Since Tim Anderson injured his groin on June 31st, many White Sox fans have gotten what they have been clamoring for; Luis Robert in the 1 spot in the lineup. Prior to last night, Robert had performed well in the spot; going 9/25 (.360) with 2 doubles, 1 home run, 5 runs scored, 3 stolen bases, and 2 RBI’s – despite being the third most aggressive hitter in baseball to date, and the most aggressive in the zone, Robert also managed to draw 4 walks in the 5 game stretch. Most importantly, the White Sox won four of the five games Robert led off, and his energy clearly carried throughout the team. Last night, Robert struggled mightily – as can be expected from a 23-year-old rookie in his first big league action in a season that’s as normal as finding a knowledgeable Cubs fan – and as did he, so did the offense.
Robert made contact on 3 (27.3%) of the 11 pitches he swung at last night, striking out four times; 3 swinging and one looking - the golden sombrero for the young TikTok star. It was the lowest contact percentage of his young career, but it wasn’t abnormal for Robert whose contact rate is third from the bottom in all of baseball – with only Joey Gallo and Keston Hiura ranking beneath him (wait, is contact overrated?). What Robert shows us is that hard contact and elite speed can overcome a lack of consistent contact, and he has been an offensive force despite the contact troubles, but one that I would argue is not ideal for the leadoff spot. Which is exactly why Tim Anderson should return to the rule when he returns this weekend.
While Anderson is not a patient hitter by any means – he has actually seen fewer pitches per plate appearance (3.35) this season than Robert (3.54) – and he certainly is not known for his ability to take a walk (of qualified hitters in 2019, Anderson ranked 134th of 135 in BB%), he also has incredible bat to ball skills. Despite swinging at the 5th most pitches out of the zone in 2019, and the 4th most pitches total, Anderson ranked in the middle of the pack in contact rate; and when you remove swings outside of the zone, Anderson was one of two players with an overall swing rate above 58.5% and a zContact% (zone contact) above 89.9. In fact, Anderson ranked in the top 31 in baseball in zContact rate. Of players who had a zSwing% higher than 76, Anderson ranked number one in zContact, beating out players like Freddie Freeman, Bryce Harper and contact king Jeff McNeil; which just shows how good Anderson's hands are. On the young season, prior to his injury, Anderson’s plate discipline rates were beginning to look improved compared to last year. Anderson was swinging less in general, and also swinging at pitches outside the zone 5% less than 2019. Although this was a small sample, it is promising because Anderson was also seeing significantly more pitches out of the zone compared to 2019; up from 58.9% to 62.5%. Lastly, not only was Anderson swinging at less bad pitches, he was also swinging at less pitches in the zone – choosing to be more selective and attack pitches he can do more damage against. In the small sample we have, Anderson’s hard hit % was nearly twice what it was last season (63.6% vs 32.2%) and his soft contact rate was down 4.3% vs 2019.
What does this tell us about Anderson? Plate discipline numbers are often the fastest to normalize – needing a much smaller sample to help us conclude a player has changed his approach. Last year, Anderson broke out and gained the confidence he may have lacked at times in the past. On his path to the batting title, many said his style was too aggressive and he would never succeed consistently given his approach. This off-season Anderson made it a point to say his way worked so he’s not changing, but what he did say was that while he’ll never be a guy who takes a lot of walks, he is learning to only attack the pitches he can do damage against. In the young season, that approach has been on full display and Anderson had been excelling offensively before he tweaked his groin after getting his foot caught while fielding a ground ball.
Coming off a season in which he slashed 335/357/567, Anderson is looking to build and grow as a hitter. While he may not maintain a .400 BABIP forever, Anderson’s elite bat to ball skills, speed and increased hard hit rate should make up for any lost “luck” he experiences along the way. As long as he carries an OBP above .350, Anderson is an ideal leadoff man for this team. His energy is every bit as infectious as Robert, but he also won’t swing thru as many pitches and he is comfortable taking the burden and pressure that comes with starting a game off. Anderson has been better in his career setting the table than he has been clearing it, and that’s a player I want coming to the plate as frequently as possible in the leadoff spot. It’s nothing against Robert - who is a generational talent and the most exciting young player I have had the privilege to watch in my 33 years on this planet – as much as it’s a testament to all the hard work Tim Anderson has put in since he was an unpolished slightly bowlegged state champion point guard from Alabama, who played short stop in his spare time.
Anderson is a force atop the White Sox lineup, and his combination of speed, contact, and energy is the best way to leadoff a White Sox baseball game in 2020. Robert will have plenty of time to shine, and his role may be better suited for more RBI opportunities, but when TA7 returns to the lineup this weekend it’ll be as the leadoff man. And if you don’t like it? Too damn bad, because TA doesn’t care what you think; in fact, he appreciates the doubt, as it fuels his drive to be the best at a game he didn’t start playing seriously until his Junior Year in high school. While Anderson’s game will never appease all observers, the success of the White Sox offense couldn’t be in better hands, and the good news is Ricky knows that as well:
Party on TA7!