When the ball first jumped off Pavin Smith’s bat at 98.5 mph, hurtling toward the left-center field gap, Dave Martinez feared the worst.
“That’s gonna be trouble,” Martinez recalled thinking in the eighth inning of Friday’s eventual 1-0 Nationals win over the Diamondbacks.
But as Martinez rewatched the line drive later, he instead marveled at the route center fielder Victor Robles took to chase down the ball — the burst of speed into the gap, the lunging reach of his glove and the tumble onto the warning track.
That play encourages Martinez that Robles is back on track defensively. There are still concerns at the plate, with Robles dropping from leadoff to eighth in the order recently.
But Washington hoped to see Robles return to what the team became accustomed to in 2019 — producing eye-catching defensive plays on the regular — rather than what Robles supplied in center field last year. Early on, plays like the one Robles made in the gap fill Martinez with confidence that Robles is on the right track.
“We challenge him all the time, you know,” Martinez said. “He was so close in 2019 to becoming a Gold Glover. 2020, he didn’t look like that guy. Now, he’s starting to look like that guy that he was in 2019.”
Robles developed into one of the best defensive center fielders in the league in 2019. According to Baseball Savant, Robles led MLB at the position with 22 outs above average — a statistic that rates all the plays a defender makes and allots points based on difficulty. Robles’ 20 runs prevented led the league, too.
Robles regressed in 2020, though. The 23-year-old added weight ahead of the season, hoping to add more power to his game. Instead, Robles hurt his reaction time and reduced the number of feet he covered on average.
What had been a 93% success rate on the 363 possible plays he saw while playing center field in 2019 dipped to an 89% success rate over 131 attempts in 2020. He finished the season with two outs recorded above average and two runs saved — good for No. 13 in MLB and a long distance from where he ranked the year earlier.
So far in 2021, Robles hasn’t fully returned to his 2019 numbers, even if a few eye-popping plays show promise. On his 38 attempts, Robles has a 92% success rate. His ranks No. 34 out of all eligible center fielders with minus-1 outs above average.
Still, Martinez likes what he sees, especially when balls are hit over Robles’ head. So often last year, Robles got in the habit of playing too shallow. With his speed, Martinez isn’t worried about bloopers landing in front of Robles. He wants Robles deeper, which should make his reads easier.
“The biggest thing for me is his angles,” Martinez said. “His angles are much better going back on balls. That ball that was hit to left-center that he caught, I watched it 10 times and his angle, it was a straight line to where he needed to be to catch the ball.”
While Robles’ speed in the outfield helps him make up ground, his arm has often been a big part of his game, too. He recorded 12 outfield assists in 2019, the fourth-most in the league. He already has two this season, which is tied for second.
His most recent assist was one of his most impressive. Asdrubal Cabrera launched a 105-mph rocket 396 feet off the center field wall on Sunday, but Robles read the bounce well. He scooped the ball up, then stepped and fired a bullet to second base — with his throw never touching the ground — to nab Cabrera at the bag.
“You know, I kind of expect that from him every time; he has such a good arm,” shortstop Trea Turner said. “And he plays the ball off the wall really well. So he finally — not finally got one. But I feel like a lot of times he comes close, and today he got it done for us.”
Those are the kinds of plays that make Robles an asset in center field — and they’re the kind of plays Martinez felt were missing last season.
But so far in 2021, the Nationals manager is pleased with what Robles is bringing each night defensively, looking more like the standout 2019 version of himself than the disappointing 2020 edition.
“Where he is at right now, I love watching him play. I really do,” Martinez said. “I feel like when the ball’s up in the air, it’s an out when he’s out there.”