Is Luis Robert Getting Underrated by the Fantasy Community?
One of the most difficult aspects of fantasy baseball drafts is balancing individual excitement about an up-and-coming player and reasonable expectations. In the year 2020, most participating in fantasy drafts are well-researched and use some form of cheat sheets, most of which are quite similar. As a year-round daily fantasy sports analyst, baseball hype on my Twitter timeline often gets overlooked, but it has been noticeably quiet on the Luis Robert (CHW) front where I expected him to be the talk of the town by this point in the offseason. Since the 2020 hype for him as not equated to where I personally expected it to be, I wanted to take a look at whether I was being unreasonable or whether the market was being unreasonably conservative with a player whose skill set is so incredibly exciting.
Career Thus Far
To put his young career into context to this point, the White Sox signed a 19-year old Robert out of a Cuba in May of 2017 to a deal which cost the club $52 million in the offseason after they dealt Chris Sale (BOS) and Adam Eaton (WSH). Essentially, he was a major contributing factor to the start of the White Sox’ rebuild and he flashed promise in his first partial season in the minors in 2017; he slashed .310/.491/.536 with a .493 wOBA and 193 wRC+ in 28 games in rookie ball. Unfortunately, his 2018 did not go as planned, as he sprained a ligament in his thumb prior to the start of the season and ended up missing 10 weeks. Following his return from the thumb issue, Robert hit exactly zero home runs (HRs) in 186 at-bats (ABs), so his allure faded a bit as a prospect. Heading into 2019, he was rarely mentioned with the top prospects, as he ranked 43rd in FanGraphs’ prospect rankings and lower on many other lists.
Last year, Robert dealt with some lingering hand issues early, which seemed to be a bad omen, and yet he went on to completely dominate the minors: 108 R, 32 HRs, 92 RBI and 36 SB while posting a wRC+ of at least 136 at all three levels he played at. In total, he slashed .328/.376/624 and added 31 doubles and 11 triples to the 32 long balls in just 122 games with Class-A Winston-Salem, Double-A Birmingham and Triple-A Charlotte. If the team were competitive, he undoubtedly would have gotten the call mid-season, but the White Sox were more focused on maximizing their control over Robert amidst a 72-89 season.
Average Draft Position (ADP)
Since the start of the year (1/1/2020), Robert has an ADP of 80 according to the National Fantasy Championships (NFC), and he is starting to get drafted earlier and earlier (as his ADP overall is 83rd). The highest he has been taken in any single draft has been 55th and he has not lasted past the 141st pick in any draft either.
By comparison, Vladimir Guerrero Jr.’s ADP last year in the NFC after January 1st was 44th, and his game did not feature the same sort of five category upside to that of Robert’s. Did his flop contribute to people getting more conservative on a top rookie like Robert? In 2018, the closest player comparison to Robert was Ronald Acuna Jr. (ATL) but he started the year in the minors and only played 111 games at the MLB level that year. The White Sox have already re-negotiated Robert’s contract and consequently announced he will begin the year with the team. In 2015, Kris Bryant (CHC) finished with an ADP of 84.77 but, again, Bryant’s game did not feature the running upside to that of Robert’s. Comparatively to the young superstars of the past, especially with the guaranteed start in the big leagues, Robert’s ADP feels unusually low.
What Projection Systems Say
FanGraphs compares five different projection system outlooks (THE BAT, ATC, Depth Charts, Steamer and ZiPS) that all expect Robert to play somewhere between 121 and 139 games. In over a 500 AB projection in every model, Robert is being projected somewhere from 20-25 HRs, 63-81 RBI, 16-25 SB and a .305-.335 wOBA. His projected numbers look awfully close to the actual numbers produced by the likes of Tommy Pham (TB) and Danny Santana (TEX) a season ago who sport NFC ADPs of 74 and 128 in their own right.
THE BAT appears to be the least optimistic projection system on him expecting his K rate to rise nearly 3.5-percentage points above his Triple-A number last year and his OBP to sink below .300. On the other hand, the most optimistic projection system, Steamer, projects a 25 HR, 23 SB season from Robert with a .273/.313/.471 slash line. Robert did not skip a beat in his jump to Triple-A last year, posting a .396 wOBA and .337 ISO in 47 games, but projecting anything more than 25/23 in the HR/SB departments is such a historical outlier from a rookie perspective. That being said, Mike Trout (LAA), Jose Abreu (CWS), Carlos Correa (HOU), Kris Bryant (CHC), Corey Seager (LAD), Cody Bellinger (LAD) and Aaron Judge (NYY) are all noteworthy names who has posted ridiculous outlier rookie performances since 2012, with most of them coming off the course of the past three seasons. In other words, an even bigger season than projections expect is within the range of outcomes, but so is failing to meet even the most modest expectations of projection systems.
Previous Player Comparisons
At 6’3”, 185 lbs. featuring a unique combination of power and speed and coming from Cuba, it is hard to look at him and not think of Acuna Jr. In fact, Sports Mockery wrote an entire comparison article on the two last season and concluded it was not crazy to consider the two on a similar career path. Robert is slightly bigger than Acuna, and features slightly lower scouting grades (Acuna graded 70 overall whereas Robert currently sits at 65). Acuna did not play a full season as a rookie and still hit 26 HR with 64 RBI and 16 SB in 111 games to go along with a .388 wOBA and 143 wRC+. For what little it is worth, that equates to about 30.5 HR and 18.7 SB over a 130-game pace (which is about the median of what Robert is being projected for this year).
Robert’s Double-A Manager last year and former 24-year MLB veteran, Omar Vizquel, was quoted as saying “I remember seeing Ken Griffey Jr. in the beginning – we broke into the big leagues together in the same year – and Ken had that same kind of glow. He can do it all. He can beat you with a home run, with a stolen base, turn it into a different gear to make a play in the field. When you look at Robert, you see a player like that.” As a rookie, Griffey Jr. hit 16 HR with 61 RBI and 16 SB in 127 games and slashed .264/.329/.420. In other words, he posted a solid year, but did not post Hall-of-Fame numbers from the get-go.
Most recently, Fernando Tatis Jr. was a five-tool athlete standing exactly 6’3” and 185 lbs. (crazy coincidence) to receive the call to the bigs, and while his rookie year was cut short by injury, it did not disappoint: 22 HR, 53 RBI, 16 SB, .317/.379/.590 slash line and a .398 wOBA playing half his games in Petco Park.
Taking all of the aforementioned information into consideration, I have come to conclude Robert is very likely being undervalued by the fantasy baseball market this year. Whereas Vladimir Guerrero Jr. was clearly overvalued last year, a guaranteed full-time role for a player who adds the speed potential to his already fantastic hitting profile demands attention. Being drafted inside the top 100 is one thing but Robert’s limited-game, median projections already equate to that of a top-80 player at the very least. In 2019, only 10 outfielders hit 20-plus HRs and stole 15-plus bases and only five hit 20-plus HRs and stole 20-plus bases. Saying Robert is clearly going to have a better rookie year than Ken Griffey Jr. is crazy but essentially is being projected by all projection systems used by FanGraphs. Judging by his ABs so far in Spring Training, he does not seem overmatched by big league pitching, so a similar outlier season to some of the greats may be a one-percentile outcome, but is within the range of possibilities. He passes the eye test of being something special and has since his hand injury fully healed. Since his median projection has him close to the likes of Tommy Pham, and his upside stretches beyond that, I personally would be comfortable reaching for him beginning at pick 65, and think he has a legitimate shot to be a special player from Day 1 (especially after his stay in the minors was unnecessarily extended last year when he was clearly worthy of a call-up for quite some time).