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Luis Robert Jr. not helping White Sox out of early-season spiral amid slump emblematic of team’s poor play

Vinnie Duber Avatar
April 26, 2023

The six-tool player.

The future MVP.

The Cuban Mike Trout.

There’s still a lot of season left, vastly more of Robert’s career, but the guy who has the capability to carry this White Sox team has helped drag it down through a miserable start to the campaign.

Robert has been forced into leadoff duty during the large portion of Tim Anderson’s stay on the injured list — which could be soon nearing an end, with the shortstop supposedly close to a minor league rehab assignment — and he has struggled mightily. After another ugly night at the plate Tuesday in Toronto, he’s 3-for-his-last-44, with 17 strikeouts in that span.

Robert has appeared lost at the plate for the bulk of this season, much like he did for the final stretch of the 2022 campaign, which he spent flailing at pitches outside the strike zone and putting minimal thump into the ball. Then, however, he had the excuse of an injured wrist, which he hurt sliding into second base in the middle of the summer. One-handed swings were the lasting images of another season derailed by injuries; in his first three major league seasons, he played in 56 (out of 60), 68 and 98 games, respectively.

Robert has no injury-related excuses this time around, but his at-bats aren’t looking terribly different. He’s still chasing, the poster child for a team-wide problem that has Pedro Grifol sounding like his predecessor, offering up the same diagnoses that Tony La Russa did last summer. Robert is striking out a lot and bashing the ball into the ground, two other things the White Sox are doing too often. He’s not walking much and has seen his power shut off after he racked up a team-leading five long balls in the first dozen games of the year. Again, those are problems that are plaguing the White Sox’ lineup from top to bottom.

So in a way, Robert is serving as the driving force in this lineup, just as the hype and long-term projections established he one day would. He’s just doing it in very much the wrong way.

When it comes to solving the Robert conundrum, Grifol is peddling much the same explanation as he has for the team-wide issues. He’s confident — certain, even — that brighter days are ahead, that Robert will suddenly awaken from his slumber and become that MVP-caliber player. As fans call for Robert to be dropped in the batting order, Grifol has no plans to make that move.

By itself, Grifol’s faith in a return to form is not a completely unreasonable suggestion. However, the presence of Robert’s issues even after an offseason of work, even after an offseason of communication with Grifol and the new-look coaching staff, constitutes some damning evidence to the contrary.

Slumps happen, and it’d be irresponsible to flunk Robert at this early stage of a season-long test. But as the center fielder looks lost at the plate, he suddenly had some trouble navigating the outfield Tuesday night, adding to the glaring pile-up of poor play on this White Sox team.

Robert has made some absolutely stunning plays in center field this season, bringing to mind the athletic achievements that earned him a Gold Glove during his rookie season in 2020. In just a handful of games, he’s made home-run robberies and mile-long rushes across the grass that have ranked among the best plays he’s made in his career. Another Gold Glove, should he keep it up, would seem to be a very real possibility.

So what the heck was he doing Tuesday night in Toronto?

Robert made a habit as a rookie of covering so much ground that he humorously drifted over to the corner-outfield spots to steal fly balls away from his teammates. Call it reflective of the fan base’s mood change from the winning days of 2020 and 2021 to the losing days of 2022 and the first month of 2023, but nobody’s laughing anymore.

Robert pulled the same stunt on Eloy Jiménez twice in Tuesday’s game, first on a ball in right-center field and then on a ball Jiménez was camped under in right field. For all the guff Jiménez has taken for his defensive misadventures in the outfield, neither play — both of which came with near-collisions — was his fault.

On the first, Jiménez was clearly calling for the fly ball when Robert raced in to snatch it away, Jiménez spending the aftermath of the play pointing to his ear and giving Robert a talking to. The same treatment came after the second play, Jiménez seemingly pleading with Robert to start communicating. There was even video from the Blue Jays’ broadcast of Jiménez showing Robert video replays of one of the plays on an iPad, explaining what went wrong.

Far from Jiménez being to blame, it was a show of his improvement in the outfield, his vocal work calling for the ball Tuesday a far cry from the sort of thing that sent him to the injured list as a rookie, when he crashed into Charlie Tilson in Kansas City.

No, these were Robert problems.

For his prowess as a defender and his ability as a hitter, Robert has spent the last couple nights in Toronto striking out, chasing pitches and displaying a dangerous lack of communication in the outfield.

We heard Lance Lynn explain to A.J. Pierzynski on Tuesday that Grifol’s revamp is taking time to take root, the far from unreasonable explanation that a new coaching staff hasn’t solved the White Sox’ problems overnight. Robert, though, is a glaring example of the noticeable lack of change from last year’s disappointing performance to this year’s supposed fresh start.

So far, through 24 ugly games, Robert and the White Sox haven’t done much of anything to shed the sorrows of last season. He’s still chasing pitches outside the zone. The team is still chasing pitches outside the zone. Throw in some defensive mistakes, and this is the sequel to 2022 no South Side fan wanted.

Except this time, it’s worse, at least from a win-loss perspective. The White Sox went to bed Tuesday night 10 games below .500, double their low point from last year.

Robert is the kind of player whose immense talent and potential the White Sox were rebuilt on, and he’s the kind of player who could carry them out of this hole.

So far, though, he’s been doing more to dig the White Sox deeper than to dig them out.

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