Even without a final month of pitching from Shohei Ohtani, it would seem unlikely that Luis Robert Jr. wins the AL MVP this year.
But he’s had a fantastic campaign, an MVP-caliber one in a year in which there wasn’t a two-way superhero doing things the sport has never seen.
Robert’s offensive numbers are stellar, and he’s just about the only thing that’s gone right for the White Sox during an unfathomably disappointing 2023 season. Just look to Monday night in Baltimore, when the White Sox were overpowered in every facet by the Orioles: Michael Kopech lasted just four innings, Oscar Colás made a mental mistake in right field that opened the floodgates for a five-run Baltimore eighth inning, and the White Sox’ bats were limited to just two hits.
Both those hits, though, came off Robert’s bat, a blasted double that would have been a homer in more than two-thirds of the ballparks in baseball and a 110-mile-an-hour rocket off a Baltimore reliever’s back. And he made a sensational diving catch in center field that brought to mind the outrageous diving play he made in Kansas City during his rookie season.
As great as Robert has been offensively — he could potentially net both the 28th 40-double season and the 13th 40-homer season in franchise history — he has been equally impressive defensively. His seemingly effortless ability to track down any fly ball hit toward center field and a vastly improved ability to make plays on balls hit to the outfield wall have produced a defensive season that looks even better than his 2020, when he won a Gold Glove as a rookie.
And he knows it.
“I think this year I’ve been better than my previous years, even better than 2020,” he said last week through team interpreter Billy Russo. “I’ve been doing a better job reading the ball, and it has been a big difference.”
Robert followed up his strong defensive campaign in 2020 with a 2021 season that saw him miss more than three months with a hip injury. In 2022, Robert was bothered by several different injuries, and he was noticeably affected in the outfield, looking far from the explosive and graceful defender he was two years prior. A vitamin deficiency stemming from an infection blurred his vision for a bit in the middle of the season, perhaps more specifically troublesome on the defensive side of things than the wrist injury in the season’s final months, which had glaring effects at the plate.
This year, though, there has been, as Robert put it, a big difference.
Just like his early-season offensive transformation was brought about by off-the-field work, so too was his improvement on balls hit to the wall. Home-run robberies have become regular for Robert, adding that to the list of things he makes look easy on a baseball field.
“(White Sox outfield coach Daryl Boston) identified that (as an issue) in 2020. I was lacking that read of the ball or how the ball was (hit),” he said. “Before, I was just running behind the ball without noticing the wall. We’ve been working on that a lot in early work, and I did a lot of work on that in the offseason, too. This year is a result of all that hard work, with the help of D-Bo, too.
“Sometimes I crashed against the wall. I wasn’t paying too much attention to the wall. Now, I’m more aware of where the wall is, I’m able, on those plays, to jump and kind and soften the crash a little bit. I’ve been thinking ahead to that possibility.”
In the thick of back-to-back disappointing seasons, frustrated White Sox fans have gone looking for explanations as to why such a supposedly talented group of players could have underachieved so spectacularly, and without being able to see past the action on the field and what’s shown on a game broadcast, there’s been an assumption that some of these players aren’t trying or working hard enough.
Pedro Grifol has stepped in on multiple occasions to combat that line of thinking, including a recent glowing review of Robert’s behind-the-scenes work ethic.
“(His defensive improvement from 2020 to now) speaks to his work ethic, which speaks to how great he can be,” Grifol said last week. “He’s got a really good work ethic. I saw it in the spring, and I was like, ‘OK, maybe this is (just because it’s) the spring. He’s getting after it in the spring.’ He gets after it every single day. He had that one little hiccup (where he didn’t run hard) down the line early on in the year. He’s never had it again.
“He has that determination to be great. And he does things with ease, and there’s not much effort to it. That’s why sometimes the perception is out there where (people think), ‘Does he care?’ I can tell you, he cares more than anybody I’ve ever been around. He just does things with ease. But he’s got the will to be great. He wants to be great, and he works on every facet of his game.”
White Sox fans have seen what Robert has done at the plate and in center field for the last five months and know that suggesting he’s been MVP-caliber is not at all ridiculous. But does the baseball world at large agree? Folks can look up his WAR and come to a pretty quick conclusion — only two players in the AL, Ohtani and Julio Rodriguez, have more than Robert’s 5.0 fWAR — but when it comes to MVP consideration, can someone who’s playing for a team nearly 30 games below .500 really be making that sort of elite impact?
Earlier this month, after Robert’s then-latest star turn, Touki Toussaint offered up the opinion that Robert is underrated across the sport.
“I honestly think he’s very underrated, and it’s really not fair to him. I think he’s one of the best in the game,” Toussaint said. “He needs to be on that list of all those other guys.”
And he wasn’t the only one.
“Yeah, I think so,” Andrew Benintendi told CHGO. “I think a lot of that has to do with how we’re playing this year. If we were 25 games over, he’d be getting a lot more attention than what he’s getting. But it might be easy to get buried down there with how we’re playing this year.
“I think the players know the kind of player he is, not just on this team but around the league. I think eventually, everybody else will be talking about him a lot more.”
Grifol wasn’t in complete agreement with his players, correctly pointing out that Robert got to show the baseball world what he could do on a national stage when he put on a show during the Home Run Derby.
We’ll see if that’s enough to place Robert’s sensational season into the minds of everyone around the game. The batting stats are easy enough to marvel at, but it’s the defense that has produced an all-around superstar on the South Side.