GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Imagine being a corner outfielder for the White Sox, camped under a routine fly ball, when suddenly a blur comes flying past to basically grab the baseball from your glove.
That blur is Luis Robert, who at 6-foot-2 and 210 pounds is built like an NFL defensive back with the elite speed of a deep-threat wide receiver. Robert also turned his seemingly left-field-line to right-field-line range into an American League Gold Glove Award as a rookie in 2020.
“Playing with Luis Robert is really fun,” said White Sox left fielder Eloy Jiménez. “Sometimes [it’s not], because he tries to catch every ball. I'm just kidding. When he won the Gold Glove, I was so happy.”
“I think the Gold Glove is an award I share with all my teammates, especially with all the outfielders,” said Robert through interpreter Billy Russo. “They helped me to win that award.”
Robert said that help came from information provided on how to play the different stadiums because not all outfields are the same. The contribution in Jiménez’s mind played out a little differently, as the upbeat White Sox fielder shared a story of calling Robert after he won the Gold Glove and telling him, “You owe me” with some of those Robert putouts potentially belonging to Jiménez.
In reality, Robert is just following instructions. If Robert is Kelly Leak from the iconic baseball movie "The Bad News Bears," then it’s Daryl Boston -- the team’s first-base coach who also works with the outfielders -- who is playing the part of manager Morris Buttermaker and telling Robert to go after everything.
“That’s what we are going to start calling [Robert]. That’s what [former Chicago outfielder Nicky] Delmonico used to call him,” said Boston of the Kelly Leak reference. “One of my things that I always talk to him about is he needs to take charge. Every ball should be expected to be your ball.
“So, he said, ‘Debo, you say every ball is my ball.’ I said, ‘OK, but let the other kids play. Please.’ Make sure you let somebody else play.”
Robert's 10 outs above average ranked No. 1 in the Major Leagues among outfielders in 2020, according to Statcast. His average sprint speed of 29.1 feet/second falls just shy of the elite 30 ft./sec. threshold but places him in the 96th percentile.
Surprisingly, the Savant illustrator that shows the plays Robert made doesn’t run from line to line. Robert covered balls coming in and balls going back, not to mention a strong representation in both gaps, and it’s not by chance.
This skillset is something Robert works on before games and during the action.
“He’s like that in batting practice. He just goes from one gap to another. That’s what he wants to do, just track balls down,” Boston said. “Just instincts and his range is second to none. He just jumps off the ball. There have been plenty of balls hit where I thought, ‘I ain’t got nobody there,’ and he hauls it down.”
“Luis is special,” said White Sox outfielder Adam Engel, a Gold Glove Award finalist. “It was like something every day saying, ‘This guy is incredible.' This guy is one of the most talented players physically but also mentally. He's got an incredible work ethic.”
Engel pointed to a spectacular ninth-inning play made by Robert during a 5-3 victory at Kansas City on Sept. 5, 2020, where Robert took extra bases away from Maikel Franco with a running, diving catch in the right-center gap. Engel was standing 15-to-20 feet away in right and made an audible noise as he saw it unfold.
“And that's the kind of stuff you see with [Robert] every day,” Engel said.
“He enjoys defense,” Boston said. “He enjoys playing the outfield.”
All of the hoopla around Robert is deserved but certainly doesn’t represent defensive perfection. As an example, learning to better play batted balls at the wall is something Robert will focus on this spring.
“I’m not sure what happens. He gets there and you slow it down on video and he looks like he’s about to make a play. And somewhere along the way, he just mistimes it,” Boston said. “He knows he needs work. He’s got a Gold Glove and he wants more.”
It’s a small adjustment to be made, especially for a player looking as though he’s trying to cover three outfield spots at once.