- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 2, 2021

Kevin Long allowed himself a moment before answering the question, contemplating just what the Washington Nationals’ lineup would be like if Victor Robles could excel in the leadoff spot. And then the hitting coach offered his summation.

“If we can have Victor Robles lead off, it’s huge,” Long said.

The possibilities that open up for Washington if Robles can lead off are intriguing — so much so that Long let out a chuckle as he thought about it. If Robles bats leadoff, shortstop Trea Turner can drop into the No. 2 or No. 3 hole, offering one of the best hitters in baseball last season more opportunities with runners on base.

Robles batting leadoff would also mean the center fielder was reaching the potential the Nationals see in him, even if the 23-year-old didn’t perform anywhere near that level in 2020.

This offseason, Robles slimmed down. He made adjustments at the plate. And if those alterations materialize into improvement during spring training this month, Robles could find himself atop the batting order — the place both he and the Nationals hope he can stick.

“If it was my decision, I’d like to lead off more times than I’m not,” Robles said. “But my main goal once I’m in that lineup is to do my job to help the team win. So wherever I’m at, any way I can help the team. That’s my main priority.”

Robles hit a paltry .220 last season with a .293 on-base percentage. His strikeout rate rose and his average exit velocity of 82.2 mph ranked No. 142 in the league — the lowest of eligible batters, according to Baseball Savant.

Robles managed to barrel-up baseballs on just 1.7% of his plate appearances.

As dismal as that looks, Robles says his weight played a role in his scuffles at the plate and in the field. He said he focused this offseason on improving his agility, cutting weight to make more use of his “fast-twitch muscles.”

“He’s moving around a little better, so I think — and I’ve said this before — there’s so much upside in Victor in what he can do,” manager Dave Martinez said. “So, hopefully he feels better about himself this spring.”

Robles also adjusted his approach at the plate. Long said they sent him a plan when last season ended, focusing on widening his stance and introducing a better two-strike approach to his game.

Long referenced what Turner and Juan Soto do so well when faced with a pitcher’s count: they spread out, minimize or remove their leg kick and focus on making contact. If Robles does that, he could return his contact rate closer to that of 2018 and 2019. In those seasons, he made contact with 84% and 85.7% of his swings on pitches in the zone, respectively, according to Baseball Savant.

“It’s going to take him some time to get used to,” Long said. “Spring training is going to be big for Victor Robles, just to kind of get comfortable with some of these new things that he set out to do. He’s got a little more time, which, in the past, he’s always been late, late, late and he hasn’t been in a good position. Right now, he’s in a good position to see the ball and kind of react much, much better.”

When last season ended, Martinez told Robles that his down year could be an opportunity to learn and improve moving forward. He also told Robles he could be a strong bounce-back candidate, especially if he comes to camp prepared.

Martinez likes what he sees early from the Dominican Republic native, particularly with the improved speed and agility after the weight loss. The next step will be proving himself as a speedy contact hitter capable of leading off.

To Long, a key component in that will be evening out his splits. Against left-handed pitchers in 2020, Robles hit .326. That average plummeted to .180 against righties. But if Robles can improve, having him atop the lineup could unlock a dangerous element in Washington’s batting order.

Victor could be a very big piece to us being a championship caliber team,” Long said. “We need him to progress and get better. If he can lead off and he starts to learn a strike zone and do some things that good a leadoff hitter is capable of, we’re in good shape.”

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