Here's 1 way Robert is already making history

White Sox star is on pace for biggest whiff rate drop on record

September 18th, 2021

The White Sox have dominated the American League Central, allowing them to rest stars Tim Anderson, Lucas Giolito and Lance Lynn. But that's not the biggest late-summer development on Chicago's South Side.

has been scalding hot, entering Friday with a .372/.404/.612 line and 178 wRC+ (eighth among qualified hitters) since he returned from a torn right hip flexor on Aug. 9. But Robert's biggest number since that date: a 14.7% strikeout rate. MLB’s former No. 3 overall prospect was looking like the surefire 2020 American League Rookie of the Year Award winner before he nosedived with a .136 average and 34% strikeout rate in September. The book got out quickly that, despite Robert’s immense and effortless power, his swing-happy approach could be exposed.

So with a 12% overall strikeout-rate dip between 2020 and '21 that entered Friday as the largest in the sport, apart from Matt Olson, you’re expecting a familiar story: Robert is being much more selective and swinging less. Well … that’s not really the case. In fact, Robert was second among all big leaguers by swinging at a whopping 62.8% of all pitches he had seen, and he’d also chased slightly more than he did last year (he’s right up there among the league’s most ambitious out-of-zone swingers).

Highest swing %, 2021
Min. 500 total pitches seen, entering Friday

  1. Hanser Alberto (KC): 63.0%

2) Luis Robert (CWS): 62.8%
3) Willians Astudillio (MIN): 62.4%
4) Joshua Fuentes (COL): 59.3%
5) Jorge Alfaro (MIA): 59.1%

Robert has not backed off one iota from taking his hacks, and if you're going to swing that often, you better be pretty gifted at making contact (think Vladimir Guerrero Sr.). Robert was far from gifted there in 2020, whiffing on a sky-high 41.5% of his swings and ranking in the bottom 2% among qualified hitters. Entering Friday, he'd flipped the script to a 27% whiff rate (only a few ticks above the MLB average) in '21. Huge improvement? Yeah, and then some: Robert is on pace for the largest year-to-year drop for any full-time hitter in the pitch tracking era dating back to 2008 -- and, right now, it’s not even close.

Largest year-to-year drops in whiff-per-swing rate, pitch tracking era (since 2008)
Min. 500 swings in each season (2,300+ player seasons)
1) Luis Robert: -14.5 points (41.5% in 2020, 27.0% in '21)
2) Joc Pederson (2015-16): -9.5 points
3-T) Ike Davis (2013-14): -8.9 points
3-T) Jonathan Lucroy (2016-17): -8.9 points
5) David Ortiz (2010-11): -8.6 points
Robert: 492 swings in 2021, entering Friday

The gap between Robert and Pederson in second place is as wide as the gap between Pederson and the 97th spot on that leaderboard. It’s not an exaggeration to say that, even if it’s only two half-seasons for Robert, we have never seen this kind of contact improvement in recent history (though Olson and Gregory Polanco are hovering near 12% drops from 2020, and could also make the list above with enough total swings).

How is Robert doing this? At least part of the answer stems from his 2020 issues at the top and bottom of the strike zone. Robert whiffed on roughly 44% of his swings and hit just .169 against four-seamers in 2020 -- surprising numbers, given his bat speed that jumps off the screen. But pitchers found they could pound Robert with the high heater, and he would usually swing through it.

Not so in 2021. Robert has shortened his swing and pulled off less against straight heat, cutting his four-seam whiff rate by more than half while raising his four-seam average to .359. Robert’s improvement against curveballs is just as stark; he’s sliced his whiff rate in half there, too, by biting much less on hooks that dip off the bottom corner.

By showing he can handle the heat upstairs and lay off those tempting breakers, Robert is taking away a couple go-tos for opposing pitchers and forcing them to attack him more in the belt-high areas. But he's improved there, too: Robert whiffed on 26% of his swings against pitches in the "heart" of the strike zone last year, one of MLB's worst rates. He's cut that by more than half this year, too, and entered Friday hitting nearly .400 when pitchers cater to that happy zone.

Robert's physical adjustments since coming back from injury are minuscule; he's opened his stance just slightly and that's allowed him to stay on his back leg and take in pitches a hair longer, White Sox hitting coach Frank Menechino told The Athletic last month. The bigger change might be a mental one. The White Sox coaching staff is trying to help Robert cut down on over-swinging, trust his boundless natural power instead and know that a natural, easygoing swing will still have all the juice it needs to send a ball to the power alleys or to the seats.

‘‘What [Robert has] done at the plate has been impressive,” White Sox manager Tony La Russa said last week, “as far as cutting down the chasing and really hitting strikes, being more aggressive when he’s got the count in his favor and shortening up a little bit to put the ball in play. That’s veteran stuff. The fact he’s doing it this early is very impressive.’’

Added Robert, “It’s not that I’ve been more patient. The difference is that I have a better strike zone. I have a better understanding of the strike zone.”

We got hints of this turnaround before Robert got hurt, by the way, as’s David Adler covered in April. And more contact hasn’t equaled worse contact; Robert’s hard-hit rate is essentially the same, he’s clubbed roughly the same number of barrels he did across a similar plate-appearance total in 2020 and he’s still avoiding ground balls. Oh, and he can still very much pop off for a 450-foot blast to the cheap seats.

The difference is that Robert is giving himself more chances to mash. Robert whiffed so much last year that pitchers grew too comfortable challenging him, living with the odd moonshot homer or scorching line drive in between. But gameplanning for a hitter that swings at everything, routinely hits balls hard and now only whiffs at a league-average rate? That's much more difficult -- heck, it's essentially the profile of home run title contender Salvador Perez.

Postseason pitching is a different animal, of course, and we still need to see whether Robert's half-season improvements carry into October. Pitchers will probably hammer him with more high fastballs and tantalizing breaking balls, and Robert will have to respond. But if Chicago's hulking prodigy really is a middle-of-the-order bopper instead of a sometimes threatening No. 9 bat? Look out for the White Sox.