Victor Robles’ heft was always apparent in a T-shirt. When his baggy uniform was off, Robles’ puffed chest and burgeoning biceps were apparent. That was last year.
This year, he spent the three-month break between Major League Baseball’s start and stop lifting on his own. His muscular growth was clear even on the other end of a Zoom. The change became eye-popping in person. Davey Martinez saw Robles in the weight room at Nationals Park and took notice. Robles gained about 15 pounds of muscle, graduating to an NFL appearance and causing Martinez to comment about how big he was.
All that muscle has done little for Robles at the plate this season. Most of his numbers are down. The ones which are up indicate increased negative outcomes. In a nutshell, he’s swinging too often, at pitches outside of the strike zone and his bat is simply not making contact with the ball.
The question is why. For now, the Nationals contend it’s a blend of age, anxiety and the extra muscle. Robles, still just 23 years old, is in his second “full” major-league season. His lack of results pushed him into a chase for better outcomes, making the failings even more broad. The extra bulk has affected his flexibility and agility. Combined, his 2020 season is a wayward one.
“I know he’s trying really hard,” Martinez said. “Too hard sometimes.”
Robles is swinging at almost half the pitches he sees (49.4 percent). That’s a slight uptick from last season. He was expected to do the opposite this year. Grow at the plate, be more selective, dial down his swings. Instead, he’s swinging at pitches outside of the strike zone more often. And, his contact frequency has dropped by five percent overall. The blend leaves his OPS-plus at just 69 (down from 90) and his bWAR at -0.5 (down from 4.1 last season, much of which was earned via defense).
“When you’re struggling, sometimes the best thing you can do is see pitches,” Martinez said. “Try to get the ball in the strike zone. Know which balls you can hit hard and wait for that one pitch.
“I’ve been there before. You start trying to swing your way out of it, sometimes you start chasing way out of the zone and obviously he’s done that quite a bit.”
The amount of times Robles has been behind in the count is staggering. He’s made 175 plate appearances coming into Monday. In 95 of those, he’s had two strikes against him. He’s been ahead in the count at the conclusion of a plate appearance the same amount of time the pitcher has. Robles has been in an 0-2 count 10 times. He’s been in a 2-0 count six times.
Robles was taking batting practice in addition to the weight lifting during the break between play. He told Martinez he was hitting the ball hard during his practice sessions.
“But, there’s a difference between taking batting practice and hitting the ball hard and doing it in the game,” Martinez said. “So, I think he’s realized that.”
Pitchers are not approaching Robles differently. They throw him fastballs about half the time, sliders around a quarter of the time, and mix other off-speed pitches for the remaining quarter. He just has not adapted.
What will change, the Nationals expect, is Robles’ offseason workout approach. They already made a plan for him to become more flexible and agile. It’s a strange consideration for such a high-end athlete. But, it appears Robles has been inhibited both in the outfield and at the plate by the increase in muscle.
“If he wants to carry that weight, he’s got to get his speed back,” Martinez said. “He’s got to get his agility back.”
Martinez cautioned that Robles is “not awful right now.” However, his OPS is 73rd out of the 78 National League hitters with enough plate appearances to qualify for leaderboards. It’s a step back, no matter how it’s measured.