“He’s a really damn good player.”
Pedro Grifol played the role of Captain Obvious after Luis Robert Jr. stole the show in the White Sox’ 4-1 win Sunday, the center fielder’s two home runs accounting for three runs, the difference in the victory that stopped the team’s streak of four straight lost series.
That Robert carried the day Sunday showed what everyone in the White Sox’ employ — and plenty outside of it — has been forecasting for years. The combination of a wide-ranging and power-packed offensive skill set and a routinely jaw-dropping defensive ability that has already put one Gold Glove on the 25-year-old’s mantle is capable of leading the franchise to where it wants to go.
Right now, where it wants to go is back to respectability, even Sunday’s win leaving it at 11 games below .500, if only six games back of the first-place Twins in the awful AL Central.
But Robert has his designs on something bigger.
“I want to carry this team to the playoffs and hopefully to the World Series,” he said, through team interpreter Billy Russo, following Sunday’s game.
Whether he means this year or in a more distant future is a worthy question, but his voicing of the team’s belief that a turnaround is still possible goes a long way toward providing an answer.
“If we are able to be consistent in the second half, I think we can make it,” he said.
Many frustrated fans would consider belief in such an outcome laughable, and it remains shocking that in the wake of the everything-gone-wrong 2022 campaign that this team is 11 games worse than it was at the end of last season.
But even if Robert is too late to stage the kinds of heroics that would pull the White Sox from the depths of the American League in 2023, remember that he’s under contract for the four seasons that follow, meaning it’s not out of the question that he could fulfill his wish of leading this team to the postseason at some point.
That’s the type of thing that was expected, of course, when we heard all the headline-grabbing statements when Robert’s journey was just starting. He was the “six-tool player.” He was “the Cuban Mike Trout.” Injury-riddled seasons kept that future from arriving in Robert’s first three years as a big leaguer, even while there were plenty of flashes of what he could do. But he wasn’t playing regularly enough to be the guy in the middle of the White Sox’ lineup.
This year, though the injury bug has still crippled the White Sox’ core — Yoán Moncada, Tim Anderson and Eloy Jiménez have missed a combined 99 games — Robert has so far been unaffected. And with consistent health and consistent playing time has come consistent production.
After his two homers Sunday, he’s up to 21 on the season, good for the second biggest total in the AL, only behind obvious MVP front-runner and all-around baseball Superman, Shohei Ohtani.
“I feel I’m getting better every day,” Robert said, “and it’s just because of that, because I’ve been able to be on the field on a daily basis and play every day.”
Robert is looking far different than he did at the end of last season, when an injured wrist had him delivering weak swings on a nightly basis. And his penchant for swinging at pitches outside the strike zone made him look little like the player that was promised.
Those issues swinging at balls carried over into 2023, and Robert didn’t look great playing for Team Cuba in the World Baseball Classic, either. Nor did he look great early in the regular season — though no White Sox player did — but a noticeable slump that featured a ton of strikeouts segued to what we’re seeing now: a guy fulfilling his destiny as an offensive force.
Here’s the thing, though, it wasn’t just waiting for destiny to arrive. Robert went to work on his plate discipline and pitch selection. And it’s paid off huge.
“If he hits pitches in the strike zone, he’s going to do unbelievable damage, and that’s what he’s done the last few days. He’s hunting for off-speeds up, he’s hitting fastballs, he’s not chasing as much,” Grifol said. “Every day it continues. In fact, it’s gotten heavier.
“At first, you introduce new stuff, and (the players) have to buy into it. These guys have had success, but it doesn’t mean they’re capped out in their abilities. You can always continue to get better and better and better. He’s 25 years old. … The buy-in was slow. It’s typical, it’s normal. We’ve got to create relationships, things got to work, and if they don’t work, then they take a little longer.
“I know for a fact the work has increased. He’s bought in, he’s all in. He’s asking for more, he’s asking questions. … This lineup is dangerous if we stay in the strike zone. If we don’t, it’s not dangerous. … The work is really good, and it’s getting better.”
There’s no zealot like a convert.
“The difference is, when you swing at good pitches, you’re going to be able to do damage,” Robert said, “and I’ve been trying to do that.”
Talent. Health. Work. It’s a lethal combination that is starting to click for Robert, who is still eliciting the same reactions from teammates that he did a few years ago.
“It’s crazy. The amount of power he’s got in such a simple swing, it’s fun to watch, for sure,” Andrew Benintendi said. “Half the time, he can probably cover more ground than anybody out there. Left-center, right-center, he can go get it. He makes it look easy.”
Robert’s defense has been noticeably different from where it was in 2022. Among Robert’s health issues last year was a vitamin deficiency stemming from a viral infection that blurred his vision. Add that to more typical baseball maladies, and he was the same super defender he was as a rookie.
That guy is back. Early in the season, he was turning in highlight-reel plays on a daily basis. Heck, he might still be doing that, it’s just that those of us who watch him every day have gotten used to it.
“What he does in the outfield is not easy. It looks easy, but it’s not easy,” Grifol said. “He goes gap to gap. It just looks easy, and you take it for granted. Sometimes I do, too. But what he does out there is not easy to do, and he does it with ease. He plays the game with ease.”
The White Sox are not the kind of team bursting with All-Star candidates, so with all due respect to Lucas Giolito and Jake Burger and Kendall Graveman, it looks like Robert will be the obvious choice to represent the South Side next month in Seattle.
While Grifol’s stumping for Robert’s inclusion on the AL roster was for someone very deserving of a nod, it might not end up being terribly necessary.
“I know that Midsummer Classic is coming,” Grifol said. “There’s no doubt in my mind this guy’s an All Star. No doubt. I don’t know who needs to hear it, but this guy’s an All Star.”
In true fashion of someone who grew up under José Abreu’s tutelage, Robert was nonchalant about the possibility of making the All-Star team, choosing to speak of his desire to take the White Sox to new heights.
Given that putrid April, those heights might need to wait a year or two.
But if the club needs to return to the drawing board in the wake of another disappointing season, they can have confidence that Robert is looking like the guy it was always assumed he’d become: the kind of player who can put the White Sox on his back.