last season. It’s easy enough. Say it: 19-31. If the Nationals could, they would trademark those numbers together.

Fifty games is a flash. Almost a death knell to the eventual 2019 World Series champions. That’s a season over in late May. Think of it this way: Teams play around 30 games in a normal spring training alone.

The owners have pushed this number into the public with their non-counter-counter to the players’ suggestion of 114 games. Commissioner Rob Manfred is trying to use the March agreement between players and owners as a cudgel. Players are refusing to take a further pay cut on top of the one already negotiated. Manfred in turn is saying, “Fine. Then we will schedule the amount of games that are in line with what you are being paid.”

In play now is the 48-game season, according to ESPN. A smidge under 50. A full blitz that would be looked back at as a farce if it’s attempted to be played in the regular way. Playing half a season in the traditional manner is probably the minimum for any legitimacy. Even then, 2020 will be awash in caveats.

The Nationals’ 2020 recovery came against restrictive odds. The manager was supposed to be fired. Some suggested trading the best players, and to do it sooner than later. Season simulations said the Nationals were done. Or as close to it as possible.

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A 50- or 48-game season would cook anyone who has a bad two weeks. Lose a frontline starter? It’s over. Have your shortstop and leadoff hitter hit on the finger by a pitch and miss three weeks? It’s over. Half a season feels like a baseball sprint. Fifty games or less defines the league’s desperation to put some pennies back in its pocket in 2020.

There is one fun idea around a 50-game season. It was hatched at Fangraphs. The premise is one big 50-game tournament. Not the usual three-game series in this town, and four-game series in that city.
Fangraphs makes the on-point mathematical argument that 50 games determines next to nothing when comparing the best in the league to the mediocre. It’s just games for the sake of games.

Since baseball is trying to wade through extraordinary times, why not attempt something extraordinary, such as the tournament?

The model used at Fangraphs included 32 teams, all 30 major-league clubs plus two futures teams, one from each league. Let’s use that premise.

Stage the whole thing in the Texas Rangers’ new park -- Texas is already saying it will allow fans. Have a loser’s bracket. Make the final a five-game series. Pay the players what was already negotiated. Pin more money to the outcome. Run it from early July to the end of September. That way, you still play through much of the summer but duck under a possible fall coronavirus spike the owners are so wary of.

No caveats about if the season was long enough for an authentic champion. This is a complete outlier. The tournament year. Players wore microphones. Some kid from Double-A struck out Bryce Harper in a big at-bat. No leagues. Everyone in the same pot. Have some fun amid an historically troubling time.

What’s not working is the public whining from both sides. The inability to make a deal. The lack of common ground. Both groups are working toward one idea: loss mitigation. A 50-game season does little of that and carries even less validity. Just ask a team that opened last year 19-31.

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MLB return: Union fires back at owners in latest statement, reject additional concessions

MLB return: Union fires back at owners in latest statement, reject additional concessions

The latest whack of the negotiation tether ball came Thursday night when Tony Clark, the executive director of the MLBPA, issued a statement of discontent.

“In this time of unprecedented suffering at home and abroad, Players want nothing more than to get back to work and provide baseball fans with the game we all love. But we cannot do this alone,” it began.

Clark went on to cite the league’s most recent suggestion of a “dramatically shortened” season “unless Players negotiate salary concessions.” The league suggested a 50-game season would be reasonable for the amount of money players agreed to in salary following a late-March negotiation.

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The statement went on to refer to the league’s stance as a “threat,” as opposed to the players' proposal, which in Clark’s view, was designed to move the negotiations forward. He rattled off the various items in the union’s proposal, which was framed around a 114-game season: more games, two years of expanded playoffs, salary deferrals and the exploration of additional “jewel events” (All-Star Game, etc.).

Clark said a conference call with the MLBPA’s eight-person executive board, which includes Max Scherzer, and several other player leaders concluded “the league’s demand for additional concessions was resoundingly rejected.”

Clark went on to say the players are ready to compete and get back on the field.

The union’s reaction to MLB’s non-reaction is not a surprise. Players are adamant they are not taking further salary cuts. The league solidly believes salaries should -- and need to be -- negotiated if there is to be some form of 2020 season. Everyone continues to wait for a solution.

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