AL Central Preview: Which is it, Luis Robert?

AL Central Preview: Which is it, Luis Robert?

The White Sox are probably the second-most fascinating team heading into the 2021 season. They haven’t quite cannonballed into the pool and ruined the buffet the way the San Diego Padres have — a team they will always be linked to thanks to Fernando Tatis Jr. and the rampant screen-punching amongst Sox fans that name creates. And in fact, it felt at times they were heading backwards, with the hiring of drunk dinosaur Tony La Russa as manager, or the decidedly used car lot buy of Adam Eaton in right. Still, the amount of young talent, and swaggy young talent, has most of the baseball world blocking out time every week to catch them on TV.

There are some givens with the Southside 9, even with their youth. While Jose Abreu may never match his MVP season last year, he’s still a solid bet to provide plus production. Yoan Moncada is a star at third, if he can ever put 145 games together. Tim Anderson will hit over .300, and Yasmani Grandal will produce from both catcher and first.

But the difference between the Pale Hose being merely good or a fireworks factory lies in center. That’s where Luis Robert is, and he’s flashed being an absolute kaiju at times. He has that phenomena where the ball just sounds different off his bat, if you’ll allow me some crusty scout-speak. It’s a thud instead of a crack, a ruthless thwack of the ball that audibly drains it of its life force while sending it to a glorious death many hundreds of feet away. Sox fans spent most of 2019 watching Robert highlights from the minors, where he spent most of his time showing opposing pitchers just how long of a road it was going to be for them.

And for the first month of 2020, Robert did the same to Major League pitchers. In August, Robert slugged .660 with an OPS of 1.015. He hit nine homers. He looked like he would take the Rookie Of The Year in a laugher, and maybe even get MVP votes himself.

And then in September, it all fell apart. Robert hit .136, and somehow found a way to slug just .173, which even Charlie Brown would spit on. Robert’s strikeouts ticked up a bit in the season’s second half, but the real culprit was his inability to hit the ball hard. His hard-contact rate cut in half in the season’s last month.

Of course, when talking about halves of last season, each was only 30 games. Neither is enough of a sample size to indicate what it is Robert might be, if either. So what happened?

It’s pretty much the same story as any young hitter. Once the league saw that Robert could turn inside fastballs into paste, he only saw pitches on the outside part of the plate or outside the zone. And Robert did the right thing, in trying to take those pitches to right field instead of rolling them over into repeated grounders to short. But Robert, somehow, had no power to right field. He slugged just .378 the opposite way, which is basically a gentle poke out to the right fielder to see if he’s still awake. The pitch selection he saw from August to September didn’t change much, but the location did.

So Robert will have to prove he can drive the ball to right, to force pitchers back inside. There’s no reason he shouldn’t, given the overall power he has. But if he’s more the second half Robert than the first half, then this Sox lineup isn’t nearly as deep. Especially as it was announced that Eloy Jimenez is going to miss most of the season after tearing his pec attempting to…well, attempting to do whatever it is he does in left field. Either the Sox will have to stick Andrew Vaughn, a former catcher, out there, and Robert’s excellent glove will be even more vital than it already was running wind sprints between Jimenez and Nomar Mazara last year and Jimenez and Eaton this year. Or the Sox could put Leury Garcia out there, greatly improving the defense but leaving the lineup decidedly undercooked.

And the Sox lineup needs to be deep, because we know the Twins’ will be. And that’s even if Byron Buxton spends his customary couple months wrapped in bandages. Neither the Twins nor Sox rotations are all that deep, though the Sox probably have the sharper end in Lucas Giolito. The Twins will do that thing where they hit more homers than logic would dictate, and will try to outslug and out-glove the Sox in the division. We know Cleveland won’t hit, but will find pitchers under every couch cushion that will get them more wins than their ownership deserves or even wants. Shane Bieber, Zach Plesac, and Aaron Civale is a really nice set-up.

The Royals deserve some credit for being one of the few teams that actually pursued free agents instead of letting them all wrap at the window and only letting them in to stop being annoyed, as most teams did. The lineup isn’t particularly young or particularly good, and the starters will be worse. The Tigers will simply be a showcase for the list of prospects they’ve collected while in the dumpster the past few years, like Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal, Matt Manning, or Isaac Paredes. Their season is 2023 and beyond.

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