In an eventful offseason for the White Sox, much of the focus has been on the team’s acquisitions. The spotlight has moved away from the returning players, so let’s return that focus to arguably the brightest young star.
Luis Robert won a Gold Glove in center field and finished second in the AL Rookie of the Year voting in 2020. After enjoying him only for a shortened season, his natural abilities are nothing short of eye-popping and his future potential is sure to get any White Sox fan excited. I thought it would be interesting to do a deep dive into the numbers and see exactly where Luis Robert’s talents flourished, where he struggled down the stretch, and how he can get even better next year and beyond.
In a campaign that featured only 60 games, having two distinct seasons is difficult to do, but that is exactly what Robert did. In August, Robert posted an OPS of 1.015 including nine HRs and 19 RBIs, which earned him AL Rookie of the Month honors. Robert accomplished all of this even while striking out a ridiculous 30.5% of the time.
As White Sox fans remember, the league adjusted to Robert in September, causing him to hit the “rookie wall”. Robert’s OPS in the second month of the season fell to just .409 with one HR and a batting average of just .136 (11-81). Robert’s K-rate climbed to 34% and he was statistically one of the worst hitters in baseball for the month. Did the Space Jam aliens come and zap Robert’s talents? How else can this ridiculous drop-off be explained?
Diving into the numbers provides us some insights. Surprisingly, the pitch mixes that Robert saw did not drastically change when the calendar flipped. As evidenced in the chart below, Robert consistently saw close to 60% fastballs and just under 40% breaking balls.
The real difference comes when looking at his results against the breaking balls. Per BaseballSavant, Robert batted .361 with five HRs against breaking balls in the month of August. Against those same breaking balls in September, Robert batted just .118 with one HR.
Certainly these numbers would suggest that Robert feasted on hanging breaking balls in August. In September, pitchers realized the damage he could do and were considerably more careful with leaving breaking balls over the plate. Robert, however, did not adjust his ultra-aggressive approach, leading to his hard-hit rate on breaking balls dropping from 45.5% to just 14.3% from August to September.
Robert is notorious for his elite hand-speed and ability to catch up to anybody’s fastball. That’s why it was somewhat surprising to see that he hit just .214 with a .330 slugging percentage against fastballs in 2020 (.245 average in August and .163 in September). To me, this suggests Robert was caught in between looking for a fastball or an off-speed for much of the season and was never truly able to sit on the heater and consistently hit the way we saw in spurts.
And while the numbers provide some insights, to get a complete answer we need to look at the whole picture. Specifically, this is the case of an extraordinarily talented player ultimately getting in his own head and needing time to adjust to the major league game on a mental level.
Despite his significant struggles in the back-half of the 2020 campaign, the sky is still the limit for Robert as a player and there are plenty of reasons to believe he will still be the player he is expected to be (and frankly paid to be). The first reason is that laying off breaking balls in the dirt and not getting caught “in-between” are very fixable issues as players develop, become more mature, and build more confidence. A great example is Tim Anderson, who went from experiencing similar issues to being one of the best hitters in the American League the past two seasons.
Second, it’s important to note that Robert’s defense never waivered throughout his struggles. Here we have focused so much on his offense because of how dynamic his bat can be, but Robert still played Gold Glove defense at a premium position from wire to wire. Throughout the league, you can find players that take their offensive struggles out to the field with them. The fact that Robert never let that happen speaks to his confidence in himself and his overall mental strength, which both bode well for his future.
White Sox fans only need to look to Minnesota and see how important a great defensive centerfielder in Byron Buxton is to that team, even though he has yet to find a consistent offensive groove. Just three seasons ago, the Red Sox won the World Series with a defensive wizard in Jackie Bradley Jr. patrolling centerfield while not offering much of anything in the batter’s box. In a very worst case scenario, if Robert’s offense does not develop the way we expect it to, he is already a very valuable player just for his defense alone.
Lastly, we already got to see a glimpse of Robert coming out of his September funk. In the three postseason games in Oakland, Robert batted .308 (4-13) with one HR in the series and looked much closer to the August version we saw.
I would also argue that this could simply be a small sample size issue. Robert had one bad month that just happened to be roughly half of the shortened 2020 campaign. In a normal six-month, 162-game season, it is very plausible that Robert could have regrouped from a bad month and produced for five months close to his August level of performance. In this alternate reality, Robert likely runs away with the Rookie of the Year award and fans barely remember the one poor month he endured.
Nonetheless, this is a player who has a chance to be as good or better than anybody on the roster. And even after the splashy additions of Lance Lynn and Liam Hendriks, the return of young stars Lucas Giolito, Eloy Jimenez, and Yoan Moncada, not to mention the reigning MVP Jose Abreu, Robert is the X-factor on this team that can elevate the club from a good team to a serious contender.