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MLB: ALDS-Houston Astros at Chicago White Sox
Luis Robert’s 3.6 bWAR for 2021 would’ve equated to 8.6 over a full season.
Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

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Luis Robert: His Past, Present and Future With the White Sox

La Pantera had an outstanding 2021 despite missing 95 games due to injury.

“Deep Dive” focuses on the depth of each position in the Chicago White Sox organization. Each position is broken into a five-part series:

  1. Depth in the rookie levels (Dominican and Arizona Leagues)
  2. Depth in A-ball (Kannapolis and Winston-Salem)
  3. Depth in the higher levels (Birmingham and Charlotte)
  4. Under the Radar-type detail on one of the White Sox players at that position
  5. Free agent options at that position

Now, let’s do a deep a Deep Dive on Luis Robert, the starting center fielder for the White Sox.

How did he get here?

A native Cuban, Robert was easily the most sought-after player on the international market in 2017. After all, when playing for Ciego de Avila in Cuba’s Serie Nacional earlier that year against players typically 10 years older, Robert slashed .401/.526/.687 with 12 doubles, 12 homers, 40 RBIs, 11 stolen bases, 38 walks (16.4%) and 30 strikeouts (12.9%) in just 53 games. When the White Sox ultimately signed him to a $26 million bonus (the second-highest in baseball history, behind only Yoán Moncada), it sent shock waves throughout the country that the recently-minted White Sox rebuild was going full speed ahead. Was it the recruiting by the likes of José Abreu, Moncada and Ricky Renteria that won him over, or was it simply cash that was just slightly more than what the St. Louis Cardinals were offering? Perhaps a little of both — but Robert cited the White Sox having a history of Cuban greats, including Abreu, as the tipping factor.

Robert played for the DSL Sox that year for tax reasons, and did quite well (he missed significant time due to injury) in slashing .310/.491/.536 in 28 games with eight doubles, one triple, three homers, 14 RBIs, 12 stolen bases, 22 walks and 23 strikeouts.

The 2018 season was a difficult one for Robert. He was primarily hampered by thumb injuries during the year, and as most players can attest, it’s hard to do much damage when that’s the case. It’s not like Robert was atrocious; he just simply couldn’t hit with the power expected of him. For the year split among the AZL White Sox, Kannapolis and Winston-Salem, Robert slashed .269/.333/.360 in 50 games with 11 doubles, three triples, no homers, 17 RBIs, 15 stolen bases, 12 walks (7.2%) and 52 strikeouts (25.0%). On an encouraging note to end the year, he played exceptionally well for Glendale in the Arizona Fall League, as he slashed .324/.367/.432 in 18 games with two doubles, two homers, 10 RBIs, and five stolen bases.

To put it mildly, Robert played out of his mind in 2019. All he did in 19 games with Winston-Salem was slash .453/.512/.920 with five doubles, three triples, eight homers, 24 RBIs, eight stolen bases, four walks (4.8%) and 20 strikeouts (23.8%). After earning a promotion to Birmingham on April 30, all he did for the Barons (with half his games in one of the best pitching parks in the minors) in 56 games was slash .314/.362/.518 with 16 doubles, three triples, eight homers, 29 RBIs, 21 stolen bases, 13 walks (5.3%) and 54 strikeouts (22.1%). After laying waste to Double-A pitching, Robert received a promotion to Charlotte, where he slashed .297/.341/.634 in 47 games with 10 doubles, five triples, 16 homers, 39 RBIs, seven stolen bases, 11 walks (4.9%) and 55 strikeouts (24.7%).

Combined with all three teams, Robert slashed an amazing .328/.376/.624 in 122 games with 31 doubles, 11 triples, 32 homers, 92 RBIs and 36 stolen bases while making fantastic defensive plays on the diamond. The only minor quibble is that he walked only 28 times while striking out 129, but it’s hard to argue with that when his production was otherwise outstanding. This was Robert’s longest season to date and he seemed to only be getting stronger as the season waned. He was one of just two minor leaguers with 30-30 seasons (joining Houston’s Kyle Tucker). While I mentioned plate discipline before, it’s OK if he doesn’t walk too much provided he finds himself in good hitting counts. After all, he did slash .398/.545/.892 when he was ahead in the count.

Needless to say, Robert deserved plenty of fanfare after such a terrific season. Baseball America, MLB Pipeline and MiLB.com all named him this year’s Minor League Player of the Year, and he had been named the Double-A All-Star Game MVP earlier in the year as well. Ranked third on MLB Pipeline’s top prospect list to begin the season (behind only Tampa’s Wander Franco and L.A.’s Gavin Lux), Robert was the preseason favorite for Rookie of the Year in 2020.

And before spring training began that year, Robert signed a six-year, $50 million contract extensions that could stretch through Robert’s age-29 season and push the total value of the deal to $88 million.

Off to a fantastic start to the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, Robert’s Rookie of the Year prospects faded in September, as he slashed just .136/.273/.173 as pitchers took advantage of his over-aggressiveness at the plate. Even with that horrid final stretch constituting 41% of the games he played, Robert still managed to finish second in ROY voting behind only Seattle’s Kyle Lewis. In 56 games totaling 202 at-bats, Robert slashed .233/.302/.436 with eight doubles, 11 homers, 31 RBIs, nine stolen bases, 20 walks (8.8%), 73 strikeouts (32.2%), 100 wRC+ and 1.8 bWAR (pro-rated to 4.9 bWAR for a normal season).

Just to give a mere taste of what Robert’s capable of, he did this in the playoffs against Oakland:

Lest we forget, he won the Gold Glove in his rookie season — a rare accomplishment indeed! Robert was tied for the lead among all MLB center fielders in Statcast’s Outs Above Average metric at +7. The rookie phenom also racked up 8 DRS, third among AL center fielders behind only Byron Buxton and Kevin Kiermaier. Here are some of his defensive highlights:

With the White Sox in 2021

After getting off to a solid start in 2021 (albeit with relatively little power), Robert tore his hip flexor muscle in early May. While there were concerns whether he’d be able to return to play toward the end of the season, but Robert worked incredibly hard and returned to the Sox on August 9 after rehab stints with Winston-Salem and Charlotte. He was a man on fire from that point, and ended up posting incredible results considering he only played in 42% of the team’s games. In 68 games totaling 296 at-bats, Robert slashed .338/.378/.567 with 22 doubles, one triple, 13 homers, 43 RBIs, six stolen bases, 14 walks (4.7%), 61 strikeouts (20.6%), 157 wRC and 3.6 bWAR. If he could’ve kept that same pace over a 162 games, his bWAR would’ve equated to an impressive 8.6! Also, while his walk rate dropped from 8.8% to 4.7%, he dropped his strikeout rate a very healthy 11.6%, from 32.2% to 20.6%. This shows not only his willingness, but also his ability, to make adjustments.

While Robert posted excellent numbers on the road this year (.326/.358/.511), he performed even better at home (.351/.399/.627) which isn’t surprising considering that Guaranteed Rate Field is considered a bandbox. His numbers were rock-solid for day games as he slashed .299/.354/.552, but they were overshadowed by his work under the lights (.356/.390/.574). Robert was the model of consistency when he was on the diamond, as he slashed .311/.357/.467 in April, .361/.403/.639 in August and .367/.398/.633 in September. While he manhandled righties to the tune of .321/.361/.500, he absolutely pulverized southpaws by slashing .397/.441/.794 against their offerings.

When hitting with runners in scoring position, Robert’s numbers were good as he slashed .297/.365/.453 with two homers. However, with bases empty, pitchers were more willing to attack him but ended up falling prey to a .354/.385/.609 slash line with nine homers. When hitting behind the count, he was better than most as he slashed a respectable .288/.301/.450 but he was much better as one would expect when ahead in the count as he slashed .385/.515/.712 in such situations.

Where do you put Robert in the lineup? He actually fared best surprisingly in the seventh spot, as he slashed .431/.450/.655 in 15 games there. Frankly, he played well everywhere, but his lowest OPS was in the leadoff spot (.288/.300/.390 in 13 games).

Unsurprisingly, Robert was at his best when facing baseballs, as he crushed them at a .386/.455/.650 clip. That is not to be taken for granted, however, as he was so focused on off-speed and breaking pitches that he was late on the fastball much of the time during the previous season; this is evidenced by his surprisingly low .202/.277/.308 line versus fastballs last year. This year against breaking pitches, he slashed .290/.328/.458, which isn’t too shabby. He showed significant improvement against off-speed pitches this year, as he slashed .292/.402/.570 against them compared to last year’s .231/.321/.462. The one pitched he feasted upon the most this year was the cutter as he slashed .474/.523/.737 against it; he was most human against the slider (a still-respectable .267/.308/.391).

It should come to no surprise after reading the above paragraphs that Robert made significant improvements in nearly every facet of his game. The one area he didn’t was in his running speed, which dropped from the 96 percentile to the top 73%; this, of course, can be explained by his simply taking it cautiously when returning from his hip flexor tear. Even though Robert actually swung at more pitches this year (57.6% to 61.5%), he actually improved his whiff rate by an incredible 13.3% (41.5% to 28.2%). While he still swings at the first pitch 53.7% of the time, it certainly didn’t deter him, as he fared better than most (as evidenced above) when behind in the count. While he pulled the ball more frequently this year and subsequently hit the ball to the opposite field less, it’s still difficult for teams to shift him, as Robert still hits the ball to the right side more 20% of the time (21.8%).

Despite his reduced speed due to pushing back on the accelerator after that hip flexor tear, Robert’s defense was still far better than league average. While his range factor was down due to the lower speed, he atoned for hit by producing a jump of 1.8 feet, which is much better than league average. No doubt, he still would’ve been a strong contender this year for the Gold Glove if he had not missed so many games.

Considering that each WAR point is worth approximately $7.7 million on the free agent market per FanGraphs, and he earned just $3.5 million this year, Robert provided the White Sox with a surplus value of nearly $24.22 million. And that’s with him playing less than half the season!

What does the future have in store?

It’s difficult to believe that Robert has accomplished so much despite playing less than the equivalent of one full year. Because of the extension he signed prior to the beginning of the 2020 season, he will be earning $6 million in 2022, eventually climbing up to $20 million in 2027 (provided that the White Sox honor the last two option years). Thus, Robert should continue to be a centerpiece of the White Sox for at least the next six years.

With the likes of Moncada, Eloy Jiménez, Tim Anderson, and Andrew Vaughn, Robert will be part of a young offensive nucleus which should continue to steer the White Sox toward perennial pennant contention. No doubt, with more experience and adjustments, he’ll also refine his offensive game by coaxing more walks and sealing more bases. It wouldn’t be surprising to see him produce 30-30 seasons in the not-too-distant future.

As Robert is such a high-energy player, he is often prone to injury, as we’ve seen so far during his minor and major league careers. Thus, it’s important to have someone else on the team available to replace him in case he’s again placed on the IL for a while. Adam Engel as of right now is the team’s first line of defense in this regard, but he’s also had his share of injuries over the past couple years as well. Other 2020 options like Leury García and Billy Hamilton are now free agents, so it’s possible they may not enter the 2021 equation. Thus, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the team pursue another reserve option via trade or free agency.

Speaking of which, the upcoming center field options will be detailed in the next Deep Dive.

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