There was a time, not that long ago, when a late-July White Sox game would have been easy to overlook. But after back-and-forth games against the “Bomba Squad” Twins and the Indians, the South Siders are rising up the “must-watch-on-MLB.TV” list -- and their newest star is a big reason
There was a time, not that long ago, when a late-July White Sox game would have been easy to overlook. But after back-and-forth games against the “Bomba Squad” Twins and the Indians, the South Siders are rising up the “must-watch-on-MLB.TV” list -- and their newest star is a big reason why.
Twenty-two-year-old Luis Robert came from the opposite of “nowhere.” The Cuban native is MLB Pipeline’s No. 3 overall prospect, and his teammate Eloy Jiménez wasn’t shy about comparing Robert to Mike Trout this spring. Robert was MLB Pipeline’s Hitter of the Year for 2019, and Pipeline’s Jim Callis wrote before the season that Robert had better all-around tools than Jiménez (fourth in last year’s AL Rookie of the Year vote). Robert, Callis wrote, was “a league home run champion waiting to happen.”
This was a guy the White Sox devoted more than $100 million to ($26 million signing bonus + $25.2 million penalty tax for exceeding the bonus pool + a six-year, $50 million contract in January) before Robert appeared in his first Major League game. That’s a ton to live up to, but if a handful of games (and, indeed a 60-game sprint of a season) are worth any indication, the man they call 'La Pantera' (The Panther) looks at home in the big leagues. In fact, there have already been moments where, in at least one cautious parallel to Trout, he’s made baseball’s highest level look easy. Robert’s baseball-card statistics are gaudy, but obviously that's only six games. Here are a few of Robert's Statcast metrics that point to more lasting success:
Robert’s power is already elite
It took exactly one at-bat on Opening Day for Robert to introduce himself with authority, as he stepped in against Twins ace José Berríos and, on the very first pitch he saw, laced a 115.8 mph single to left field. One pitch, one swing and Robert had his first hit in almost literally the blink of an eye.
Robert’s first ball in play revealed a lot about his power potential. First and foremost, no one’s announced himself to the Majors louder, at least in recent years: That 115.8 mph exit velocity is the highest on a first career hit by any player who has debuted since Statcast launched in 2015, shattering the old mark set by the Rays’ Nate Lowe by 2.5 mph. But it was also extraordinary by his own team’s standard. The White Sox, with as many sluggers as they had last year including José Abreu, Yoán Moncada, Tim Anderson and Jiménez, combined to hit only three 115-plus mph batted balls over the entire ‘19 season -- and Robert’s first career hit would have tied for the second-hardest ball on that list.
Obviously a number like 115.8 is impressive, but why is it important? Well, scan the list of sluggers who recorded 115-plus mph balls last season. First off, there aren't many of them -- 32, to be exact. But the names themselves include the Judges, Cruzes, Sánchezes, Alonsos, Solers, Acuñas, Yeliches, Trouts and Harpers of the world. When MLB players put 115-plus mph balls in play last year, they batted .800 and belted an extra-base hit nearly half the time. This is a list you want to be on.
Robert makes blowouts exciting, too. After putting four 100-plus mph balls in play over his first two games against the Twins, Robert’s first homer seemed imminent. Sure enough, with the White Sox down 10-0, he gave South Side fans something to cheer about.
Did Robert get under this pitch? Maybe. Did it matter? No. A ball with a 37-degree launch angle is an out more often than not, especially if it’s lofted to dead center field. But Robert’s strength is not typical. He happened to put 111.4 mph of exit velocity behind this moonshot, helping it to carry enough until it cleared the wall. Just as Robert’s first hit put him in exclusive company, so too did his first homer -- only seven hitters belted dingers with both a 110-plus mph exit velocity and a 37-plus degree launch angle last year, and, once again, it’s a good list of names.
Players with HR of 110+ mph and 37+ degrees in 2019
Pete Alonso (NYM) -- 6/8
Yordan Alvarez (HOU) -- 8/10
Josh Bell (PIT) -- 8/11
Bryce Harper (PHI) -- 8/15 and 9/18
Rougned Odor (TEX) -- 4/27
Shohei Ohtani (LAA) -- 5/18
Miguel Sanó (MIN) -- 9/22
The man glides in center field
MLB Pipeline gave Robert a 55 grade for fielding on the 20-80 scouting scale, describing him in his season review as a solid defender who “still could use a little more polish with his reads and routes, though his speed allows him to recover if he makes a mistake.” Well, we saw that right away, too. Robert’s second career game saw him nab two 4-star plays -- the second-hardest range of plays an outfielder can make (26-50% catch probability) -- in center field, and the two plays were almost carbon copies of each other.
Look how easily Robert glides to the spot, even appearing to overrun the ball on a pair of quick-reaction plays. One can’t help but think of the way Ender Inciarte and Lorenzo Cain cover so much ground with so little effort, and stay on their feet on plays where other center fielders would need to dive. Inciarte and Cain, incidentally, were the two best outfielders across the first four years of Statcast’s Outs Above Average (OAA) metric from 2016-19. And, after the first four days of the ‘20 season, no one made more combined 3- and 4-star catches than Chicago’s new center fielder.
He could wreak havoc on the basepaths, too
This is where the toolset really gets exciting, because while the Majors are overflowing with beefy sluggers, true power-speed guys are rarer gems. Robert, who last year became the Minor Leagues’ youngest 30-30 player since 1999, could be one of those guys. MLB Pipeline grades his run tool at an excellent 65, noting that he wasn’t always a threat to steal. He should be now, especially after we saw him ramp his sprint speed up to 30.1 feet per second to beat out this infield single on Tuesday.
The average Major Leaguer’s sprint speed is 27 feet per second, and anything 30 or above is considered elite at the game’s highest level. So, there’s some more rarified air for Robert after just one weekend in the bigs. Last year’s list of players who ranked in the 75th percentile or above on Statcast’s exit velocity and sprint speed leaderboards included Trout, Ronald Acuña Jr., Christian Yelich, Shohei Ohtani, Bryce Harper, Javier Báez, Cody Bellinger and Trevor Story. It’s too soon to tell if Robert will join that club, but he’s already looking like he could. And perhaps as soon as next year, he could join Acuña and Yelich as the next guy to chase the 40-40 mark.
It probably won’t look this easy for Robert all summer. Scouts worry about his plate discipline, and he’s already admitted that he’s not up there looking to walk. But there might also be more strengths to look forward to; MLB Pipeline rated Robert’s arm at 65, and we’re waiting for his first opportunity to truly unleash a throw to the plate.
The hype surrounding Robert was so high entering the season, but unless you were fortunate enough to live in Minor League cities like Winston-Salem, Birmingham or Charlotte, you likely hadn’t seen him play. Now that we’re getting that chance, the whispers about baseball’s next potential 5-tool player are starting to make a lot of sense.
Matt Kelly is a reporter for MLB.com based in New York. Follow him on Twitter at @mattkellyMLB.