The White Sox Playoff Road Is Parallel to the Luis Robert Expressway

For the Chicago White Sox and their fans, this past winter was a very different experience than other recent offseasons. While the team more than dipped its toes into the waters of the Manny Machado sweepstakes after 2018 — seemingly signing every free agent who was a relatives, friend, or neighbor of the eventual Padres third baseman — that effort was a targeted strike at a free agent of rare quality. Outside of that chase, the Sox, still in their rebuilding phase, were not particularly aggressive when it came to adding talent in free agency. Kelvin Herrera was the only player signed who received a contract guaranteeing $10 million, and the White Sox are probably second-guessing that one.

This winter changed this tale. The 2019 White Sox were surprisingly competitive throughout the first half of the season and were within a game of .500 as late as early July. Any unrealistic playoff hopes were dashed by a 7-17 July, but that was still the only month of the season during which the team lost at least three more games than they won. This was a mediocre team, but a mediocre team that was at least playing watchable baseball for most of the season. In the end, the team added 10 wins to their 2018 total of 62.

Of note is that the White Sox didn’t net these 10 games from having a bunch of top prospects graduate to the majors. Of the team’s top 30 prospects from last year, only Eloy Jiménez made a positive impact on the team’s win total in 2019. And even Jiménez’s impact was relatively small, as on-base and defensive struggles kept his WAR to a merely adequate 1.9. The White Sox could legitimately point to their improvements and claim that the best was very much yet to come.

Tasting the end of the rebuild, the Sox did something that sometimes seems all too rare in baseball today: they aggressively invested in their team to make it better in the near future. In total, the team committed $201 million in guaranteed money to six players: Yasmani Grandal, Dallas Keuchel, Edwin Encarnación, Gio González, and José Abreu, who returned on a new three-year deal. While I was not a fan of Abreu deal, there’s no denying that it’s money spent in a sincere effort to win more games. The team had only spent $209 million in free agency in the previous six offseason combined, and now they were nearly matching that in a single winter.

Is it enough? The projections still place Chicago at a distinct disadvantage compared to the Minnesota Twins and Cleveland Indians. In the first run of the ZiPS projections, the White Sox averaged 82 wins with an 18% chance of postseason baseball, behind the Indians (87 wins, 50% chance) and the Twins (91 wins, 75% chance). The current Steamer/ZiPS combined projections are more optimistic at 85 wins and 30%, but that still leaves the Sox a bit of an underdog.

There are few, if any, free agent signings that could make a difference now — I’d argue that Yasiel Puig would have been a better gamble than Nomar Mazara — so the White Sox will need to rely on their roster’s upside to catch their division rivals. The good news is they have a lot of possible sources for that upside. Ignoring all the free agent additions, Nick Madrigal, one of the team’s top prospects, will be the team’s eventual everyday starter, and Michael Kopech is finally back from Tommy John surgery. Jiménez has a massively high offensive ceiling, and ZiPS has a lot of hope that Dylan Cease will significantly improve on his mehspresso stint in the majors in 2019. But no player’s upside looms as large as Luis Robert’s.

Signed out of Cuba for a $28 million signing bonus, there was a lot of uncertainty about what Robert would bring to the table. After debuting to a couple dozen games in the Dominican Summer League in 2017, he was limited by leg injuries, and his 2018 season was a short one thanks to another injury, this time to his thumb. 2019 was the year that Robert put it all together, hitting a combined .328/.376/.624 across 551 plate appearances at three minor league levels. That’s impressive for anyone, let alone a 21-year-old who started the season having never played above High-A. Eric Longenhagen just posted new video of Robert at the plate, so check it out if you’re not in Arizona at the moment:

The 2020 ZiPS projection for Robert is that of a solid contributor, but not a star. A .265/.309/.455, 20 HR/24 SB, 2.5 zWAR line in 121 projected games is something the White Sox would clearly take; the last time their center fielder combined for a .700 OPS was way back in 2015 when Adam Eaton was still in town. But it’s not as spicy as it could be. One of my new things this offseason with ZiPS is projecting typical percentile lines for a player. I’ve usually shown the probability of each threshold for individual statistics; I present these with a fixed number of plate appearances so that the difference can easily be seen in the counting stats. For Luis Robert, these projections tell a tale of a player who while not 50/50 to be an instant star in 2019, absolutely has the potential to do so:

ZiPS Projection Percentiles, Luis Robert
Percentile BA OBP SLG AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB OPS+ WAR
90% .284 .333 .552 496 69 141 26 10 29 77 27 123 37 134 4.5
80% .277 .322 .513 499 67 138 25 9 25 71 24 134 29 122 3.7
70% .272 .316 .494 500 65 136 23 8 24 69 23 141 28 115 3.3
60% .270 .314 .468 500 64 135 22 7 21 65 23 148 25 109 2.8
50% .265 .309 .455 501 63 133 21 7 20 63 22 152 24 104 2.5
40% .265 .307 .446 502 62 133 20 7 19 62 21 158 23 101 2.4
30% .261 .303 .430 502 60 131 19 6 18 59 21 163 21 96 2.0
20% .258 .299 .412 503 59 130 19 5 16 57 20 170 18 91 1.6
10% .251 .290 .390 505 57 127 17 4 15 55 18 179 15 83 1.1

In the upper percentiles, you can see the power-speed threat Robert could be if he breaks out. What’s more, given his 2017 and 2018 injuries, ZiPS is being conservative about his playing time. If he’s healthy and playing well — which would be the case in an upside scenario — Robert would certainly get more than 528 plate appearances and play in more than 121 games. So let’s re-roll his ZiPS character sheet and look at this table with a 145-game Robert:

ZiPS Projection Percentiles, Luis Robert
Percentile BA OBP SLG AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB OPS+ WAR
90% .285 .334 .555 593 84 169 32 13 34 91 33 147 43 135 5.4
80% .277 .323 .520 596 81 165 31 12 30 85 30 161 35 124 4.4
70% .273 .319 .497 597 79 163 28 11 28 82 29 169 33 117 3.9
60% .271 .316 .475 598 77 162 27 10 25 78 28 177 30 111 3.5
50% .265 .309 .459 599 76 159 26 9 24 75 27 182 29 105 3.0
40% .264 .308 .446 599 75 158 25 9 22 73 27 189 27 101 2.7
30% .262 .305 .433 600 73 157 24 8 21 71 26 195 24 98 2.4
20% .258 .300 .414 601 72 155 23 7 19 68 25 203 22 92 2.0
10% .252 .292 .391 603 70 152 21 6 17 66 23 214 17 84 1.3

This Robert has a 29% shot at a four-win season, typically the threshold we talk about as All-Star level. 145 games isn’t an unreasonably optimistic playing time projection for a starter, especially considering that the White Sox signed Robert to a six-year, $50 million extension that leaves the team with no incentive to play service time games. So just for fun, let’s apply the positive percentile levels in the last table (60%-90%) to today’s ZiPS projected standings and see how these additional wins could reinforce the team’s playoff hopes. Note that the White Sox ticked up to 83 wins and a 23% chance of the playoffs since the initial projections. Assuming Robert plays in 145 games instead of 121 adds another half-win, rounding the Sox to an 84-win team and a 25% playoff shot:

Luis Robert Projections vs. White Sox Playoffs
Percentile Win Division Make Playoffs Win World Series
90th 21.6% 38.2% 3.1%
80th 17.8% 32.5% 2.5%
70th 16.0% 29.8% 2.0%
60th 14.1% 27.4% 1.9%
50th (145 G) 12.9% 25.0% 1.8%
50th (122 G) 10.0% 22.6% 1.5%

As you can see from this chart, additional wins for the White Sox, given their projected position in the playoff race, are of massive value to the team’s October hopes. And this chart may be underrating Robert’s upside for one reason: defense.

One of the main reasons that these lines aren’t part of the normal ZiPS charts is that I’m still trying to figure out a good solution for demonstrating defensive volatility. It’s easy to present a player’s 90th percentile offensive projection against his 50th because there’s a lot of loose correlation between the different stats. But other than playing time, there’s little relationship between offensive and defensive improvements, so it seems sort of odd to just chuck in the range of defensive numbers.

ZiPS projects Robert to be a +4 defensive player in center field, a solidly average contribution at a position where there are lots of excellent defensive players. But there’s perhaps more reason to think that could be wrong in this instance than with the typical player. ZiPS was ambivalent about Robert’s defense over his first two minor league seasons, both of which were hampered by injuries. In 2019, using the probabilistic estimates I used for minor leaguers based on Gameday hit location data, zDEF really liked Robert’s defense. Of all minor leaguers at all positions, ZiPS had Robert as the second-best defensive player, at +20.9 total defensive runs in the outfield (+20.5 range, +0.5 error, -0.2 arm), behind only Michael Siani of the Reds. That comes down to +4 because it’s just a single year of less-than-ideal defensive data. But what if Robert’s a +14 defensive player rather than a +4 one?

Luis Robert Projections vs. White Sox Playoffs (+14 D)
Percentile Win Division Make Playoffs Win World Series
90th 25.8% 44.1% 3.8%
80th 21.6% 38.2% 3.1%
70th 19.6% 35.2% 2.8%
60th 18.2% 33.1% 2.6%
50th (145 G) 16.3% 30.3% 2.3%
50th (122 G) 14.8% 27.9% 2.1%

Simply hitting lucky sevens with Luis Robert and none of the other young talent is enough to put a real scare into the rest of the division. None of this even takes into consideration the possibility that the White Sox make a big addition at the trade deadline should one of the more optimistic scenarios play out. Protect your wins, Cleveland and Minnesota; LouBob is coming for them.





Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.

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very excited for La Pantera’s debut