Robert named MLB Pipeline Hitter of the Year

September 5th, 2019

Clearly, the Chicago White Sox thought Luis Robert was going to be good when they signed him in May 2017. An organization doesn’t spend $26 million on an international free agent (not to mention the matching tax penalty) on a player and not have high expectations.

It looked like he was ready to meet those with a very solid summer debut in the Dominican Summer League. And he showed some glimpses in his first big league Spring Training in 2018.

Then he got hurt and it all came crashing to a halt. A thumb injury suffered that spring allowed him to play in just 50 games in 2018 and even when he was on the field, he clearly wasn’t quite himself. His performance in last year’s Arizona Fall League (.324/.367/.432 in 74 at-bats), however, whetted everyone’s appetite for what could come in 2019, though there were initially modest hopes for the toolsy outfielder’s second full season in the organization.

“Our development goal was to have a healthy Luis Robert get a full season of at-bats under his belt,” White Sox farm director Chris Getz said.

That turned out to be setting the bar low. The No. 5 overall prospect in the game didn’t just step over it, he left it in the dust. Spending most of the year at age 21, Robert dominated across three levels, starting in the Class A Advanced Carolina League and finishing in Triple-A with a combined .328/.376/.624 line. That, combined with him being one of two prospects to turn in a 30-30 season (32 homers, 36 steals), made him our choice to be the 2019 MLB Pipeline Hitter of the Year.

“Not only were we able to accomplish that, but the production was through the roof,” Getz gushed. “He kept getting better as he went on. We kept challenging him and he kept responding to that challenge in a positive way.”

“I think the difference for me is that I was mostly healthy all year,” Robert said. “I was able to play a lot games and stay in a rhythm. There were ups and downs, like with all players, but my health was the key.”

There really was only one other contender for this year's Hitter of the Year honor: Dodgers infielder Gavin Lux. The No. 7 prospect in baseball recently made his big league debut after raking across Double- and Triple-A at age 21. The 2016 first-round pick hit a combined .347/.421/.607 and finished with 26 homers and 10 steals while playing solid defense at both shortstop and then second base late in the year to prepare him for his call up to Los Angeles.

Robert broke out of the gate absolutely on fire, quickly making it clear the Carolina League wasn’t difficult enough for him. He earned a promotion up to Double-A after just 19 games and for good reason: Robert put up an ungodly .453/.512/.920 line with eight homers and eight steals with Winston-Salem.

While that pace is impossible to sustain, Robert didn’t slow down much in the Double-A Southern League. He hit .314/.362/.518 in 56 games there, adding eight more homers and 21 steals while earning a trip to the Futures Game in the process. That was more than enough for the White Sox to see how he could handle the Triple-A International League about a month shy of his 22nd birthday.

He turned the power on there, with 16 more homers in 202 at-bats en route to a .297/.341/.634 line with Charlotte, while swiping another seven bags.

“He’s able to impact the game in so many different ways,” Getz said. “That’s why he’s such an intriguing prospect. You look back at last year and it shows how much the thumb injury impacted his overall strength and his performance. He was healthy and he was able to show the baseball world what he was capable of doing."

“I was fortunate enough to have him parts of two years,” said Birmingham Barons hitting coach Charles Poe, who also worked with Robert during his AFL stint. “We knew what to expect when he got there. He was everything he was meant to be, and then some. He and Eloy [Jimenez] are two of the best players I’ve ever seen in my years in the game. All five tools are electric.”

That doesn’t mean Robert has it all figured out, which should scare big league pitchers. His 129/28 K/BB ratio shows that there’s some refinement to come in terms of his plate discipline. His ability to square up just about everything thrown near the plate served him well in the Minors, especially as pitchers stopped throwing him strikes, but big league pitchers might have more success in getting him to chase.

“Sometimes when he gets in trouble, he wants to expand the zone,” Poe said. “He’ll tell me, 'I can hit that pitch,' and I’ll tell him it’s at his neck. Pitchers will pitch around him and let him get himself out.”

That was one reason for Robert not making one last step up the organizational ladder to the big leagues in September. The White Sox want him to be absolutely ready to succeed when he does get that first call and will push Robert to iron out the very small wrinkles in his game.

“If you look at his numbers, they’re astounding,” Getz said. “If you look a little deeper, there’s still area for growth. On the basepaths, making the right decisions, throwing to the right base.

“He’s a very aggressive hitter. He can square up a lot of pitches, his hot zones are broader than most. But MLB pitching will attack him differently and zone awareness is a big part of being a quality overall hitter. He’ll admit that.”

With a whole lot of success under his belt as a healthy phenom, Robert knows he’s already knocking on the door loudly. Being a good prospect is one thing, but that’s not why Robert left Cuba to join the White Sox.

“My goal, obviously, is to make it to the Major Leagues and I’ll keep working hard to get there,” Robert said. “I feel like I did my job in the Minors. It was the team’s decision not to call me up. I’ll keep doing my job and work for next season.”