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Is Luis Robert The Best Center Fielder in the AL?

by Sox On 35th Contributors

Baseball is back baby! I don’t have to write any more posts looking back at who were the best Sox players of the past 20 years or do a deep dive on the 2015 White Sox. I can finally write about looking forward to the 2022 season.

Rightfully so, one of the most anticipated players Sox fans are looking forward to this upcoming season is Luis Robert. Robert finished in second place in AL ROY voting in 2020, and was dominant in 2021 after coming back from his torn hip flexor. From August 9, 2021, when he officially returned from injury, through the end of the 2021 season, Robert had a comically good triple slash line of .350/.389/.622, good for a wRC+ of 173.

Even before his injury, baseball was clicking for Robert. Part of the reason Robert didn’t outright win AL ROY in 2020 was because he hit the rookie wall towards the end of the season. During the last two months of the shortened season, Robert slashed .223/.299/.434, good for a wRC+ of 99 – literally below average.

A large reason for that was Robert being fooled and swinging (and whiffing) at low and away sliders. Robert cleaned that up in 2021. His O-Contact % (percentage of times a batter makes contact with the ball when swinging at pitches thrown outside of the strike zone) rose in 2020 to 2021 from 47.1% to 56.5% and his Swinging Strike % decreased from 22.1% in 2020 to 16.1% in 2021. In fact, Robert made even better contact in 2021 than in 2020 as shown from the increase in his Contact% from 61.4% to 73.6%. For the tl;dr crowd, all these numbers mean was that Luis Robert was really good at getting hits in his sophomore season.

As such, Luis Robert is getting a decent amount of AL MVP buzz. Our own Justin Salgado talked about why he’s putting money on Luis Robert to win the AL MVP in 2022 for us recently. He isn’t the only one:

However, the real tweet that caught my eye was this was from MLB Nerds a few months ago:

I’m not going to get into what I think of this list as a whole. But what I do want to discuss are their top 4 center fielders: Toronto’s George Springer, Minnesota’s Byron Buxton, and Anaheim’s Mike Trout compared to our own Luis Robert. Because for all of the hype (deservingly so) around Robert, those four CF are much closer to talent and production than I think we Sox fans are willing to give credit for. I appreciate MLB Nerds putting Robert second on their list, but if Robert is going to win the American League MVP, he’s going to have perform better than three extremely talented players that includes a World Series MVP winner and a generational talent with multiple AL MVPs under his belt. I want to compare all four players (I will try to be as objective as possible) and see how Robert compares to some of baseball’s best center fielders.

Luis Robert

OFFENSE: As previously mentioned, Robert’s triple slash line since he came back from his injury in 2021 was insanely good. Robert’s streak caught the eye of Jake Mintz, half of the insanely funny Twitter account @CespedesBBQ. He wrote for FOX Sports in part while praising Robert, which you can read in full here:

At his best, there are few players more limitless. A locked-in Luis Robert at the plate looks like he has hacked baseball. The common man should not be able to swing a stick with such force and such ease. He is a flickering neon sign reading “unlimited potential” that’s about to stop flickering.

Even before his injury though, Robert was quite good at baseball. During the first month of the season, Robert slashed .316/.359/.463, good for a wRC+ of 125. You could just tell from watching him that he was swinging at less junk and making better contact when he needed to.

Robert’s big test will be putting up consistent offense throughout a 162 game season. Robert played in 56 games in 2020 and 68 games in 2021. We’ve never seen a full season of Robert playing baseball, and that excites the fan base. But that also comes with risk and hesitation. Baseball is a long season, and even the best players go through slumps. It’s easy to put up Video Game Numbers through a 200 plate appearance stretch, it’s another to do so through the grind of a full season. That’s not to say Robert can’t do it, it’s just that we need to see him do it.

My colleague Nik Gaur recently did a deep dive into Luis Robert for Sox On 35th that you can check out here.

DEFENSE: Surprisingly, this is an area where Robert needs to improve a bit, or at least consistently show what he’s capable of. Despite winning the AL CF Gold Glove in 2020, Robert was average to below average defensively in 2021. Per Fangraphs’s defensive statistic, Robert was worth -0.1. Per Baseball Savant, he was worth 4 Outs Above Average, which was 17th among MLB CFs. Robert has a fWAR advantage playing CF to most of the league because he plays an inherently harder defensive position, but he loses that advantage when he’s being compared to other center fielders. Maybe Robert slipped in 2021 due to his injury, or maybe he sacrificed a bit of his defense for offense. Regardless, Robert is going to need to play better defense in 2022 if he’s going to seriously compete for the AL MVP.

HEALTH: It was the COVID shortened season, not health, that prevented Robert from playing 162 games in 2020. However, as previously mentioned, a torn hip flexor sidelined him for months in 2021. Robert sustained the injury running to first base, and it turned out to be a type injury that plagued the league as a whole as a result of playing a full season after a shortened season. Though, my main concern is that Robert’s injury is classified as a soft tissue injury, which means it’s theoretically easier to reaggravate. But truthfully, Robert’s games played is just an unknown because he hasn’t done it before. Still, he doesn’t seem as injury prone as other names we’re about to dive into. This is my verbose way of using the Shruggy Man emoji.

Mike Trout

There’s a little burger joint in Chicago called Au Cheval. Maybe you’ve heard of it? It’s only universally considered the best burger in The City. Yet, every couple of years, when a trendy new burger comes along, an article gets written claiming it’s better than Au Cheval’s burger. Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t, but that article gets written because Au Cheval is still the gold standard for burgers. You don’t try to take down pawns, you try to take down The King. Mike Trout is Au Cheval. He is the gold standard. He is The King until properly dethroned. That’s why Mike Trout is correctly ranked as #1 on the MLB Nerds list, and why a place like DraftKings gives him the second best odds to win AL MVP behind only his teammate and reigning AL MVP, Shohei Ohtani.

OFFENSE: Mike Trout is 30 and if he retired right now, he’s a first ballot Hall of Famer and already one of the greatest offensive players baseball has ever seen. Still, for ***** and giggles, let’s take a look at his offensive numbers anyways.

Mike Trout played even less games than Luis Robert in 2021, yet still managed to be voted the AL’s starting CF in the All Star Game. If Luis Robert’s wRC+ of 173 was impressive, then Mike Trout’s wRC+ of 190 was legendary. Though in only 36 games, Trout still slashed .333/.436/.624. Even Mike Trout would not have been able to sustain these numbers all season long (probably), but still, he was impressive when last seen.

Even for a “down” year like Mike Trout had in 2020, his wRC+ was still 161. That was the lowest wRC+ of his career since his Cup of Coffee in 2011. If 161 is your floor, then you’re pretty, pretty, pretty good at baseball.

DEFENSE: If Mike Trout has a bad part of his game, this is it. In 2019 and 2020, Trout had a negative defensive rating per Fangraphs. Baseball Savant also agrees. Per Outs Above Average, Trout was the 17th best defensive center fielder in 2020 and the 40th best in 2019.

Though, despite that, between 2012 and 2019, Mike Trout has only had an fWAR of under 8.3 once, and that was in 2017 when he only played in 114 games. Even with Trout’s poor defense in 2019, he still had an fWAR of 8.4. To put that into perspective, Trea Turner led everyone in fWAR in 2021, and his was only 6.9. Again, Mike Trout is The King. If Luis Robert is going to overtake him on the field, he needs to be on his damn game.

HEALTH: Like Luis Robert, Mike Trout was another victim of the leg and hip strains that plagued the MLB in 2021. Unlike Robert who eventually came back to play after his injury, Trout never did and thus his 2021 season ended with him only playing 36 games. I’d say the health risk for Trout is probably the same for Robert, and both should most likely be fine in 2022. That’s bad news for Robert, who most likely only wins the “Best AL CF” title if Mike Trout suffers another season ending injury. And we don’t ever root for injuries.

Byron Buxton

OFFENSE: Bryon Buxton started the 2021 season so strongly, that even though he was injured throughout much of the voting process, he was still in discussions to start the All Star Game at center field.

AL CF fWAR First Half Leaders

These numbers don’t quite do Buxton justice. Outside of the fact that he ended up having the same fWAR as Adolis Garcia despite playing in 53 less games, All Star voting basically begins after the first month of the season. These numbers above only reflect final numbers in retrospect and don’t reflect what a massive fWAR lead Buxton ended up having throughout the open voting process.

Further, if you thought Luis Robert was hot after he came back from injury, Buxton’s first half hot streak was arguably better. The fWAR for both Robert’s second half and Buxton’s first half of 2021 was the same (2.5); however, the difference is that Buxton accrued those numbers in 16 less games. That means, when on the field, Buxton was superior.

Additionally, Buxton had a damn fine second half of the season on his own. He slashed .258/.319/.553, with 9 HRs in 34 games, good for a wRC+ of 134.

DEFENSE: Out of the 4 center fielders in this post, Buxton in easily the best defensively right now. He was 10th in Outs Above Average in 2021 among all center fielders, per Baseball Savant. Fangraphs also ranks Buxton’s defense highly (6.9 in 2021) which will also helps him to have a more impressive fWAR.

Moral of the story, if all four players are healthy, Buxton might actually be the best center fielder in the Game right now.

HEALTH: However, Buxton being healthy is a huge “IF”. As Twins fans can attest, it certainly feels as if Buxton is made of glass.

Below is a portion of a Fansided Twins blog about Buxton:

Since Buxton played 140 games in 2017, he’s never played in more than 88 games in a season since. Even in the COVID shortened season, he only played in 39 of the 60 games.

Still though, a lot of Buxton’s injuries aren’t what are considered Soft Tissue Injuries. Injuries like fracturing his toe and later his hand aren’t likely to reoccur, especially compared to injuries suffered by Robert and Trout last season.

All that being said, if you’re betting on Buxton for AL MVP over Luis Robert, you sure are putting a lot of faith that Buxton can play over 130 games in a season.

George Springer

White Sox right fielder, I mean Toronto Blue Jays center fielder George Springer is easily the weakest of the four men I think, but he shouldn’t be discounted either.

OFFENSE: Springer might be the worst offensively, but he also has something neither Luis Robert nor Byron Buxton have: a consistent track record of high level success. Between 2016 and 2019, Springer played in at least 122 games. He also played in 51 of the 60 games in the COVID shortened 2020 season. Springer has never had a wRC+ under 115, and has a career wRC+ of 135 thanks to having a wRC+ above 140 in 4 of the past 5 seasons.

Quietly, Springer had an excellent second half of the 2021 season. While Robert led all CF in fWAR in the second half of 2021 (2.5), Springer was right there with him (2.3) – albeit Robert accrued his numbers in 15 less games.

George Springer has a career slash line of .269/.360/.497, and has consistently put up a similar triple slash line in every year of his 8 year career. Further, Springer will be playing in one of, if not the best, line ups in the American League. Getting to play in the heart of the order with players like Vlad Jr., Bo Bichette, and Teoscar Hernandez while putting up numbers like he does means Springer is going to rack up the counting statistics.

Rightly or wrongly, MVP voters still care about traditional counting statistics and even if Baseball Reference or Fangraphs says that Luis Robert is a better player than George Springer, that may not matter in the minds of baseball voters.

DEFENSE: Per Fangraphs, George Springer has only had one positive season defensively in center field, and that was in 2019. Though Baseball Savant is much more favorable to the former Astros CF:

If Byron Buxton plays any significant amount of games, he’s likely to be better defensively than Springer. However, there’s also a world in which Springer will be better defensively than both Luis Robert and Mike Trout in 2022.

HEALTH: Like every center fielder on this list, George Springer missed significant time in 2021 due to injury. The current Blue Jays outfielder missed most of last season due to a quad injury and when he came back to play, missed some more time thanks to a knee and ankle injury. If you’re a Glass Half Empty kind of person, these are injuries that are emblematic of a player now on the wrong side of 30 and are likely to continue as Springer continues to get older. If you’re a Glass Half Full person, Springer has, for the most part, been a bastion of health throughout his entire career and 2021 was just a blip on the radar.

Ultimately, I agree with MLB Nerds’s ranking of centerfielders, at least the Top 4. Mike Trout is still one of the best players in the game, and deserves to be #1 on basically every list. And as good and consistent as George Springer is, I think he’s still the clear 4 out of 4. Luis Robert and Byron Buxton is an interesting debate for 2 and 3. When both are healthy, I think Buxton is clearly #2 behind Trout. However, due to Buxton’s consistent injuries, I think Luis Robert deserves to jump ahead of Buxton in the rankings. How that will translate into Luis Robert winning the AL MVP is anyone’s guess. But as White Sox fans, it certainly doesn’t hurt to hope.

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Featured Image: White Sox / Twitter

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