If you were to list the best players on the Washington Nationals’ roster, center fielder Victor Robles probably wouldn’t crack the top 10. Despite being regarded as the number four prospect in all of baseball in 2018, the Dominican Republic product has had an up and down start to his major league career.
In 2019, when Washington won the World Series, Robles had an above-average year. The outfielder slashed for a line of .255/.326/.419 with 33 doubles, 17 home runs, 65 RBIs, and 28 stolen bases. Despite struggling mightily in the postseason (.214 BA with 16 SO in 42 ABs), Robles’ trajectory was clearly headed up. Unfortunately for the Nationals, he was not able to carry this into 2020.
As many players around the league did, Robles really struggled in the shortened season. In 52 games he slashed .220/.293/.315 and had just nine extra-base hits. Robles struck out in almost one-third of his at-bats (53 in 168 ABs).
With one up year and one down, what should Washington expect from Robles in 2021? Well first off, I don’t think it’s particularly fair to judge him completely off a 60 game season. If you look around the league, tons of very good players struggled to adjust to such a short schedule. Four former MVPs, Christian Yelich, Cody Bellinger, José Altuve, and Kris Bryant all hit below .240 on the season.
Like many players, Robles will be more productive in 162 games than 60, but just how much better will he be? To answer this question, let’s compare Robles’s first couple big league seasons to another highly touted outfielder, Bryce Harper.
In Robles and Harper’s first seasons as starters, they actually had very similar numbers. Harper hit more home runs, 22 vs 17, but Robles hit more doubles, drove in more runs, and stole more bases. Now, this comparison is not saying Robles will turn out to be the MVP caliber player Harper is, it merely is showing how sometimes it can take players who enter the league so young a little while to develop.
It’s hard to believe, but Robles is still only 23-years-old. He won’t turn 24 until May and is still the fifth-youngest player on the Nationals’ 40-man roster. I think sometimes Robles is held to a higher standard because of what his teammate, Juan Soto, has been able to do at such a young age. People see Soto’s production and think, why is Robles not doing some of the same things? What people forget is, what Juan Soto has been able to do is unheard of. Soto is on a trajectory to become one of the best players in baseball history. That’s one in a million stuff.
Granted, Robles does need to be more productive in 2021 than he was last Summer, but he does not have to be Soto to be what Washington needs. Baseball-Reference has Robles projected to slash .249/.326./.407 with 23 doubles, 15 home runs, and 57 RBIs in 2021. Now I think these projections are a little low, but if Robles was able to hit say around .255, with 25 or more doubles, 20 or so home runs, and drive in 60-70 runs, that’s all Washington needs. The projections also have him only stealing 17 bases, which is a number I believe he can blow past.
Another area Washington really needs Robles to excel in is his defense. In 2019, Robles was a Gold Glove finalist. He led all MLB center fielders with 22 defensive runs saved. He also had the most outs above average in baseball, 23, according to Statcast.
However, in 2020, things completely flipped. Robles was the 32nd ranked center fielder in baseball with -5 defensive runs saved, according to Rotowire. Time and time again we saw him take poor routes to the ball, or have balls drop in front of him in the outfield. With Kyle Schwarber likely being the primary left fielder, Washington cannot afford another down defensive year from Robles. They absolutely need him to be close to the Gold Glove finalist he was in 2019.
He may not crack the top of the list if you ranked the Nationals’ most important players, but he certainly is one of the most valuable. Washington needs the Victor Robles we saw in 2019 if they want to return to the postseason. He clearly has the talent, it’s just a matter of putting a consistent product on the field day in and day out.