Defense? Robert is elite at that, too

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You probably know that White Sox phenom Luis Robert is raking with the best of them. Fresh off winning the American League’s Rookie of the Month Award, Robert entered Friday ranked among the American League’s 10 best hitters in slugging, homers, extra-base hits and total bases, and he’s racked up 27 RBIs in his first 36 big league games.

But here’s something that’s not as obvious from the box scores: ‘La Pantera’ is looking like one of MLB’s best defenders, too.

Seriously. The man hitting 110 mph rockets to the bleachers is also sitting atop multiple defensive leaderboards after his first month as a Major League center fielder. Over at Baseball-Reference’s leaderboard, Nolan Arenado and Enrique Hernández were the only position players who had accrued more defensive WAR entering Friday. Baseball Info Solutions also had Robert ranked right behind Arenado and Mookie Betts -- and tied for the lead among AL outfielders -- in defensive runs saved. And on Statcast’s outfield Outs Above Average (OAA) leaderboard, Robert was ranked just behind perennial stalwarts Jackie Bradley Jr. and Kevin Kiermaier.

Most Outfield Outs Above Average (OAA), 2020
1-T) Jackie Bradley Jr. (BOS): +5
1-T) Kevin Kiermaier (TB): +5
3) Luis Robert (CWS): +4
4-T) Harrison Bader (STL): +3
4-T) Cody Bellinger (LAD): +3
4-T) Mookie Betts (LAD): +3
4-T) Trent Grisham (SD): +3
4-T) Tyler O'Neill (STL): +3
*Entering Thursday

Is it extremely early? Of course. We’re talking about 300 innings of center-field work for Robert, about one-quarter of a season. But that’s also the point here: a 23-year-old rookie, with just over a month of experience in the big leagues, is already seeing his name lined up among the very best defenders the game has seen over the past few seasons. Multiple defensive evaluation systems, each with their own methodologies and means of measurement, believe Robert is a potential Gold Glove, world-class defender.

Robert was obviously lauded for his off-the-charts athleticism in the Minors, but seeing him at the very top of the defensive rankings is still a minor surprise. In his season preview for Robert, MLB Pipeline’s Jim Callis handed Robert a very good 55 grade for his glove on the 20-80 scouting scale, but noted that the Cuban native “still could use a little more polish with his reads and routes, though his speed allows him to recover if he makes a mistake. He covers plenty of ground in center and with his quickness and arm, he's an asset at any of the outfield positions.”

With 35 games in the books, Robert is already raising expectations.

“Based on the returns so far, I probably should have made that grade a 60,” says Callis now. “I do think the speed is more impressive than the instincts, but it's crazy-good speed, so that's not so much a knock on the instincts.”

Robert sits among MLB’s top 15 players in average sprint speed at 29.2 ft/sec, proving his feet are indeed crazy fast. But Statcast’s early returns on his jump and route-running ability have him above average, but not elite in those areas so far. It’s possible that Robert’s speed is giving him a greater margin for error on plays he might not read as quickly as, say, a Kiermaier, who routinely ranks among the best outfielders in jump.

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Instead, Robert is really standing out in a category that’s not flashy at all: he makes all the catches an outfielder with his speed should make.

Those orange dots above the red line signify fly balls Robert has converted into outs, with the majority of them falling in 1- to 3-star play buckets -- or plays that were assigned a 51-95% catch probability, based on the time Robert had to make those plays and the distances he had to cover to reach the balls’ projected landing spots. The gray dots represent balls Robert didn’t get to that dropped for hits.

All of the orange “successful” dots are plays that Statcast reasonably expected a player with Robert’s footspeed to make. And all of the gray “unsuccessful” dots are in areas (either 5-star plays with 0-25% catch probabilities, or balls deemed completely uncatchable) in which Robert would have had to buck the numbers to snag the ball. It’s exactly the kind of distribution that you’d want your star rookie center fielder to have.

"It's no surprise to us at all," White Sox manager Rick Renteria said Wednesday. "He’s a tremendously gifted, skilled player. If you watched him in Spring Training, had the opportunity to watch him work, he’ll try to catch everything from left field to right field. He takes a lot of pride in what he does.

"But Luis’ skillset, his jumps are fantastic, he gains ground quickly, knows where to throw the ball. There are a lot of intangibles that he brings to the table. He’s aware. His head is always on a swivel. He’s always in the right spot."

Put another way, Robert has been one of MLB’s most efficient outfielders at converting plays across the board.

Highest overall success rate on 1- through 4-star plays (26-95% catch probability)
Min. 10 opportunities
1) Oscar Mercado (CLE): 100% (10-for-10)
2) Cody Bellinger (LAD): 100% (14-for-14)
3-T) Kole Calhoun (ARI): 93.3% (14-for-15)
3-T) Adam Eaton (WSH): 93.3% (14-for-15)
5) Luis Robert (CWS): 93.1% (27-for-29)
*Entering Thursday

Robert has had nearly twice the opportunities as the other names atop that list, but his efficiency hasn’t suffered. His defense is just as big a reason why he entered Friday second in the AL in Baseball-Reference WAR as his offense, further illustrating why he could be baseball’s next all-around superstar.

“He’s the Mike Trout of the Cubans,” said fellow countryman and White Sox MVP candidate José Abreu on Wednesday. “I still don’t think we’re seeing what he’s completely capable of doing. We are just seeing a scratch of the things he can do. He’s going to be very good, and it’s because he’s really focused on the game. He’s a hard worker, he likes to improve, he likes to listen and he likes to learn. He applies all those lessons, and that’s why I believe he’s going to be a superstar.”

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