Why Luis Robert is Ridiculously Overvalued

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:

BB/K & 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:

SwStk% Marks
Season Level AB SwStr% MLB Translation Factor Translated SwStk% MLB Avg
2017 Rookie 84 28.4% 0.574 16.3% 10.5%
2018 Rookie 18 33.3% 0.574 19.1% 10.7%
2018 A 45 12.4% 0.885 11.0% 10.7%
2018 A+ 123 18.5% 0.864 16.0% 10.7%
2019 A+ 75 16.6% 0.864 14.3% 11.2%
2019 AA 226 16.8% 1.001 16.8% 11.2%
2019 AAA 202 21.1% 1.020 21.5% 11.2%

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.

BABIP Comparison
Segment FB% BABIP
Top 10 FB% 47.3% 0.271
Bottom 10 FB% 24.8% 0.327
Simple averages were calculated, not weighted by at-bats

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.

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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.

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tomerafan
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tomerafan

He’s overvalued compared to established players, to be sure. But he’s valued appropriately in a long-term, keeper context. I say this with a ton of respect for your analysis and your writing, but I think you’re looking too narrowly at AAA data without context here.

Luis Robert was promoted to AAA at age 21, and turned 22 in August. He played exceedingly well at three levels in one season. He logged 550 PA’s after barely breaking 200 PA’s in 2018. His July numbers in AAA were SCORCHING with a .400 OBP and something around a .650 SLG in his first full month in AAA. Then, at 425 PA’s for the season – after around 200 PA’s in 2018 – he slowed down, which is perfectly appropriate in an age 22 season crossing three levels. His K rate at AAA went from around 18% in July to 29% in his final month-plus of the season. I’m sure the league adjusted to him, and I’m obviously picking month-ends as arbitrary endpoints and all.

I’d bet on him to have a 20-22% MLB K rate than a 25%+. Shoot, look at his K-rate from A ball to the first month of AAA: 24%, 26.4%, 23.8%, 22.1%, 17.7%. Only then, in August/September, after he crossed 425 PA’s, does the K-rate shoot up. It’s totally reasonable to say that this is “the league adjusting to him.” It’s also reasonable to cite other factors (age, fatigue, bandbox, entertainment factor, lack of meaningful platoon splits) and feel like it’s going to work out really well.

[If you really want to have fun with small sample sizes – I went back and looked for the dates of the splits. Look at his K rate from July 11 to August 3 – something around 17-18%. Then Aug. 6 (after two days off) to Aug. 22, he had 16 games in 17 days and a nasty 35.4% K rate including three sombreros and a fourth that is of the golden variety. Then he gets a day off and, now over 500 PA’s on the season, posts a 21.4% K rate in his last couple weeks. It all adds up to a 24.7% K rate over 223 PA’s in AAA, but on an interesting curve and finishing strong.]

He stole 36 bases against 150 walks, singles and doubles. And he basically stopped attempting stolen bases with about three weeks left in the minor league season, as if someone interjected with the threat of injury – he quite literally stopped running. He’s a 30/30 threat immediately in the major leagues. He goes 1st-to-3rd like a member of the 1980’s St. Louis Cardinals.

And as far as fly balls in Charlotte and the impact on BABIP… well, just look at the park factors and how the ball played there in 2019. Not just the baseball itself, but how Charlotte plays against the rest of the International League. I do think Robert crushed July homers in a bandbox park and then got homer-swing-happy in August… and tired… and I think that is 100% fixable. I also think it’s natural for a kid who comes up to AAA at age 21 and slugs something like .650 in his first month at AAA to get a little homer-swing-happy in a bandbox park. {And lest anyone look at the ball and the park factors and worry about power output, many of his home homers were of the no-doubt variety.}

Finally, having watched him play in person a number of times, I think the “plate discipline” issues are a little bit oversold right now. I think they’re based on short-term results rather than skill. I’ve seen him spit on a breaking ball to crush a fastball. It’s obvious that a lot of folks inside baseball think he has the talent to make it happen and the “intangibes” to adjust. That matches what I saw in the ballpark, except for a couple weeks in August when he tried to put on a show.

I’ve said this on other posts… we’ve seen some fun prospects come through Charlotte the last few years. Tim Anderson, Yoan Moncada, Eloy Jimenez… none of them are in the same realm of “current” (at time of MLB promotion) readiness as Luis Robert. It’s such an old cliche to say it but the sound of the ball off his bat is simply different, and the way he carries himself in the field is, too. I’m not in any way comparing him to Ronald Acuna, but I remember the reaction in the ballpark the first time we saw Acuna in person back in 2017 and realized what the hype was about with the combination of power, speed, presence and grace. Luis Robert came the closest to replicating that feeling in the ballpark over the last three years. Not close, mind you, but closest.

yochuckie
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yochuckie

Not sure how much instruction he received in Cuba. Instruction that is MLB commensurate. Everyone has swing and miss in their game nowadays. It’s the Latin influences of not being able to “ walk off the Island”.

J.D. Martin
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J.D. Martin

You have to factor in the major league ball making most AAA stat lines a joke last year. BP’s DRC+ adjusts for park and league, similarly to wRC+ but with the caveat that minor league wRC+ isn’t park adjusted as Fangraphs doesn’t calculate or store those park factors on their website. Robert had a 128 mark at AA and 114 mark at AAA–certainly good, but not earth shatteringly good like his raw stats make him seem. These marks are also significantly below his wRC+ marks (155/136 respectively). He’s obviously incredibly talented but the concerns that the offensive performance will play below the talent are warranted in my eyes

jdr
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jdr

I think there is a zero percent chance Roberts posts a 20-22% K rate this year. It’s going to be a lot higher.

tomerafan
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tomerafan

Based on what? Gut feel? Data? Watching him play? All are fine, but what’s your basis?