By Mark Simon
One of the game’s top defensive stars, Washington Nationals center fielder Victor Robles, turns 23 today.
Robles led all center fielders with 23 Defensive Runs Saved last season, edging out Lorenzo Cain of the Brewers, though Cain won the Fielding Bible Award for defensive excellence at the position.
If I was going to rate the best defensive center fielders in baseball, I think I’d slot Robles at No. 4. Cain and Kevin Kiermaier of the Rays would be interchangeable at 1-2 depending on if you prefer Cain’s statistical advantage the last two seasons or Kiermaier’s longstanding outstanding reputation.
Byron Buxton of the Twins has a Fielding Bible Award and a Platinum Glove to his credit, so he’s got the No. 3 spot. Buxton’s hold on this is tenuous given that injury issues and poor performance have kept him from regularly playing for a full season.
One difference between Robles and the other three is how much value Robles’ extracted from his arm last season. His 12 unaided assists (those without a cutoff man) and 9 Outfield Arm Runs Saved led the majors last season.
By contrast, Buxton saved 3 runs with his arm, Kiermaier saved 2, and Cain cost his team 3. It will be interesting to see if teams challenge Robles’ arm now that it is more of a known commodity. Kiermaier lamented on our recent podcast interview with him that he doesn’t get challenged as much as he used to because his arm has a good reputation. Robles may merit the same badge of honor.
Robles also differs from Cain, Kiermaier, and Buxton in that a good amount of his value in catching fly balls and line drives came on balls hit to the shallowest part of the outfield rather than on the would-be doubles and triples hit near or on the warning track.
Here’s how many plays made that each was above or below average as a center fielder on balls hit to the shallow, medium and deep parts of the outfield (Robles played a little right field too, but that isn’t factored in).
It probably wouldn’t surprise you to know that Robles played the shallowest of the four in their respective home ballparks, starting 312 feet from home plate per Statcast. Compare that to Kiermaier, who on average starts 322 feet from home plate in Tropicana Field, whose dimensions to center are nearly identical to Nationals Park. This puts Kiermaier in a better position to catch deep balls, but Robles likely has a better chance at the shallower ones.
That’s not to say that Robles can’t go back and catch a ball when needed.
Though Robles and Kiermaier differ in their defensive positioning, Robles does share the commonality with Kiermaier of having to work on his hitting. Robles had an OPS+ of 88 last year and that was with 25 hit by pitches, which increased his risk of injury.
Robles’ glove will keep him entrenched in the Nationals lineup. Though he may not currently be the best defensive center fielder in the game, he’s close, and he’s someone to watch and enjoy if and when the 2020 season resumes.