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Luis Robert Jr.’s breakout reflects poorly on prior coaching staff

by Nik Gaur

Entering Friday, Luis Robert Jr. is hitting .271/.328/.564, which gives him an .892 OPS and 142 wRC+, his highest marks since his (abbreviated) 2021 season. On pace for about 44 home runs, Robert’s 2023 production is much more power-centric (.294 isolated power) than 2021, when his 155 wRC+ and .945 OPS were anchored by a .338 batting average and lower (but still quite high) .229 isolated power.

The 2021 version of Robert Jr. is a better hitter, but the 2023 version offers a more intriguing ceiling — we know that Robert Jr. is capable of running high batting averages, but now that he can also hit home runs at a similar pace as the league’s leaders, there is a world in which he puts both together. Technically, he has done so — since May 1st, Robert Jr. is hitting .302/.362/.656 (1.018 OPS, 175 wRC+) across 214 plate appearances.

Allow me to address the elephant in the room: other than injuries, what happened in 2022? Granted, the overall numbers were still above-average and were even better before Robert Jr. played a couple weeks’ worth of games essentially swinging with one hand due to an injury. Prior to that hand injury (August 12, 2022), Robert Jr. was hitting .301/.336/.454 (.790 OPS, 124 wRC+). After the injury, Robert Jr. only had 47 more plate appearances, during which he hit .156/.191/.222 (.413 OPS, 13 wRC+).

To me, the underlying difference between the 2021, 2022, and 2023 versions of Robert Jr. is his aggressiveness at the plate. That is not to say that Robert Jr. has ever been a passive hitter, as even his least aggressive mode is very swing-heavy. However, his year-by-year strikeout rate illustrates an interesting trend:

YearLuis Robert Jr. Strikeout Rate

In 2023, Robert Jr. is striking out at his highest rate since his rookie season but is having by far his highest power output as a result. This is especially interesting when considered in conjunction with reporting from Ken Rosenthal, who claimed that Tony La Russa (White Sox manager during 2021-22 seasons) “[placed an] emphasis on hits and contact [that] ran counter to the hitting coaches’ goals for achieving power through patience.”

Of course, La Russa was also Robert’s manager during his brief but immensely successful 2021 season. However, Robert Jr. missed several months in the middle of that season due to an injury, so his return and subsequent success are difficult to categorize. In 2022, a season that featured several nagging injuries but nothing as severe as 2021, Robert Jr. was a terrific contact hitter and was striking out less frequently than the average MLB hitter.

While this is positive in a vacuum, one has to consider whether an alleged emphasis on contact prevented Robert Jr. from developing into his current, more dangerous self. The contact-heavy approach was obvious to anyone watching, and it was not limited to Robert Jr. Throughout the lineup, the 2022 White Sox were notorious for taking protective, “just make contact” style swings, even in 2-1 or 3-1 counts. This is why the team produced such bizarre results: they hit the highest amount of singles (1,005) of any MLB team in the last six years, struck out at the seventh-lowest rate in baseball, but were only 19th in runs scored due to an utter lack of power.

Thankfully, Luis Robert Jr. is a talented and smart enough hitter to have overcome whatever bad habits were being taught to him in 2022. He is striking out more now, which may seem like a negative, but it is easily worth the massive increase in power and overall production. By taking more aggressive swings as opposed to protective swings, he is utilizing his raw power and letting his talent translate more consistently.

The emphasis on hits and contact of the past White Sox regime could very well have ruined, or at least significantly delayed, the development of Luis Robert Jr. No two hitters are the same; it makes no sense to preach contact by any means necessary to a player with as much raw power as Robert, the same way it makes no sense to ask Andrew Benintendi to focus on becoming a home run hitter at the expense of on-base skills.

Naturally, one might wonder whether the prior coaching staff’s messaging is harder for some players to unlearn than others. Andrew Vaughn, for instance, only ever knew the Tony La Russa staff (as he debuted in 2021), and while his power production has improved in 2023, he is still having a fairly mediocre season for a first baseman by any metric other than RBIs. We can hope that the players involved are talented enough to overcome some bad advice, but poor processes and habits can materially derail player development.

To reiterate, strikeouts are not ideal in a vacuum, but aggressive swings and approaches that lead to increased power production are often worth the associated uptick in swing-and-miss. Enforcing a contact-first approach makes sense for some hitters, but not all, and while it is ultimately the players’ responsibility to perform, the unusual developmental environment of the last couple of years may always hang over discussions of these players and their potential.

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Featured Photo: © Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

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