In baseball, there’s an occurrence called “World Series hangover.” In case you didn’t know, it refers to when a WS winner, for one or many reasons and sometimes none whatsoever, show signs of decreased production the year after winning a championship, especially early on. The 2014 Red Sox (71-91) and the 2013 Giants (76-86) are somewhat recent examples of this phenomenon, and another team that stumbled after winning it all was the 2020 Washington Nationals, who went 26-34 and missed the postseason entirely despite the extended format just a year after going 93-69, securing the first WS ring in franchise history in epic and historic circumstances.
Most people knew that replicating the success of 2019 would be just about impossible. It’s not just that repeat WS champions are extremely rare (the last team to do it was the Yankees, who went back-to-back-to-back in ’98, ’99, and ’00), but the Nats would have to do it without the contributions of the team’s best player, third baseman Anthony Rendon (.319/.412/.598, 154 wRC+, 7.0 fWAR in 2019), whom they lost in free agency to the Angels. The Nats hoped that top prospect Carter Kieboom could be a solid contributor right off the bat and somewhat mitigate the loss of Rendon, and they trusted that their terrific World Series winning rotation could anchor the team once again, with the depth signings of Starlin Castro, Eric Thames, and others complementing Trea Turner and Juan Soto on what could be a solid, above average offense. They also brought in bullpen reinforcements. What could possibly go wrong?
In short, almost everything. Stephen Strasburg was hurt and only pitched 5 innings. Patrick Corbin’s velo was down and he got hit hard. Aníbal Sánchez was even worse. Of the 19 position players to get 10+ PAs for the Nats in 2020, 13 were either replacement level or below that, Kieboom, Thames and basically every offseason addition being in that group. The bullpen wasn’t worst-in-baseball bad like the year before but it wasn’t exactly awesome either (0.5 fWAR, 23rd out of 30 teams). And despite featuring two legitimate stars in Turner and Soto (157 and 200 wRC+ respectively), Nats position players ranked 27th in baseball in fWAR at 3.2, sandwiched in between the Marlins and the Rockies. Not good. Anytime you’re near the 2017-20 Rockies in anything relating to total position player value, you’re not good. But I digress.
Just how bad was it for Nats position players, really? Well, here’s a graph for you. It shows each team’s total position player fWAR, as well as the fWAR generated by each team’s two best players… and the fWAR generated by all others. Bear with me for a second here.
The interesting bar is the black one. In simple terms, teams who rank well in that category have good position player depth. Also, pay attention to how the black bar relates to the blue one. If you notice, the Nats had one of the best 1-2 punches in all of baseball (5.1 fWAR between Soto and Turner) but they were still awful because they were one of only four teams in the negatives when it came to position player depth, along with the Rockies, Pirates, and Rangers, who sought to make the first impression in their new ballpark.
This, of course, is a multifaceted issue. We’ve already mentioned that almost everyone the Nats were counting on to perform didn’t, so things can’t go this badly again. Carter Kieboom stunk in 2020 (.202/.344/.212), but he had a good deal of hype behind him for a reason, so I’d be confident in a breakthrough for 2020. Luis García and Andrew Stephenson have a shot to be nice contributors as well, and there are some other players who could give the Nats value if they figure things out. Enter Víctor Robles.
Robles has been in the Nats organization since he signed for $225,000 in 2013, making his pro debut the following year and coming to the States in 2015. By 2016, he was ranked as a top 10 prospect in baseball by MLB.com and he got his first cup of coffee in late 2017, slashing .250/.308/.458 (95 wRC+) across 27 PAs. He was derailed by a hyperextended elbow in early 2018 but got another big league cameo later on that season, this time slashing .288/.348/.525 for an excellent 130 wRC+ in 66 PAs. Long hailed as a future Gold Glover in center with excellent contact skills, 2019 would be his first full season in the Majors, and it went about how you’d expect. He played 155 games and while he wasn’t a big plus at the plate (.255/.326/.419, 91 wRC+) and his underlying Statcast numbers weren’t eye popping, he lead all the Major Leagues in Outs Above Average and was a plus on the bases (4.0 BsR) on his way to a 2.5 fWAR debut, very solid for a 22 year old in his first season. So hopes were high that heading into 2020, an improvement from Robles would help the Nats cover for the loss of Anthony Rendon. It didn’t go as planned. Robles struggled mightily through 189 plate appearances in 2020, slashing just .220/.293/.315 for an awful 65 wRC+. He walked less, struck out far more, made poor contact and even played worse defense according to the metrics. So let’s try to break this down.
First, the bat. Robles has never been a hitter with supernatural bat speed and he doesn’t have plus raw power either, but it’s almost hard to explain how softly he tends to hit the ball. In his full 2019 season, his average exit velo was 83.3, which ranked 249th out of 250 qualified hitters, and his Hard Hit % was just 23%, which ranked… 240th out of 250. Just take a look at those numbers, they ain’t pretty.
One thing that stands out to me when I look at his numbers is how much weak contact he makes. Typically, guys who hit the ball softly are groundball heavy, don’t pull a ton… etc. You know the stereotype. Except with Robles, it’s not the case; he pulls the ball a lot (46.6% in 2020) and does not hit groundballs (38.1%). Really, his batted ball profile looks like your typical 2020 slugger, except for the fact that in the past two seasons, ’19-’20 Robles has 2 of the 3 lowest average exit velocities for a single season and 2 of the 15 highest seasons in terms of % of poor contact. Again, not pretty. He also pops it up at crazy rates (10.8%) for his career, which does nothing to help him. A hitter with Robles’ speed will always benefit from putting the ball in play more than the average batter. I’m not advocating he turn into Raimel Tapia, by the way, but there’s too much soft contact in the air going on.
Robles also has struggled against 4-seam fastballs in his career up to this point. Here’s an example of him getting blown away by 96 right down the middle back in 2019.
And here’s Aaron Nola getting a 94 MPH two seamer right by him this past season.
Robles’ struggles against 4-seamers are puzzling because he’s also bad against sliders and not that good against changeups. His xSLG against 4-seamers in the past two years has been .347 (’19) and .273 (’20), which is… really bad. From watching him at the plate, he almost always seems overwhelmed by velo, particularly in deep counts. So if he struggles against almost every pitch, hits the ball softly, and makes noncompetitive outs often… how do you fix it?
Well, first of all, Robles is still just 23 years old. And second, there may be a way to improve, and I believe it has to do with plate discipline. Being more specific, it has to do with his approach. Take a look at his Statcast plate discipline numbers. There are two numbers that truly stand out to me.
The two numbers that really jump out at me are the 1st Pitch Swing % and the Swing %. Everything else looks pretty average-ish. Robles is a pretty aggressive swinger. Not Tim Anderson territory, but he’s on the aggressive side. The result is he doesn’t find himself in favorable counts as often as he’d like. Only 30% of his PAs in 2020 ended with him ahead in the count. That’s bad. For a comparison, I’d like to go with César Hernández, another hitter without big power with a history of hitting the ball pretty softly as well. 37% of his career PAs have ended with him ahead in the count, thanks mainly to good plate discipline. Robles has more raw power than Hernández and good bat-to-ball skills, so if he develops solid discipline, he’ll be more decisive and put better swings on the pitches he does offer at. I can see him putting together a .280/.355/.435 slash line, which would be an average to a somewhat above-average hitter and close to an All-Star caliber player when paired with his baserunning and defense. Speaking of which, let’s talk about Robles’ glove.
Defense has always been Robles’ main calling card. I’ve already mentioned how he led the Majors in OAA in 2019 and provided he stays healthy, he should be a big plus and a perennial Gold Glove contender in centerfield. Wait a second… what is this?
That’s not what you like to see, is it? Now, it’s worth noting that he still ranked positively in 2020 according to Statcast’s Outs Above Average (+2), but UZR (-3.6) and DRS (-4) disagreed. Whatever the case, Robles’ metrics went down across the board, including a drop in sprint speed (from 95th percentile in 2019 to 79th percentile in 2020) that makes me think that this was partially a case of either some sort of soft injury or not being up to speed thanks to the weird nature of the 2020 season. It’s not something I’d be concerned about, personally. I expect Robles to be a legit plus in centerfield in 2021, as well as on the bases. The big question with him is the bat. If he can be just a slightly above-average hitter, there’s very realistic All-Star ceiling here.
And the Nats are gonna need him to perform if they want to contend at any point in the next 2 years. Max Scherzer is 36 and as great as he is, Father Time is undefeated. Trea Turner has two years left of team control. Patrick Corbin showed some concerning signs in 2020 and Stephen Strasburg has trouble staying healthy. The club has a poor farm system with an alarming lack of position player quality. All these are things that say “rebuild or soft reboot”, but the Nats also happen to have Juan Soto under extensive team control, and wasting the rest of Soto’s best and cheapest years on a rebuilding team is a big no. I think the Nats have to go for it with their current core at least one more time, and they’re gonna have to spend money to do it. I would not be surprised if they are big players for J.T. Realmuto and some pitchers; their roster is very top-heavy and desperately needs quality depth pieces to be a legitimate contender. That’s where Robles comes in. If he (and Kieboom, among others) can tap into that potential that’s so clearly there, the Nats will have a shot to add another World Series ring. If he doesn’t, the organization will be staring at the abyss of throwing away the prime of 21st century Ted Williams, which is not a pleasant idea. Please don’t let this happen. Pretty please?