Despite a once promising AL Rookie of the Year campaign from Luis Robert, a .229 wOBA across his last 24 games allowed Kyle Lewis to establish himself as the more deserving candidate. Robert still finished with 1.5 WAR in 56 games, a testament to his superb first half numbers, elite defense and baserunning across the entire season. With sky high expectations coming into his rookie season, he was able to put together a great year all things considered.
However, there were some major concerns for Robert coming into his sophomore season, which were almost entirely rooted in the underlying numbers at the plate. The most concerning aspect of his performance at the plate had to be the contact, or rather lack thereof. Robert finished 2020 with the ninth highest Whiff% at 41.5% and third lowest Contact% at 61.4%. The great quality of contact (.448 xwOBACON) would become extraneous if he continued to struggle to make contact in the first place. While Robert struggled to make contact, the pitches he chose to swing at did him no service. With the fourth highest O-Swing% among qualified hitters and eighth lowest O-Contact%, it was clear that if Robert wanted to reach his potential, he would need to be a more selective hitter.
When looking at Luis Robert’s value against different pitch types, it became clear that in order to improve, he would need to be better against the fastball. With a measly .323 xwOBA against 4-seamers, sinkers, and cutters, much of the league was quickly able to figure out how to pitch to the 22 year old rookie. Robert’s 2020 run value against 4-seamers ended at -5, a clear reason for worry. While Robert’s first half was able to carry his season wRC+ to 100, any White Sox fan would be lying to themselves if they thought Robert would be able to come into the 2021 season as an above average hitter without adjusting his plate approach.
Projection systems seemed to like the body of work Robert put together in his rookie campaign, putting his wOBA right around .330, which is .014 points above his 2020 end of season wOBA. Robert far exceeded these expectations, finishing with a .399 wOBA across 296 PAs. It’s pretty difficult to imagine that the same Luis Robert that finished in the bottom ten of almost every significant plate discipline and contact stat would provide such value just a year later. Fortunately for Robert and White Sox fans like myself, these issues are no longer killing his offensive value.
The most eye popping number might just simply be the Contact%. Robert’s 2020 season Contact% was a pitiful 61.4%, which ended up as the second worst in MLB (min. 220 PAs). This number jumped 12.2%. While a 73.6% Contact% is not exactly Luis Arraez levels, going from bottom of the league to below average in Contact% is absolutely monumental when you have a .454 xwOBACON, as he did in 2021. Robert is likely never going to have an elite contact tool, however, due to his incredible batted ball data, he can still be one of the premier offensive players in major league baseball.
The one area in Robert’s game that struggled compared to last year is his BB%, which was down to 4.7% from last year’s 8.8%. If Luis Robert is to become one of the five or so best players in baseball, which I believe he can be, he undoubtedly will need to walk more. Since Robert’s other tools will carry the load of his on field value, he can most likely sneak by with a BB% in the 7-9% range and still hit that ceiling. Something like a 2016 Mookie Betts is not out of the range of possibilities with Luis Robert. With a 6.7% BB%, a .216 ISO, .379 wOBA, and 19 OAA, Mookie Betts was able to culminate a fantastic 8.3 WAR season, enough for second in AL MVP voting.
Because Robert’s swing tendencies stayed relatively constant across his first two years, the drop in BB% is not a large concern. His O-Swing% is almost identical, and his Z-Swing% has increased, creating less called strikes in theory. The 11.9% jump in Z-Contact% is another reason for hope in the BB% department, as he will naturally see more pitches out of the strike zone as he goes deeper into counts. Robert has seen 4.6% more pitches in the strike zone this year, part of the reason he’s walking less, however, he is punishing pitchers much more this year, making this a positive.
While all of the contact and plate discipline improvements are notable, they’re dwarfed by his improvement against fastballs. First and foremost, Luis Robert’s improvement against cutters is almost comical. Robert had a RV/100 of -3.9 against cutters in 2020, which put him only 32 spots out of last place in this statistic. That number has jumped to 8.6 in 2021, which is not only the best in all of baseball against cutters, but it’s 2.9 RV/100 better than tenth place, and the fourth highest RV/100 among all hitters against all pitches. Robert’s wOBA against all fastballs has jumped 0.178 points, a massive leap from the year prior. Not to mention Robert’s Whiff% on offspeed pitches which has gone from 56.8% to 29.4%, a drastic dropoff. Luis Robert has improved against every pitch he’s seen 15 or more times this season, except the slider. This is more than improvement; this is a whole new hitter.
Since 1950, 439 other hitters have had a season with a wRC+ equal to or greater than 157 (min. 250 PAs). Exactly zero of these seasons have a lower BB% than 2021 Luis Robert. Robert made up virtually all of his otherworldly offensive production via balls in play. Robert’s fWAR extrapolated over 650 PAs is 7.0, sufficient for the seventh highest WAR/PA this season. He is quickly establishing himself as a true superstar in baseball, and over a fully healthy season, we might just see Luis Robert win himself an MVP.
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