Is the writing on the wall for Victor Robles?

Photo by Sol Tucker for TalkNats

The sample sizes for the newly acquired players at the trade deadline are still small and many have been impressive while some of the incumbent players have rather unimpressive stats in large sample sizes. It has been clear for anyone analyzing Washington Nationals baseball for the last 12 months that Victor Robles should be on the hot seat. This is a results-driven business, but when the processes are bad, it is time for a change.

Manager Dave Martinez can downplay the reasons involved in starting the newly acquired Lane Thomas in centerfield yesterday with Robles on the bench. (UPDATED: Martinez said Robles was not feeling well.) But if the results and processes of Robles’ record hasn’t convinced you that he has been part of the problem — then you have not been paying attention.

Because of the small sample size for Thomas having only 15 plate appearances for the Nationals, you have to almost throw-out his immediate impact and .667 OBP. But you have to like what you are seeing so far on offense and defense from the player the Nats got in a trade for Jon Lester in a deal with the Cardinals. Thomas was once a Top-10 rated prospect in their system and faded back after his tough 2020 partial season after a bout with COVID and 40 plate appearances with St. Louis, much of them, not good. For the Nats, he is taking advantage so far of the limited opportunities. That is all you can hope for.

“Every time [Thomas] gets up there … he works good counts,”  Martinez said. “So far, I like what he’s doing. I like what I see. He’s a gamer.”

Analyzing Robles’ batting average has been on a 4-year dive straight down going from .288 to .255 to .220 and is at an awful .207 today. His OBP is inflated from an extraordinary amount of HBPs and some gift IBBs from batting in front of the pitcher. Does it sound familiar? Isn’t this Danny Espinosa all over again with grasping to an OBP that is artificially inflated?

Worse than that, Robles only has 19 RBIs this season. His AB/RBI rate is 16.05 meaning he is only knocking in a run every 16 at-bats. He has basically averaged one RBI per week. In bases loaded spots, he is 0-11 this season. Batting at lead-off this season in 27 games, Robles’ OBP is an horrific .291. You rarely get pitch-around walks and IBBs when you bat lead-off.

It is too early to determine if Thomas may or may not be the answer. Robles is part of the question as to who should not be the starting centerfielder for this team? It is possible that Robles can snap back and be the guy, but he has to get his head into the game and start hitting with an approach at the plate from someone who has had over 1,200 MLB plate appearances. Keep in mind that Robles has two remaining minor league options and he is arbitration eligible for 2022 and due a raise in salary.

While Robles is only 24 years old, he is a veteran in terms of MLB longevity. He spent parts of five seasons in the Majors and looked like a budding star in 2018. He had the speed, athleticism, defense and power. The centerfielder looked like a superstar in the making if he learned from his bad decisions. Well, the bad decisions or as some call it, “Baseball IQ” continues to be a problem. And that is part of the frustrating season that Robles has had. The mistakes have piled up from baserunning blunders to throwing to the wrong base to horrible reads on flyballs.

If you say but..but…but his defense, you have not been paying attention to the poor reads Robles has made. He is just average now or really below average when you consider he is the 21st ranked centerfielder in terms of outs above average. And of course speed is about more than running fast, it is how you use it, so while he has ‘plus’ tools he doesn’t utilize them well.

“Very interested to see who DM pencils in at leadoff/CF tomorrow” — nynat

When general manager Mike Rizzo acquired Thomas and Dodgers’ prospect, Donovan Casey in separate trades on July 30, you can see these two speedy and toolsy outfielders can compete. Casey has already dominated in Double-A and got promoted to Triple-A Rochester this past week. While both Thomas and Casey are 25 years old, and that is older than Robles, it just really comes down to who can do the job better. Robles will be arbitration-eligible this offseason, and he will be due a raise and getting more expensive for the team.

Donovan Casey in Rochester, Photo by Ryan Morris for TalkNats

Don’t count Casey out of factoring into the mix for next year. His tools have been on full display, and he has the best arm in the Nats system and coupled with his speed would be an intriguing prospect for the Nats on defense. The question is whether his “hit tool” will translate to the bigs.

“A lot of that comes from my approach to driving he baseball,” Casey said about his ability to hit for power. “As I developed and learned more about how the [plate] approach works, that’s all I really do is in early in counts look for ‘my pitch’ and put a good swing on it.”

Screengrab photo by TalkNats from Donovan Casey’s ZOOM call

In next year’s outfield, you have Juan Soto for sure and Yadiel Hernandez in the mix. Andrew Stevenson has been the best pinch-hitter in Nationals’ history, and he has an advantage as a lefty batter. But his starter’s stats have been worse than Robles. Rizzo might only carry five outfielders next year. The GM could still dive into the free agent market for an upgrade especially if there is a DH in the National League in 2022, and that would hurt Stevenson’s chances as the need for a PH diminishes when you have a DH. That does not leave a lot of room to choose from Robles, Thomas and Casey unless no free agent is acquired and/or the league goes to the DH.

Some would say, this is a good problem to have. A better problem would be if Robles figures it out and turns back into the superstar we envisioned.

Fangraphs team WAR 08/22/2021

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