A lightning bolt is powerful, yet difficult to harness.
Offense — or lack thereof — wasn’t the reason why the Nationals finished under .500 in 2020. The defending World Series champs ranked fourth in MLB in batting average and 10th in runs scored last season. But in a National League East that looks to be even better in 2021, the team that finished tied for last is looking to maximize its offensive potential.
Could that mean giving fewer at bats to its most productive hitter?
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Trea Turner has been the team’s leadoff hitter since reaching the majors in 2016 (376 games atop the order out of the team’s 708 in that span, and 157 of 222 the last two seasons).
But in a National League where the pitcher bats, it might be more sensible to bat him second or third when he’d more likely to have runners on base (he hit .333 in 2020 with men aboard and .378 with runners in scoring position).
Plus, Turner’s potential speed (a league-leading 43 steals in 2018) merits more fastballs to the batter behind him when he gets on. Imagine Juan Soto getting more fastballs.
Enter Victor Robles. The 23-year old led off in Sunday’s exhibition opener and went 1-for-3 with an RBI.
“I want to try some different things. Nothing’s set in stone right now,” Manager Davey Martinez said. “If it looks good, maybe it’s something that we do.”
The potential sparkplug atop the order showed signs of promise in 2019 (26 steals and 86 runs scored in 2019 despite batting near the bottom order for the majority of the year) before fizzling in 2020 (hitting .220 with four steals).
Being dynamic and disciplined aren’t mutually exclusive: In the offseason, Robles worked hard at returning to form.
“He looks a little different to me at the plate. I know he’s been working really hard, making adjustments and stuff like that.” Turner said. “You like to see guys in the cage, working and wanting to get better.”
Turner led off in 40 of the 59 games he played during last season’s truncated 60-game schedule. He batted .340 while scoring 31 runs and driving in 22 in those games. In the 19 games Turner batted second or third, he scored 15 runs while notching 19 RBI.
If Robles is able to bat first, that could send a ripple effect down the order.
“You know, if he can make that adjustment and go from 7-8-9 to our leadoff hitter I think that’d be huge for us,” Turner said. “That just gives us more depth. I know he’s working hard-and looks good.”
Whether Robles can make the transition is yet to be determined. He’s walked just 48 times in 241 career games. The strikeouts (142 per 162 games played) are not as much of a concern in today’s free-swinging era (Turner’s averaging 129 K’s per 162 games played).
But if he can make the move-watch out.
“I just want him to play the game, be a good situational hitter. A guy who gets on base and gets us going,” Martinez said. “As we all know, Victor creates a lot of energy every day. We want him to hopefully start the games off with that energy and get us going early.”