Robles to lead off? Nats may start that way

March 24th, 2021

It has been nearly a month since the Nationals began taking a look at Victor Robles as their potential leadoff hitter. So far, so good.

The 23-year-old center fielder entered Wednesday slashing .263/.341/.579 with a .920 OPS in his first 14 games. He has tallied nine runs, 10 hits (including three doubles and three homers), five RBIs, four walks, 15 strikeouts and four stolen bases.

“The biggest benefit for me hitting at the top of the lineup is just finding a way to get on base,” said Robles, who led off Wednesday's game vs. the Astros with a double. “I feel like I can do that a lot.”

Robles feels “very comfortable” batting leadoff, where he hit as a Minor Leaguer. Over the past four seasons in the bigs, he only has started 19 games at the top of the order, compared to 64 batting ninth.

Robles is looking for 2021 to be a turnaround season after he gained 15 pounds of muscle last year and his numbers dropped. Over 52 games in ‘20, Robles slashed .220/.293/.315. His defensive production did not mirror being named a Gold Glove Award finalist just one season earlier.

This winter, though, Robles focused on regaining his agility. Manager Dave Martinez was intrigued by the energy and speed Robles could bring to the leadoff role in front of Juan Soto and Trea Turner.

“I think Victor will get a lot of pitches to hit with Soto or Trea hitting behind him, either or,” Martinez said. “For me, he’s got to be aggressive in the strike zone. When he gets an opportunity to get a good pitch to hit, the biggest thing is to put it in play and not miss them or not hit them foul -- and I say that about everybody.”

Robles’ production is tied to his approach. He has been working with hitting coach Kevin Long during batting practice on being “very specific and selective,” particularly early in the count. Martinez has noticed a sharpened focus and patience at the plate during camp.

“What I’ve seen is, he’s taking pitches that he normally swings at -- which is a good sign -- and he’s hitting the ball relatively hard,” Martinez said. “With that being said, he’s still striking out and we kind of want him to put the ball in play. When he does put the ball in play, he’s hitting the ball hard. His exit velo’s been really, really impressive this spring.”

The Nationals will continue to weigh their lineup options with a week until Opening Day. There still could be scenarios wherein Robles bats at the bottom of the order, which he said he is open to doing. Wherever he hits, he is leading off his 2021 season on a strong note.

“His all-around play has been really, really good this spring,” Martinez said.