Just over three months after he was sidelined with a severe hip injury, center fielder Luis Robert returned to the White Sox starting lineup Monday night and made an immediate impact with a pair of hits and a sprawling outfield grab against the Twins. The Robert Show will now head to primetime on Thursday night, when the White Sox take on the Yankees in the first “Field of Dreams” game in Dyersville, Iowa.
Below are four reasons why Robert’s return to the diamond should be considered appointment viewing for baseball fans, and why his presence in the lineup is so important for the White Sox as they charge toward the playoffs.
His power is awe-inspiring
Robert crushed the second-longest postseason homer ever tracked by Statcast, a majestic 487-foot shot that soared through the spacious grandstands of Oakland’s RingCentral Coliseum during last year’s AL Wild Card Series. Who doesn’t want to see more of that?
A look at Statcast indicates more towering home runs are on the way. Of all players with 10 or more homers during last year’s 60-game sprint, Robert led the way in average home run exit velocity and ranked fifth in average home run distance, ahead of massive sluggers such as Miguel Sanó and fellow phenom Ronald Acuña Jr.
He has 30-30 potential
It’s not hyperbole, because Robert combines that prodigious power with blinding speed, in a combination that few players can match. In 2020, for example, he ranked in the 96th percentile in sprint speed and the 85th percentile in barrel rate, a measure of how often a hitter makes the sort of optimal contact that tends to produce extra-base hits.
The only other qualified players to rank at least that high in both categories were Acuña, Fernando Tatis Jr. and Byron Buxton.
From the moment he debuted in 2020 to when he was placed on the IL, Robert hit 12 homers and stole 13 bases in 81 games, putting him on pace to crush 24 home runs and rob 26 bags over his first "full season." To put that in context, only four players have recorded a 30-30 season since 2013: José Ramírez and Mookie Betts in 2018, as well as Acuña Jr. and Christian Yelich in 2019.
Robert has already accomplished that feat before, posting 32 homers and tallying 36 steals across 122 games and three Minor League levels in 2019. Per MLB Pipeline’s Jim Callis, that made Robert MiLB’s youngest 30-30 player (age 21) since Chin-Feng Chen in 1999 and the first 30-30 guy with 300 total bases since Jose Cardenal in 1961.
And don’t forget that Robert only turned 24 on Aug. 3, so his game is still growing. His aggressive approach at the plate provided a lot of power last season, and the Cuban outfielder had been making strides with his pitch selection early on in 2021, even if that had not immediately translated to an outburst of home runs.
It will hardly be a surprise when Robert fills up the box score and inevitably posts a few monster games across the season’s final two months, especially if the White Sox can continue their winning ways.
He’s a dynamic center fielder
Watch Robert play center field and you can see why he earned an AL Gold Glove Award following his rookie year. The White Sox have allowed Robert to roam freely in center field, using that elite speed to help him track down just about every fly ball from gap to gap.
While there were some spectacular plays, Robert was also nearly automatic on opportunities categorized by Statcast as having a catch probability between 26-95% (1-to-4 stars). He converted 43 of 48 plays in that range (89.6%), a rate surpassed only by defensive standouts Cody Bellinger, Jackie Bradley Jr., Mookie Betts and Trent Grisham. Thanks to that success, Robert tied for third with six Outs Above Average (OAA) last year, leading all outfielders with 4 OAA when ranging to his left and tying for second with 3 OAA when traveling to his right.
And when he’s not using his range to rob opponents of extra-base hits, Robert is using it to take charge in the outfield, as jovial slugger Eloy Jiménez experienced below.
He's proving that the hype is real
As they say, game recognize game.
Lofty comparisons have always followed the White Sox star, with one American League international scouting director describing Robert as "the best player on the planet, and that's no exaggeration," to MLB.com national reporter Jesse Sanchez back in early 2017.
"[Japan's] Shohei Ohtani is the best international player out there and he's a different animal because he would be the ace of a staff and he can hit," one National League international scouting director told Sanchez at the time. "But Robert is up there. He's a five-tool guy that can be in the big leagues soon. He has to be No. 2 behind Ohtani. He's that good."
Between signing bonuses and a contract extension, Chicago committed more than $100 million to Robert before he stepped foot on an MLB field, in part because they believe he was built for big moments across August, September and, of course, October.
Robert's performance thus far makes it clear that he's not afraid of the attention, whether it was the hot start to his career, his runner-up finish in the Rookie of the Year race, the big blast he hit last postseason or the way he plays the game with flair and style.
Now Robert is slotted back into an exciting White Sox lineup that also has seen Jiménez return swinging a red-hot bat, not to mention All-Star shortstop Tim Anderson and Abreu, the reigning AL MVP. Fortunately for his club, Robert’s comeback coincides with a stretch during which the White Sox will face four playoff hopefuls -- the Yankees, A’s, Rays and Blue Jays -- for 14 games in 15 days. That might not matter much in the standings, given Chicago's large AL Central lead, but it will be a good test for the October challenges that loom ahead.
Eight of those upcoming games -- including the Field of Dreams game on FOX -- will be on national TV, allowing fans to see whether Robert and the White Sox are ready to meet their high October expectations.