Bernstein: Can Robert Possibly Live Up To This Hype?

This kind of anticipation is unprecedented for a homegrown Chicago baseball player.

Dan Bernstein
July 23, 2020 - 2:37 pm
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(670 The Score) The comps for White Sox rookie center fielder Luis Robert are already so over the top that it makes them difficult to satirize via the usual hyperbole.

The McNeil & Parkins Show on 670 The Score has been working to collect contributions to the list from their array of MLB contributors and guests, and the roster of players the 22-year-old Cuban brings to mind is already comical in its own right. Here it is so far, working up from most cautious to most eye-popping:

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Ellis Burks
Dave Winfield
Aaron Judge
Ichiro Suzuki
A combo of Yoenis Cespedes and Mookie Betts
Ronald Acuna Jr. "with speed"
Roberto Clemente
A combo of Andruw Jones and Bo Jackson
Ken Griffey Jr.
Mike Trout
Willie Mays

So let's try to do that by the numbers and see what Robert is expected to become based on the actual value of these 13 players, using total career Wins Above Replacement as calculated by Fangraphs.com. This means that Robert isn't even given the full career values of those still peaking like Acuna (9.3 WAR), Judge (17.8) or Betts (37.2), and the inclusion of Jackson (7.7) for his generational athleticism brings the number down in large part because of his injury. So it is an extremely conservative estimation, one that doesn't use reasonable projections for the active players and instead accounts for them as if they stopped playing today.

But this still averages out with Robert being a 54.2-win player, on the cusp of the Hall of Fame. He's dead even with recent enshrinee Ted Simmons, ahead of Gabby Hartnett and less than half a win away from Vladimir Guerrero.

Heady stuff for a player who has yet to see a big league pitch in a meaningful game. I can't remember this kind of breathless anticipation for a homegrown Chicago player on either side of town no matter which name you want to throw out there --  Frank Thomas, Corey Patterson, Robin Ventura, Kris Bryant or Javy Baez. This is a phenomenon in its own right, fueled by several factors.

First is that body. The man cuts the idealized figure of a marble statue both in uniform and his often preferred state of complete or partial shirtlessness. There's one comp provided that I left out from the statistical analysis for obvious reasons but must be mentioned here, and that's "Under Armour mannequin." It's not wrong.

Second is his minor league performance, which has only catalyzed the excitement. Last year saw Robert race up the organizational ladder by slashing .453/.512/.920 at high-A, .314/.362/.518 in Double-A and .297/.341/.634 at Triple-A, all while showing off elite speed and quickness from his 6-foot-3, 185-pound frame in the outfield and on the basepaths. It doesn't take the finely trained eye of a veteran scout or a deep dive into advanced metrics to appreciate potential greatness when it glares like this.

Third is how he was acquired, what it represented and how that factored into the larger picture. ​It matters that he picked the White Sox, signing for a $26-million bonus in May 2017 as the top overall international prospect after defecting and gaining MLB eligibility. It was a marking point in the franchise's return to respectability under general manager Rick Hahn, an investment by the team that sent a message to a finicky fan base and a commitment by a player that further legitimized the ongoing rebuild.

Hahn doesn't seem concerned that any of this will bother his prized prospect, however.

"The expectations are so high that there is this sort of normal sense of caution, that you don't want to put too much on a kid," Hahn said Thursday. "Certainly thus far, he's shown no ill effects of the notoriety with which he came to us, much less the anticipation that's built over the last few years based on his performance, as well as the contract we gave him. He looks like he's going to fit right in. Realistically, we know that he's going to be challenged by big league pitchers, that they are going to in all probability pitch him the same way they treated Eloy (Jimenez) over the first couple months of the 2019 season and that's going to be a challenge for him. But boy, he certainly has shown very little sign of having issues with the acclimation process so far."

Now is the point for some dissent, provided again by Fangraphs.com, this time specifically its Rotographs arm that sees players through the lens of fantasy league contribution. Author Mike Podhorzer calls Robert "ridiculously overvalued" as the 22nd outfielder selected on average, citing his "atrocious" plate discipline, low walk rate, high swinging strike rate percentage, high fly ball rate lowering his BABIP, his position low in the batting order and overall lack of experience.

White Sox fans aren't hearing any of that, of course, and it's reflected in betting patterns. BetOnline reports that a full 4.8 percent of their World Series champion betting handle rides on the South Siders, a number that trails only that of the Yankees, Dodgers, Astros, Twins, Rays and Braves. As a rookie, Robert himself is already at 33-1 odds to win the American League MVP award, the ninth-best odds on the board.

On Friday night, the speculation ends and a career begins, the most eagerly awaited one in memory. Instead of holding Robert up to others as a gauge, he will be finally be measured by his own performance.

"Look, the comps are what they are," Hahn said. "They are exciting, they're fun to do, but in the end we just want him to be Luis Robert because we think he's got a chance to be pretty special."

Dan Bernstein is the host of the Dan Bernstein Show on middays from 9 a.m. until noon on 670 The Score. You can follow him on Twitter @Dan_Bernstein.