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Year in Review: Victor Robles

Washington Nationals outfielder Victor Robles endured a tough 2020 season, slashing a paltry .220/.293/.315 while collecting just four stolen bases. That pace would have given him around only 12 SB in a full 162-game season. Fantasy managers had to have been expecting more considering he was a top-75 pick on average heading into 2020, just a season removed from the 23-year-old finishing sixth in the NL Rookie of the Year voting with 28 stolen bases and 17 home runs.

There is still a lot to like about Robles; he's young, and he has the glove to maintain everyday playing time in a Nationals lineup that ranked 11th by runs scored last season. He looked like a 20-home run, 30-stolen base threat in his first full Major League season in 2019. But Robles’ poor 2020 performance is worrisome and he’ll likely need to make adjustments to bounce back in 2021.

Since Robles underperformed in effectively every category, I'll dissect his plate-discipline, contact skills, and quality of contact to provide a baseline of his OBP expectations for 2021. Then, using that knowledge, I'll consider why Robles struggled to produce on the basepaths last season and put everything together to properly assess his value heading into 2021.

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What Went Wrong In 2020

The first aspect worth pointing out from a plate discipline perspective is that Robles chased more pitches outside of the strike zone while being (slightly) less aggressive against pitches inside of the strike zone. That change on its own is enough to elevate his swinging-strike rate and decrease his walk rate, but Robles’ swinging-strike rate was even further affected by a six-point drop in his z-contact rate.

The drop in Robles’ z-contact rate is the most concerning aspect of his 2020 plate discipline profile and suggests that he may have more serious swing problems that will need to be corrected before we can expect a full 2021 rebound. As a result, Robles was stuck with a five-point increase in his strikeout rate and a one-point decrease in his walk rate -- lowering both his in-play rate and OBP. 

Contact quality wasn’t much better for Robles in 2020, dropping from a .348 xwOBAcon in 2019 to a .299 xwOBA in 2020.  The relatively good news is that his drop in xwOBAcon came almost exclusively from a 66-point drop in his xwOBAcon against pitches in the strike zone, suggesting that a rebound may be in store for 2021.

Interestingly, Robles’ contact quality against pitches out of the strike zone was actually better in 2020 compared to 2019, with his .284 xwOBAcon increasing to a .305 xwOBAcon this season. Combined with the fact that his max exit velocity was down only slightly, Robles’ contact quality appears to be related more to a swing issue than a strength or injury issue. In aggregate, though, his depressed contact quality, poor plate discipline, and lessened contact skills all helped to push his OBP way down, in turn leaving him with fewer opportunities to produce on the basepaths.

A low OBP isn’t the only reason why Robles’ stolen base total was so low in 2020, though, as Robles slowed down considerably, dropping from an elite 29.3 ft/sec in 2019 (95th percentile) to 28 ft/sec (79th percentile) this year. Concerningly, it’s unusual for a player to gain sprint speed - only about 20% of all hitters increased their sprint speed in 2020, and it wasn’t much easier for players who saw their sprint speeds drop in 2019 to rebound in 2020.

There’s evidence that the Nationals lost some confidence in Robles on the bases, too. Manager Dave Martinez was still one of the most aggressive managers in the league by stolen base attempts in 2020, and Trea Turner finished the season on pace for 43 stolen base attempts over 162 games. In contrast, Robles attempted a steal only 13.5% of the time when reaching first base in 2020, down from 30.5% in 2019. Robles is still more than fast enough to collect 20-plus stolen bases if he can get his OBP back up, but his declining speed is worth monitoring and could close the door on a 30 stolen base season if it doesn't get back up to his previous levels.

 

2021 Outlook

It can't be lost that Robles is still just 23 years old, and his solid 87% z-contact rate from 2019 suggests that he’s capable of making the adjustments necessary to rebound in 2021. But still, his 2020 season was legitimately concerning from both speed and contact perspectives. Fantasy managers should keep that in mind heading into next season.

It’s also worth pointing out that even though Robles played nearly every day for the Nationals in 2020, his 189 plate appearances makes for a fairly small sample size. Unfortunately, however, contact skills and speed tend to stabilize well before that mark. 

Robles can be a decent upside play in drafts but only if he falls far from his top-75 ADP in 2020. It seems optimistic to expect Robles to do much better than a .250 batting average and 25 stolen bases next season at this point, giving him a reasonable ADP somewhere around pick 160 based on Nick Mariano’s Expected Draft Values research. Fantasy managers less convinced about his ability to make swing adjustments should probably avoid drafting Robles before the 180th pick.

More 2020 Fantasy Baseball Advice




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