Here we go again! Every season there’s at least one mega-hyped player expected to make his much anticipated debut during the year, and his market price reflects the unbelievable excitement. The last time we did this, it was Vladimir Guerrero Jr., who I specifically called out at the end of February last year for being insanely priced. Now, it’s White Sox outfielder and seventh overall ranked prospect Luis Robert.
Among all NFBC drafts beginning in February, Robert has been the 22nd outfielder selected on average, with an overall ADP of 80. He has gone as early as 59th and as late as 112th. Here are some of the shocking outfielders being selected after him, on average:
Joey Gallo & Jorge Soler — 30 homers a lock for both, assuming good health
Eddie Rosario & Marcell Ozuna — strong 4-category production likely
Andrew Benintendi — talk about recency bias after a down fantasy season, he has basically averaged a 17/17 season throughout his short career
And the list goes on (and these are just outfielders!). The point is, these guys have already done it, proving their hitting chops and fantasy skills over multiple seasons (okay, so maybe Soler has done it just once, but that’s more than Robert has!).
So aside from some head-scratching names being selected after Robert who seem significantly safer, let me tell you why drafting him 80th overall is nuts and my Pod Projections are more bearish than the majority of the other systems.
His Plate Discipline is Atrocious
When I first started playing fantasy baseball more than 20 years ago, I was all about hitter plate discipline and BB/K rate. I’ve come way down from that, as I now look at every skill metric individually. But that doesn’t mean the combination of the two is meaningless. If you ignore his Rookie League lines, Robert owns an ugly 5.4% walk rate to go with his acceptable 24% strikeout rate. That makes for an unsightly 0.225 BB/K ratio. That would have ranked him ninth worst among qualified hitters last season.
Of course, if you look at the names even worse or marginally better, you realize it doesn’t mean a whole lot. Tim Anderson sat at the bottom, and yet he posted a .363 wOBA. Then you have a fantasy stud like Javier Baez, along with power guys in Randal Grichuk, Eloy Jimenez, and Jose Abreu (would have ranked 10th with Robert included). So clearly one can succeed with terrible plate discipline.
That said, it certainly raises the risk, especially when he’s never come to the plate in a Major League game, so we don’t know how pitchers are going to exploit the weak discipline. Simple math proves that there actually is a strong correlation between BB/K ratio and wOBA:
|Among Qualified Hitters||BB%||K%||BB/K||wOBA|
|Top 15 BB/K||13.4%||15.5%||0.879||0.387|
|Bottom 15 BB/K||4.8%||22.6%||0.215||0.322|
That’s quite the stark difference! Of course, a lot of that gap is due solely to the separation in walk rates. Obviously, walks contribute to wOBA, so a higher walk rate is going to boost that mark. It’s not a totally fair comparison, but it does illustrate how difficult it is to perform strongly at the dish with a poor BB/K mark.
The other related issue is that with such a low walk rate, Robert is going to be on base less. You know what that means? Of course you do…fewer stolen base and runs scored opportunities. That directly cuts into his fantasy value.
I’m not the only one to notice such issues, as our own Eric Longenhagen included this in Robert’s top 100 prospect blurb:
Robert does have plate discipline issues. He chases a lot of breaking balls out of the zone and it took a lot of convincing from industry folks to move him this high on the list even though Robert has the surface-level traits that tend to make me irrationally excited.
That sounds like a weakness Major League pitchers are going to exploit over and over again until Robert adjusts.
He Swings and Misses a Lot
You wouldn’t know it by just looking at his strikeout rate, which is actually perfectly acceptable typically sitting in the low-to-mid 20% range, but there’s a potentially hidden issue. Unless you have customized your stats table to include the metric, you probably had no idea that Robert’s minor league SwStk% marks have been alarming.
Two years ago, I summarized the averages in a vast array of stats and underlying metrics for every minor league level and compared them to MLB. Those calculations make it easier to translate minor league performance to the Majors.
Let’s compare Robert’s SwStk% marks to the MLB average for that year. I’ll use my translation factor calculated in the linked to article above to calculate an MLB-equivalent mark:
|Season||Level||AB||SwStr%||MLB Translation Factor||Translated SwStk%||MLB Avg|
Wowzers! Robert has been a whiff machine throughout his minor league career. Just once did he manage to get his translated SwStk% anywhere near the MLB average, and that came in just 45 at-bats at Single-A. In 2019, he showed a worrisome trend of increased translated SwStk% marks at each higher level.
And that 21.5% mark during his first taste of Triple-A action? That would have easily been the highest mark among qualified MLB hitters, besting none other than Javier Baez, who posted an 18.4% SwStk%. In fact, going back as far as FanGraphs has the data for (2002), only one qualified player has even posted a SwStk% over 20%. That honor went to Josh Hamilton back in 2012.
Robert simply cannot succeed by swinging and missing so often.
One wonders how he has managed to strike out at such reasonable rates given the propensity for the whiff. I would guess that he swings at just about everything. You know who else does? Javier Baez, who ranked 10th in Swing% among 135 qualified hitters last year. With Baez’s name continuing to pop up, it would seem he makes for an apt comp for Robert, though perhaps the former’s power/speed combo tilts a bit more toward power, while Robert’s mix is opposite. Remember, though, Baez represents Robert’s ultimate player type upside, and does not make for a reasonable projection match.
He Hits Wayyyy Too Many Fly Balls
So according to Longenhagen’s prospect blurb linked to earlier, the White Sox made some subtle changes to Robert’s swing in 2019 that led to his offensive outburst. What also resulted from those changes was a batted ball distribution flip. While the sample size was tiny in 2018, he went from a ground ball hitter to an extreme fly ball one in 2019. His fly ball rate jumped from the low-to-mid 30% range to around 50%. That’s a dramatic increase and would put him on the extreme end of fly-ballers.
Fly balls by themselves aren’t bad, of course. Unless you round the bases and record an inside-the-park home run on a non-fly ball, you can’t hit a dinger unless the ball is hit in the air. So more fly balls from Robert is good for his home run projection.
However, all those fly balls are bad, real bad, for his BABIP, which then hampers his batting average. That’s because of the three major categories of batted ball types, liners, grounders, and flies, the latter falls for a hit least often. Let’s take a look at the BABIP marks of qualified hitters on the top and bottom of the FB% leaderboard in 2019.
|Top 10 FB%||47.3%||0.271|
|Bottom 10 FB%||24.8%||0.327|
I think that tells a clear enough story.
Robert had posted fantastic BABIP marks at all his minor league stops…until he reached Triple-A. I find it fascinating that his BABIP plummeted after he arrived at the minors’ highest level. Now of course a .324 BABIP is nothing to sneeze at, but it’s no .384, which is what he posted at Double-A over a similar number of at-bats during his previous stint. I would imagine that with better defenses in MLB, if he doesn’t drastically reduce that FB%, he’s going to have a difficult time posting a BABIP mark much higher than the league average.
You might question why the projection systems are forecasting a BABIP between .318 and .339, despite all those flies likely leading to more outs in MLB. While I can’t speak for THE BAT, I’m fairly certain that the rest do not use minor league batted ball distribution data at all for their projections. Instead, the systems are solely looking at minor league BABIP to project Major League BABIP, and whatever other factors are mixed in (age, park, perhaps power and speed, but I’m not sure).
So there’s a whole lot more downside to Robert’s batting average than you may have thought. Aside from the risk of that strikeout rate spiking thanks to all the whiffs, those fly balls are going to turn into a lot of outs. Strikeouts + easy fly ball outs = low batting average.
He Figures to Hit At or Near the Bottom of the Order
Where a batter hits in the lineup is an underrated factor in fantasy baseball. There’s an enormous difference between hitting toward the bottom and toward the top, especially in the National League. The RosterResource White Sox page projects Robert to hit eighth in the lineup, ahead of only Leury Garcia, who is likely just keeping his spot warm for Nick Madrigal.
Hitting eighth isn’t as bad in the American League as it is in the National League, but it’s still not good. A hitter loses a mid-teens number of plate appearances for every spot he hits lower in the lineup. So Robert would likely lose somewhere between 80 and 100 plate appearances if he hit eighth all season versus if he led off. Those lost plate appearances will reduce all his counting stats, curtailing his fantasy value.
Given the Sox lineup, what are the odds he even moves up? He could conceivably outhit Nomar Mazara, taking over the seventh spot, which won’t do a whole lot for his fantasy value. But he is also a potentially better hitter than Tim Anderson, who could find himself dropped when his BABIP returns to normalcy. Then again, with Robert having his own OBP concerns, there is seemingly a low probability that he finds himself deserving of a move to the top of the order in the first place, regardless of what Anderson does.
With all of these negative factors, it’s amazing to me that with nary a Major League at-bat, Robert is so expensive on draft day, being priced higher than many other established hitters.
There will always be at least one owner in your league that chases the next superstar, and all the data, outlining of red flags, and highlighting of risks won’t do a thing to change that.
Just don’t be that one owner.
Mike Podhorzer is the 2015 Fantasy Sports Writers Association Baseball Writer of the Year. He produces player projections using his own forecasting system and is the author of the eBook Projecting X 2.0: How to Forecast Baseball Player Performance, which teaches you how to project players yourself. His projections helped him win the inaugural 2013 Tout Wars mixed draft league. Follow Mike on Twitter @MikePodhorzer and contact him via email.