There will be very little time to make adjustments.
Luis Robert has all the talent in the world and can do it all on the baseball field. But unless he’s got the Time Stone stashed somewhere, there’s nothing he can do about the 2020 baseball calendar.
Major League Baseball said “go” on a 60-game season Tuesday, setting up a two-month sprint to the postseason in a sport that typically gets there after a six-month marathon. The White Sox hope to get there, and they certainly appear capable of doing so, but whether they’ll be able to hang with or move past the Minnesota Twins at the top of the division will hinge on plenty of unknowns, among them how Robert will fare in his first taste of the major leagues.
The uber-talented 22-year-old is perhaps the most hyped of the White Sox collection of youngsters yet, with fellow phenom Eloy Jimenez describing him as “the next Mike Trout” back in January. But all one needs is a cursory understanding of Trout’s own history to know what makes breaking out in 2020 such a challenge for Robert.
Trout played his first 40 big league games in 2011, called up a month before his 20th birthday. And things didn’t go so hot. In those 40 games, he hit just .220, with a nasty .281 on-base percentage. He didn’t even start the 2012 season — which featured the first of his eight consecutive All-Star appearances and the first of seven top two finishes in AL MVP voting — in the majors.
This isn’t to say Robert will follow the exact same path. He tore up the minor leagues last season, raking at three different levels and dazzling along the way with a combination of moonshot homers, blazing speed and highlight-reel grabs in center field. He has the talent to hit the ground running and set the major leagues on fire.
But the recent history of hyped White Sox prospects hitting the big leagues suggests a more cautious approach would be beneficial.
Just last season, Jimenez arrived in the exact same situation Robert does now, with a long-term contract in hand and not a game of big league experience under his belt. While Jimenez’ rookie season finished with a ton of positives, 31 homers and a white-hot September among them, it was hardly a runaway success.
Jimenez struggled at the season’s outset, in no small part thanks to an ankle sprain that knocked him out for 21 of the team’s first 60 games. But by the time the White Sox reached that 60-game mark, where was Jimenez? He was hitting .224 with a .273 on-base percentage and just six homers. He admitted that he was trying to do too much while attempting to adjust to major league pitching.
Yoan Moncada did fine in his first extended stretch against major league pitching in 2017, only to have a 2018 season to forget, one that ended with 217 strikeouts after the league adjusted to him. Lucas Giolito had a good debut in 2017, then posted the worst statistics of any pitcher in baseball in 2018. Through his first three seasons, Tim Anderson had a .286 on-base percentage.
All three had huge 2019 seasons and have emerged as true cornerstones in the team’s rebuilding effort. But it took time. And time is not a luxury available to Robert, at least not during the 60 scheduled games in this most unusual of seasons.
It’s not to say that a Rookie of the Year prediction for Robert is misplaced. He’s still rolling into the campaign as one of the most talented young players around. Maybe he will have the upper hand on big league pitching from the beginning.
But a season squished into two months doesn’t give Robert the best opportunity to figure things out the way Jimenez did last season, when his slow start yielded to the season’s final month, when even after all the tape-measure shots to dead center, we saw what he could really do: a .363/.400/.690 slash line, nine home runs and 27 RBIs in his final 27 games.
Maybe Jimenez was onto something. Maybe Robert will be “the next Mike Trout.” But even Trout needed time to master the major leagues.