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Baseball Is So Fucking Hard, Man

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

If you had Dr. Emmett Brown’s DeLorean and a sports almanac for the year 2022, probably you would not bother using your knowledge of future events to publish an eerily prescient short April blog in the Washington Post, about the swing mechanics of Victor Robles. But let’s say you did. Let’s say that’s all you wanted: To bang out 650 words about your favorite former hotshot Nationals prospect and place it with minute-perfect timing in the most prominent of the local sports sections. You would title the blog “With an altered batting stance, Victor Robles hopes for better results,” and you would post that sucker on the morning of April 29, with Robles batting .152 with a .443 OPS and giving every impression that this would be Year Three of a slide from top prospect and starter for a World Series champ all the way to washed out of a job.

Beat writer Andrew Golden of the Washington Post missed the optimal time for launching his blog—his went up on April 25, which meant it was followed immediately by a 1-for-6 stretch that managed to raise Robles’s slash line—but not by much. Robles just wrapped up a weekend series against the mighty San Francisco Giants in which he reached base in 10 of his 14 plate appearances, scored four runs, drove in another five, and for the first time since at least 2019 looked even remotely like the player who not very long ago was considered a better overall prospect, and even a better hitting prospect, than Juan Soto. That’s the blogger’s dream, right there: To be the person who finds an interesting angle on player performance and gets it down in writing immediately before the subject has the best stretch of play of his entire career. By contrast, the Defector blog that you are reading right now is likely to be followed by Robles striking out 19 consecutive times, quitting baseball all at once, and launching a second career making and selling artisanal popsicles.

It’s not important to you or me whether the adjustments described in Golden’s delightfully straightforward blog prove over time to be a panacea for all that has made Robles such a confounding player to follow. To me, it’s an opportunity to once again appreciate the dizzying complexities of swinging a bat and hitting a ball, and how thin the line can be between a productive hitter who knocks the ball around the yard and a bozo who stinks and couldn’t sock a dinger out a stadium with the dimensions of my bathtub.

Here is the gist: New Nationals hitting coach Darnell Coles noticed that Robles’s hands had dropped in his stance, from where they were when he was lighting up the minors to where there they were at the end of last season, when Robles found himself knocked back down to the minors, at Triple-A Rochester, following a nightmare of an aborted season. Higher hands, in Coles’s calculation, lead to a quicker path to the baseball, and he’s worked with Robles since the spring on repositioning his hands to where they were in the before times. “In my original swing, my hands were up,” Robles told Golden, through an interpreter. “For some reason, through time, they gravitated down. I don’t know why.” Now, every time he steps into the on-deck circle, Robles hears manager Davey Martinez shout at him about the hands. “Yeah, every time,” Robles told MASN’s Mark Zuckerman. “Every time I go into the on-deck circle, he reminds me.” For now—just for now; no one who has watched Robles for three-plus seasons would dare to reset their lowered expectations just yet—the reminders appear to be working. In a hilariously sudden turn of events, Robles will enter Washington’s upcoming series in Colorado with a higher OPS than cleanup hitter Nelson Cruz, and with more runs batted in than Soto.

When I read that a new coach noticed something in Robles’s stance that had apparently eluded the entire rest of the Nationals organization over a period of years, my first reaction was to fly into a rage. Robles is, in theory, an extremely cool player type: Athletic, daring, inclined to put the ball in play and let his speed and aggression put pressure on the defense, the sort of fellow who will absolutely drop a bunt on an unsuspecting infield, but with enough pop to smoke a 2–0 fastball into a gap or over a wall. A fully realized player of his type and with his potential would be one of the coolest guys in baseball! So the slide into total ineptitude that has swallowed the last two years of his career has been incredibly disheartening. Learning that a recent mechanical issue in his swing may account for some significant part of that slide, and that it wasn’t noticed for two years while Robles flailed and lost his confidence and slid all the way off the major-league roster, makes me want to drive down to Nationals Park, pull all members of their baseball operation (other than Coles) into a conference room, and one-by-one look them in the eyes and tell them that they are pieces of shit.

I spent a portion of my weekend munching tape on this subject. Here is a video of Robles socking a dinger in the minors in 2017, when he was MLB’s third-ranked prospect:

And here is a video of Robles socking his first dinger of 2021, which did not come until June 29, and incidentally is one of just five total home runs he has hit in 624 plate appearances since his rookie season, when he hit 17 in 617 plate appearances:

It’s difficult to find a video of a player grounding out harmlessly to short, so pretty much by definition we are confined to reviewing instances when Robles’s swing was good and produced a good result. But since we are talking about a persistent problem with Robles’s stance, the kind of thing that now requires drilling and constant harassment in order to change, it should show up in a comparison of even his few productive at-bats. The viewing angles are very different, but you will note that of the two at-bats, it is actually the earlier one that features Robles resting the bat on his shoulder in his batting stance, prior to the pitch. But the dreaded hand-drop actually occurs later in the sequence, according to Martinez, as Robles coils to unleash hell:

“If he keeps his hands up and doesn’t drop them—cause sometimes he’ll start up here and all of a sudden he starts creeping down—he can work down through the ball,” Martinez said, moving his hands through all the various positions to demonstrate the difference. “He stayed on top of the ball, which is beautiful.”

MASN Sports

Using the two videos as evidence, it seems reasonable to conclude that there isn’t a visually dramatic difference between the old stance and the new one. This is not the difference in batting stance between, say, Julio Franco and Cal Ripken Jr., where one has the bat way up over the head and the other has it down at shoulder-level. But also (and possibly I am imagining this), I think that I can detect that Robles’s hands are higher as he loads up in the 2017 video, whereas they never really make it above his shoulders in the 2021 video. It may not leap off the screen, but sometime around my 70th viewing of the two videos I started to identify an overall slumpiness to Robles’s 2021 swing. Perhaps what I knew of his diminished performance contributed to an impression that he’d become hunched and troll-like. Nevertheless I am comforted to know that Coles, at least, has identified something other than comprehensive brain-boomage to explain why Robles can no longer hit a baseball, and that Robles’s recent torrid stretch came after the team started drilling him on improved swing mechanics.

Because the sample size is tiny, whether or not the dropped hands account for what happened to Robles’s hitting is still an open question. Even after the recent surge, this season Robles is still in the bottom four percent of all MLB hitters in average exit velocity, per Statcast. His rate of hard-hit balls—a cringe-inducing 13.6 percent—places him in the bottom one percent, and if it holds would mark the fourth consecutive season where Robles finished in the bottom five percent in the category. Speaking of prescient blogs, JJ Cooper of Baseball America was fretting about Robles’s unimpressive exit velocities back in February 2019, before he became a regular major leaguer. Robles has always done a lot of drag bunting (though it’s hard to find stats on attempted bunts, it’s no accident that Robles currently leads the majors in sacrifice hits) and Statcast does not seem to eliminate bunts when calculating velocities, so his averages are probably somewhat skewed. Still, suffice to say, even when Robles is not squaring around, the man makes an awful lot of soft contact, and an infuriating number of his plate appearances over the last two-plus seasons have ended in sad pop flies or dribbling grounders that wouldn’t roll off the greens at Oakmont.

We are getting lost in the weeds now. Sorry! Here is the thing at which I would like to direct your attention: The Washington Nationals, a professional baseball organization, now believe that it is very possible that a profound, devastating performance decline for one of their most important young players was caused by his hands slipping in his batting stance, just a tiny little bit but perceptibly, and that correcting this may unlock the potential that once made him the jewel of their farm system. They’ve tried some other things, and now this: Simply stand this way, instead of that way. If Coles is right about this, give him the damn Nobel Prize, and/or possibly fire everyone else who works for the Washington Nationals.

That’s not the lesson, of course. Coles can be right today and wrong tomorrow. Maybe Robles restores the high hands to muscle memory and hits well for a couple weeks, but then his habit of crowding the plate leads to a gnarly injury and all the gains are lost. Maybe he solves the hands but then his hips get out of sync, his swing gets out of rhythm, he goes back on tilt, and he never has another multi-hit game in his life. Even if Coles is right and the hands issue really has robbed Robles of the optimal bat path, years spent battling daily humiliation and being told that it was a matter of approach could conceivably have permanently screwed with his confidence. There’s too many variables! I do not like to think that it is even possible that a couple inches of hand placement could be the difference between a productive hitter and a bust, let alone that those all-important inches could go unnoticed by a professional coaching staff, but today Victor Robles and I are both hoping for exactly that.

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