Luis Robert is developing into a transcendent star, right in front of our eyes.
A grade-three strain of his right hip flexor suffered on May 2 against Cleveland shelved the Cuban product through the All-Star break. Robert didn’t require surgery, but any time a ballplayer’s kinetic chain comes into play, there’s justified cause for concern.
Luckily, since returning to the White Sox lineup in August, the 24-year-old has shown no signs of being hindered. In fact, the otherworldly center fielder has leveled up his game considerably.
After arriving in the majors with all the pomp and circumstance a prospect of Robert’s ilk warranted, the young phenom busted out of the gate but — as is natural for a neophyte — struggled to adjust with major league pitching (and advance scouting departments). Dot his vulnerable spots with fastballs and finish him off with breaking stuff became the user’s manual for the precocious budding star and the plan of attack was working to a tee.
In fact, he was so twisted up at times, Robert finished the year hitting just .202/.277/.308 against fastballs, with an overall -8 run value in the shadow zone (outer perimeter of the strike zone; per Statcast). That’s not going to play in the majors.
Robert fell back into a groove over the first month of the 2021 season, hitting .316/.359/.463 with 126 wRC+ through his first 103 plate appearances, but his power quotient — a tremendous part of the slugger’s game — had gone AWOL (one homer over that span).
Then came the injury, the lengthy shutdown, and then the rehab — and in just three months, a prodigal son thought perhaps out for the season returned.
And it wasn’t as if the White Sox were offensively inept or lacking for wins without Robert (the offense boasted a 108 wRC+ (fourth) and 17.6 fWAR (fifth) through his return to action, and were 10 1⁄2 games up in the AL Central). But having a player like Robert in the lineup can never hurt.
Since returning, almost on cue, Robert has been one of the hottest hitters in baseball, slashing .367/.400/.633 with six homers, six doubles, 181 wRC+, and a 16.8% strikeout rate (95 PA). His batting average and wRC+ are good for fourth and 11th among qualified MLB hitters over that span. Snazzy stuff.
“My swing has been the same and my approach has been the same,” Robert said last week with regards to his outlandish output since returning to the team. “Now, I think you can see the results.”
Patience is a virtue, after all.
As Robert approaches his plate appearance total from 2020 (227; currently at 198), we can start to get a much better idea of the progress he’s made. Clearly, he’s taken leaps and bounds in the last calendar year, but understanding the process of that alchemy is another task altogether.
Once easily fooled by breaking pitches, Robert has developed a much crisper eye for pitch identification. He’s finished just nine plate appearances on breaking stuff since returning from the IL. Just so happens he’s hitting .444 against them in those spots.
And as encouraging as that is, Robert’s ever-growing penchant for punishing heaters is even more exciting. As noted above, due to the manner in which he was being set up through the course of at-bats last season, Robert was presumably left guessing and floundered even versus fastballs. This year, he’s slashing a more-than-healthy .391/.439/.609 against those offerings.
Go ahead, try and sneak some cheese past 2021 Luis Robert. See what happens.
Since his return to the White Sox on August 9, Robert’s 44.4% O-Swing rate (outside the zone) is the second-lowest in the majors, and his 18.7% called-strike-and-whiff rate (CSW%) ranks fourth (Wander Franco, 17.6%; another future superstar in his own right), shrinking his 32.2% strikeout rate and 22.1% whiff rate in 2020 to much more palatable levels this season (22.2% K, 15.7% whiff).
Harnessing and nurturing this level of talent is no easy task, but the blank canvas Robert has provided via his seemingly endless pool of extremely versatile talent to draw from (+4 outs above average in CF, +6 OAA in 2020, in addition to his offensive exploits) makes the job that much easier for all involved.
Where this train stops, nobody knows ...