Robles is not the reason the Washington Nationals were swept away by the Atlanta Braves at Nationals Park this week, the final indignity Thursday afternoon’s 3-2 loss to veteran lefty Drew Smyly. (ERA upon arrival: 8.05. Results Thursday: six innings, zero earned runs.) The Nats’ major offseason offensive acquisitions will have to get hot to reach the Mario Mendoza standard, and the club’s scratch-and-claw effort to get back to .500 was frittered away in a series in which Washington never so much as held a lead.
And yet, with the game at its pivot point — eighth inning, Nats down a run, men on first and second, two outs — here came a 3-2 curveball from Atlanta reliever Grant Dayton. Here was Robles doing what is so frequently hard for him to do: Take a pitch that’s not in the strike zone. And here was home plate umpire Nick Mahrley, looking at the pitch just below Robles’s knees, punching Robles out anyway.
“The great thing about that is that all his teammates went up to him and told him that he had an unbelievable at-bat, that that was a great at-bat,” Manager Dave Martinez said. “It’s unfortunate. … I looked at it, and it was a bad pitch. The ball was down.”
Unfair? For sure. Robles worked the count — and should have walked. Instead, Robles is still looking for his second RBI of the year.
“That’s a tough break, man,” second baseman Josh Harrison said. “Vic had a really good at-bat. Saw the pitch. I think everybody knows it was a ball. … It was a tipping point where we could have put pressure on them.”
Here’s the thing about Robles, though: At some point, he has to be the one to put pressure on the other team. He has to be a reason the Nationals win, a dynamic, driving force. That’s not who he is. Not yet.
But is it fair to ask … when?
“We need Victor,” Martinez said. “If we’re going to go far, we need Victor to perform — not only on defense but on offense as well.”
How far this outfit is equipped to go won’t be determined by a May sweep at the hands of the previously struggling Braves, just as it wasn’t determined by the four-game winning streak that preceded the Atlanta series. But there’s a truth in what Martinez said. The Nationals’ long-term fate isn’t just up to Kyle Schwarber and Josh Bell turning around slow starts at the plate or even about Juan Soto and Stephen Strasburg getting healthy, though the former would help and the latter is paramount.
Along with that: at some point, Victor Robles has to become what Victor Robles can become.
“He’s got potential to hit 20 to 25 homers,” Martinez said.
He has, to this point in the season, zero homers.
“It’s hard to put a number on it because he’s so raw and can do so many different things,” Martinez continued. “I often tell him: ‘Hey, for me, you’re a doubles guy. Gap to gap. You could be a 40- to 50-doubles guy every year.’ ”
He has, to this point in the season, two doubles. And one triple. He has played 27 games in a season that is still young. He has collected two base hits in exactly one of them.
This is not to make Martinez’s assessment seem out of touch, because I asked him about Robles’s potential, and what he is saying makes complete sense both from what he sees with his own eyes and what the organization believes. So now, a reminder, which we all need: He is still just 23 and turns 24 only later this month.
That kind of chronological data can seem insignificant when Soto — the preternatural Nats right fielder — is an absolute force at 22, a 34-homer, 110-RBI season behind him at 20, a batting title at 21, with a present that is mesmerizing and a future that seems limitless.
Soto skews the view for everybody, as do Fernando Tatis Jr. and Vladimir Guerrero Jr., two 22-year-olds who join Soto in a small group of the game’s most electric young stars. And that doesn’t even get to Atlanta’s Ronald Acuña Jr., the 23-year-old who left his mark on this series with a run scored in each game, a homer and an on-base-plus-slugging percentage of 1.104 when it was over.
It’s easy to get lost in all that stubble-faced success and end up thinking: Why not Victor? So a sobering thought.
“I always have to remind myself: I didn’t make my major league debut until I was 23 years old,” Nationals ace Max Scherzer said. “He’s already had three years in the league.”
It’s worth remembering that it doesn’t click for everyone at the same time. Bell and Harrison, veterans now, didn’t sniff the big leagues until they were just over a month from their 24th birthdays. Minnesota outfielder Byron Buxton once dominated all those prospect rankings on which Robles showed up later, but it took till this season for Buxton to finally break out, leading the majors with an .805 slugging percentage. He is 27 — and just getting started.
Think about it that way, and it’s possible to view Robles as ahead of where he should be, not behind. What we have here is a player seen as much through his position on those prospect lists — by MLB.com, 10th in 2016, third in 2017, fourth in 2018 — being viewed through the prism of what he was supposed to become, not what he is still becoming. Whatever that might be wasn’t going to be determined this week.
“You’re never really a finished product,” said Scherzer, still evolving as he approaches 37. “Really, those big-time leaps happen in your fifth year in the big leagues, in your seventh year, in your 10th year. You can still have a lot of leaps forward if you go out there and really choose to put in the work to do it. That’s the opportunity he has in front of him.”
The opportunities will be there because, as Martinez said, “We feel like Victor’s going to be here for a very long time.” On Thursday, he went 1 for 3 with a walk, and on paper, that is absolute progress.
But the year began with him leading off, and Washington’s lineup is so much deeper — so much more dangerous — if Robles could be a competent leadoff hitter. That experiment lasted eight games. An MLB-average leadoff hitter entering play Thursday had a .261 average and a .758 on-base-plus-slugging percentage. Robles’s numbers heading into a three-game series at Yankee Stadium: .228 average and a .630 OPS — though it’s worth pointing out his on-base percentage of .351 is better than the MLB-average leadoff hitter’s (.340).
“We need him to start hitting and doing the things that we think he’s capable of doing,” Martinez said.
All of this comes up not just because of Thursday’s eighth-inning at-bat but because of a similar a situation in the eighth inning of Wednesday night’s game. The Nats trailed by two. The bases were loaded. Robles was due up. Soto was available off the bench. Martinez stuck with Robles.
“We want to build that confidence,” Martinez said.
It is important for this season. But it’s important beyond, too. Robles swung at the first pitch Wednesday night from Atlanta reliever A.J. Minter. He flied out harmlessly to left.
“He took an unbelievable swing,” Martinez said. “It’s one of the best swings he had all year.”
At some point, his best swings of the year will be driven to the gap — on a rope and with regularity. For now, Victor Robles is no longer a prospect and not yet a star. He is an everyday big leaguer trying to find his way at 23, an unfinished product with an undetermined future.