There is a point in a prospect’s career where the hype fades and they can get caught in a purgatory of not playing against the elite competition to improve, but also not doing enough to justify giving them a spot to play more elite competition. Very few prospects have the talent to force a franchise to bring them up and give them a spot. So many factors come into play when deciding whether to bring up a prospect. The most important one is the timing. Is there an opening for them on the depth chart? Were there free-agent signings? Did the team just draft someone with a similar skill set? Have they been healthy enough? Have they been brought up and sent down so much that your confidence is shot? Are they in an organization that pushes and challenges prospects? Or are they in an organization that sits on talent until it absolutely has to promote it?
Any one of these is reason enough to slow a prospect’s development or career. If a prospect experiences more than one of the questions above, he might not ever get a real chance despite having all-star talent. That’s how you get late-bloomers like Max Muncy, Jacob deGrom, Mitch Haniger, Josh Donaldson, and so on.
|2021 or Bust|
|Brendan Rodgers (1/12/21)||Victor Robles (1/19/21)||Brendan McKay (1/5/21)||Andrew Benintendi|
|Kyle Wright||Luis Urias||David Dahl||Brent Honeywell|
|Royce Lewis||Zack & Nick Burdi||Austin Meadows||Franklin Barreto|
|Nick Senzel||Readers’ Choice|
For many of the prospects above, you can point to one or two specific reasons why they are where they are in 2021: a career crossroads. Victor Robles is no different. However, to say “he is who we thought he was” isn’t true either because years ago, we didn’t even know who we thought he was. Today’s episode of 2021 or Bust is a profile of extreme highs and extreme lows. Unfortunately, we are right in the middle of probably the lowest low.
Robles has earned every speck of hype he has ever received. If you look for evidence that Robles signed in the 2013 J2 class, you won’t find it — that is how unremarkable his signing was thought of by major league scouts. He was not on any J2 top-30 lists that year. While Eloy Jimenez, headlined as the class’ top-ranked international signing, took home $5 million from the Chicago Cubs, Robles was a foot note, taking home just $225,000 from the Nationals. Yes, many prospects get less than Robles did, but there are also quite a few that make more than ten times what he did by signing a contract.
For a prospect who would one day become one of the top 5 in all of baseball, what led to such a small signing bonus? Lack of power mostly. Yes, there were question marks about his plate approach, his fit in the field, and other things, but there was literally no chance that Robles would develop any kind of power. If that is on your scouting report, you can say goodbye to millions of dollars as a teenager — even if you have Rickey Henderson’s speed.
The hype around Robles didn’t really begin until 2016, three years after signing with the Nationals. At that point, he was a 19-year-old in Single-A, slugging .864 and standing out by hardly ever striking out (13.33 SO%). Robles was also blazing on the basepaths. You didn’t have to possess much of an imagination to think he could be an all-star with his ability to get on base combined with his speed. Robles also light it up in the field as well, flashing a near plus-plus arm with Carlos Beltran style range.
At the height of Robles’ hype, many considered him to be a potential five-tool player. At 6 feet tall, you could dream that he would fill out one day and some of his line drives in the gap could turn into homers. And then it happened: Robles starting hitting homers. Not a ton, but when your scouting report says “no power,” every home run you hit over five in a season increases your value about five percent. So, 10 in 100 games between High-A and Double-A in 2017 was a very good sign. So good, in fact, that the Nationals brought him up at the end of the season. Robles made his debut at just 20 years old.
What Went Wrong
As with most prospects who haven’t succeeded in the majors, there were warning signs. Let’s forget about the lack of power and a mediocre walk rate for a minute and focus on his speed. Robles is regarded as one of the fastest players in the league, but that has never really translated to stolen bases — or at least stolen base efficiency. It has certainly aided his defense, as he’s already one of the better defensive centerfielders in the league, but that is not the case on the base paths. He’s a good enough baserunner, generating a positive UBR in both 2019 and 2020. When it comes to stolen bases, however, his elite speed has only yielded fair results. Even in the low minors where fast runners can rack up steals, Robles’ was caught 14 times while stealing 33 bags between Single-A and High-A. This is a trend that has not improved four years later. His MiLB and MLB career SB% fall just shy of the coveted 75% mark in which the debate rages about how valuable a steal is if you get caught too often.
Yes, he’s still young, so his base stealing prowess could improve, despite it basically being the same since he was 17. How is it supposed to improve, however, if he can’t get on base? Robles’ strength was supposed to be contact and getting on base. Despite not walking alot, Robles was able to post a near .400 OBP in the minors. That looked like it was going to transfer over in the majors early on, when he got on base at a .348 clip in his first real taste of the majors. That mark has only gotten worse, however, and was below .300 in 2020.
It’s hard to say that Robles is getting unlucky. Most of the metrics suggest he’s simply getting worse. His exit velocity has decreased every season to it’s paltry 82.2 mph in 2020. He’s barrel numbers, hart-hit rate, and walk rate are all falling as well. Meanwhile, his K rate neared 30% in 2020 — a career worst — and his swinging strike rate has continued to rise. Making things worse, Robles’ overall contact rate is falling, and his overall swinging rate is rising, which is a deadly combination.
If Robles continues to make less contact and less quality contact change this year, he’ll reach a point where he’ll simply be too poor of a hitter to continue to build around. If they remain the same, Robles’ defense will at least make him good enough overall to justify starting, but it puts him in a prime position to lose his job to any number of better players or prospects that comes along. Lucky for Robles that the Nationals don’t have any real options for his replacement close in the minors, that doesn’t mean a free agent won’t come around. There is also the matter of Robles’ contract status. He’s arbitration-eligible after this season. If his on-field trends do not reverse, he’s a candidate to be non-tendered in two years.
It depends on what you are looking for. When it comes to Robles, I was never that high on him being an all-around player. Even at the apex of his hype, I was screaming about the limitations of his stolen base rates despite his notable speed. That said, I want to believe it’s possible he turns it around at the plate to become a decent leadoff hitter. I don’t think it’s very likely though. MLB pitchers are really just dominating him with velocity. There isn’t any indication that they’ve even had to make adjustments to Robles. Instead, half the pitches he gets are fastballs, which is an indication that they simply aren’t afraid of him. Not that they should be. Anything with velocity has given Robles trouble, which does not bode well given today’s league. The good news is the Nationals will give him all of 2021 to find out what works.
Photo by All-Pro Reels/Flickr | Adapted by Justin Redler (@reldernitsuj on Twitter)