2018 wasn’t supposed to be the year of Juan Soto in Washington. It was supposed to be the year of Victor Robles. Robles, the consensus No. 1 outfield prospect in the Nats system and probably the No. 2 outfield prospect in all of baseball behind Ronald Acuña, was ready for the majors. Only a hyperextended elbow kept Robles from making an impact in the majors last year, but in abbreviated playing time in August and September, he looked like he was making up for lost time (.288/.348/.525, 131 wRC+).
Robles’ 2019 hasn’t been quite as impressive, but you can see in his performance why he’s such an exciting talent. Even while running a 30.5% strikeout rate and walking only 4.8% of the time, Robles has put up a league-average batting line (.265/.308/.480, 102 wRC+). Watch Robles play, and you can immediately see what the hype is about. He’s electric both at the plate and in the field. With all that said, I’m not here today to talk to you about Robles’ tremendous potential or his jaw-dropping athleticism. I’m here for the bunts.
Victor Robles leads the major leagues in bunt singles this year (he’s actually tied for the lead with teammate Adam Eaton). It’s a good thing, too, because he’s also first in bunts (fair balls that were bunted — it’s hard to get a good count of foul bunt attempts). If that seems weird to you, you’re not alone. We’re talking about a guy with non-negligible power — the FanGraphs prospect team graded him at 50 raw power this offseason. He has four home runs so far this year, and he ran a .157 ISO in the minor leagues, which isn’t Joey Gallo level or anything, but is certainly not poor.
Take a look at this list of players with the most bunts per plate appearance since 2017, Robles’ first playing time in the majors. I liberally filtered out pitchers and people with less playing time than Robles:
Robles sticks out like a sore thumb on this list. Magneuris Sierra literally had a zero ISO in 64 plate appearances in 2017. He’s never hit more than four home runs in a season, minors or majors. Delino DeShields hit six home runs in 440 plate appearances in the bigs — once. Robles has four this year already. Depth Charts projects him for another 11 over the balance of the year. Heck, he had three homers in 66 PA last year when he was called up. Maybe he’s not a power hitter, but he’s certainly not a slap hitter either. What’s up with the love for bunts?
Your first guess might be that Robles is particularly adept at turning bunts into hits. Let’s take a look at the last table again, only with how often each player converts a bunt into a single added in:
|Alejandro De Aza||7.2%||20.0%|
Not a lot to see here, really. Robles looks to be around average, and it’s too small of a sample to be able to say anything with much confidence anyway. It’s notable, however, that none of the high-volume bunters are among the best players at converting bunts into hits. The best players in the majors at this tend to be the guys no one expects to bunt: among players with at least 10 bunts in the last three seasons, Kyle Schwarber and Matt Carpenter are the best in baseball at reaching base via bunt.
But Robles’ strangely frequent bunting isn’t what got me to write an article about him. No, it gets weirder than that. Victor Robles had a three game bunt-hit streak this year. If that sounds crazy to you, that’s because it is. That’s tied (with Cesar Hernandez) for the longest bunt hit streak since at least 2015, as far as I can tell (as you might imagine, searching for this is a bit manual).
Bunt singles mostly don’t come in streaks, because so much of their value is in their rarity. When a defender isn’t expecting a bunt, they might be a step slow charging. Take a look at the first single in the streak:
There’s a lot to like about bunting there, even if the actual bunt isn’t the best. The defense is shifted, so pitcher Caleb Smith is the only player with a prayer of covering first base if the first baseman has to charge. Neil Walker is out of position at first base, and he probably should have stayed on first and hoped Smith could get to the ball, but he’s caught in between. Robles dusts Smith in a footrace, and that’s that.
The second bunt in the streak is another reason to bunt for a hit — sometimes you’re just perfect. This ball doesn’t hit third base, but it would have had Martin Prado not scooped it up:
Hey, sometimes a bunt is just unstoppable. I’m not sure there’s any defense that could have done much about that. Maybe peak Scott Rolen has a chance at that one if he’s playing near the bag, but that’s essentially a guaranteed hit. You might question why Robles is bunting towards the shift instead of away from it, but if you’re perfect, it doesn’t matter.
The third bunt of the streak is truly singular, and it reveals what is perhaps my favorite part of the Robles bunting story: Victor Robles doesn’t actually seem that good at bunting! Take a look at this beauty:
Where do we even start? Bunt singles are a rare bird, and bunt pop-up singles rarer still, but bunts over infielders’ heads basically don’t happen. In fact, since 2014, only three bunts have landed 90 feet or further from home plate (i.e. past a base) and gone for a hit. The only one hit further than Robles’ was this Eric Young Jr. bunt line drive (?!?) that landed in the outfield:
While the result of Robles’ bunt might have been good, it’s pretty clear the process wasn’t. Just to drive home that it wasn’t a fluke, Robles tried to bunt again later in the game, and did what hitters usually do when they put a bunt in the air:
Think about this at-bat for a second. Robles got a middle-middle fastball at 94 mph. That’s a pitch major leaguers live for. It’s not particularly fast. It’s not particularly spinny. That’s a batter’s dream, and it turned into maybe the easiest play Neil Walker has ever made.
Take a look at the only other bunt single in Robles’ career:
That might be a line drive in the box score, but if Kyle Freeland doesn’t fall down, that’s an out pretty much every time. Robles bunts a lot. More of his plate appearances have ended in bunts than in walks. For a guy who bunts so much (again, one of the highest rates in baseball), you’d think he’d be better at it.
It’s certainly possible that Robles is better at bunting than he’s looked in his major league career. A few of the bunt outs he’s made have been close plays, and Robles has one of the key ingredients to be a successful high-volume bunter: he can flat-out fly. In 2016, he recorded the fastest sprint speed of the Statcast era. Here, look at our old standby bunt frequency leaderboard with speed added in:
|Player||Bunt/PA||Sprint Speed (ft/sec)|
|Alejandro De Aza||7.2%||27.7|
Viewed from one angle, the Robles bunts make total sense. He’s maybe the fastest player in baseball, and yet teams still shift against him somewhat heavily. He clearly is willing to take what the defense gives him, and how can you not like that trait in a player? On the other hand, though, when you can do this to Noah Syndergaard:
You hate to waste too many plate appearances with bunt pop-ups. Victor Robles is already one of the most exciting players in baseball on paper, what with the moonshots and the hyperspeed. However, his at-bats are must-see TV for me now, because you never know when he’s going to fire off another wildly entertaining bunt. And now, because I had to squeeze this into the story somewhere, I present to you Neil Walker as Charlie Brown:
Ben is a contributor to FanGraphs. A lifelong Cardinals fan, he got his start writing for Viva El Birdos. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.