In the hullabaloo of MLB’s opening weekend, you may not have noticed that Luis Robert of the Chicago White Sox — he of the .337 ISO at Triple-A Charlotte — announced his presence with authority on Friday night. In the second inning of his MLB debut, Robert strode to the plate, stood 60 feet and six inches away from Jose Berrios, and proceeded to smash the first pitch of his MLB career at a velocity of 115.8 MPH. To give that achievement some context: last year, there were exactly 20 players who hit a ball harder than Robert did in his first career hit. We’ll get to their names and stats in a minute, but most of them are players you want to own.
I wrote this piece on Sunday morning, and by Sunday afternoon, Robert had added his first career home run. The dinger was a 419-foot blast that Robert smoked at 111.4 MPH. By MLB’s current leaderboards, that means Luis Robert now has the fifth and first-hardest hits of this season.
So it is that I have come here to sing the anthem of Luis Thunderclap Robert, First of his Name, Stealer of Bags, Destroyer of Baseballs and Pitchers, La Pantera and Child of Destiny.
We Have Lift Off
115.8 MPH is Like Really, Really Hard
Maximum exit velocity is one of a handful of small-sample data points that has a strong correlation to outcomes. Hitters capable of slugging a single ball over 110 MPH are far more likely to see positive offensive results than those who cannot. In this case, a single batted-ball event can tell us quite a bit.
Two years ago, Rob Arthur found that for every mile per hour over 108, we can add another six points to a hitter’s projected OPS. Robert had been projected for an OPS somewhere between a .765 (The BAT X) and .808 (Steamer). With Arthur’s formula, we can push Robert’s OPS to somewhere .812 and .855. Keep that in mind as we try to recalculate Robert’s projected value. Whatever you thought Luis Robert was before the season, it turns out that he is probably more than that.
If you’re still feeling skeptical about the significance of a single batted-ball event, here are the players who hit a ball 115.8 MPH or harder in 2019.
|Vladimir Guerrero Jr.||118.9||105|
|Ronald Acuna Jr.||115.9||126|
|Fernando Tatis Jr.||115.9||150|
That’s a list of great players. It would be easy to dismiss the less appealing names on that list (Zunino, Cron, and Garcia), but those names are critical to clarifying the range of outcomes. Even then, if Robert does generate the same 112 wRC+ as Avisail Garcia, he will have outperformed his projections with the bat.
To Be Young and Fabulous
Like many stars, Robert has enjoyed ample success ahead of his age group. There is a direct correlation between a player’s debut age and his career success. Some of that is the result of accumulation, but it is also because advanced and more mature competition reveals a younger player’s true talent level.
At the age of 15, Robert broke into the Cuban National Series (Cuba’s premier professional league). At that time, he was 11 years younger than the league’s average player (26.7 years). By the time he was 17, he put up an OPS of .796. At 18 years old, that number soared to 1.213.
In Robert’s 2019 campaign, he was 2.7 years younger than his competition in the Double-A Southern League and 5.9 years younger than the average player in the Triple-A International League. During that stretch, Robert hit .306 with 24 home runs, 28 steals, and a wRC+ of 146. Given what we know about how older competition helps a younger player to advance his abilities, we should have expected this type of arrival in the majors.
After all, Robert’s talent and success led the White Sox to sign him for six years and $50 million because they thought it would save them money in the long run. The team has committed to playing him every day this year, and center field may as well have his name on it.
Since 2017, there have been eight players age 22 or younger who enjoyed a 135 wRC+ in Double-A or TripleA-A and then at least 450 plate appearances for their entire rookie season:
|Ronald Acuna Jr.||21||156||127||41||101||37||.280||126|
|Vladimir Guerrero Jr.||20||123||52||15||69||0||.272||105|
Fernando Tatis Jr. misses out here because he suffered an oblique injury last year. This list, combined with the list above, gives us context for Robert’s ability to be an immediate star.
Notably, Robert won’t have the entire season, which means that if opposing teams find some glaring weakness to expose, the Chicago wunderkind will have less time to adjust and rebound. As with all players, the range of outcomes is much greater this season, but that is especially pronounced with a player whose range is so dramatic.
The simple reality is that while fantasy sports owners are used to seeing rookie running backs explode onto the scene in fantasy football, most fantasy baseball owners are skeptical about the value of a rookie player. However, as the last few years have shown us, there are going to be absolute studs who arrive at the height of their powers.
Valuing a Hot Asset
Before the season, Robert’s work with the bat and his forecast nine steals were enough for him to be projected as the 22nd best outfielder and 77th most valuable player for this season.
While we don’t have a meaningful sample for Robert’s average exit velocity or his barrel rate, the velocity should still have benefits for Robert’s batting average (as well as his power). For a player with Robert’s speed, the ability to hit the ball with that kind of authority prevents fielders from playing too far in as they attempt to take away weak grounders. His speed prevents them from sitting back so they can reach hard grounders.
If we combine the speed and make modest improvements to Robert’s hitting projections, we’re left with a player who looks awfully similar to Fernando Tatis Jr. If we use the Depth Charts projections, Tatis Jr. projects as the 29th most valuable hitter and the 42nd most valuable player overall.
I’m arguing that we’ve undervalued Luis Robert. Using Arthur’s adjustment and applying the rates to the rest of Robert’s stats, we get something like this:
|Fernando Tatis Jr.||34||10||30||9||.275||.835|
The extra opportunities on base may lead to more steals for Robert, but I haven’t added that in, even though the numbers would suggest another half steal (enough to round up). By my values, Tatis remains more valuable, but just barely. It looks like Robert’s new projection should make somewhere between the 40th to 50th most valuable player this season. That puts him somewhere between Fernando Tatis Jr. and Starling Marte.
If you own Robert, make sure you get fair value for him in a trade. If you’re looking to acquire him, it’s likely to be expensive. The reality is that most Robert owners are already enthusiasts, and they ought to be. However, there are always owners who want to get too cute and sell high when they don’t know the value of what they have. Don’t overpay, but if you need steals and a dynamic outfield bat, Luis Robert is likely to the cheapest asset in that third tier of outfielders ranging from Giancarlo Stanton to Eloy Gimenez.
In dynasty leagues, Robert is about to make the leap to being a top-20 player. We haven’t yet seen enough to push him ahead of young stars like Yoan Moncada and Pete Alonso, but it’s easy to see him there by the end of this season.
At this point, we can say with much greater confidence that the hype on Chicago’s phenom is more than justified. The L is now leaving the station.
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