Jim Bowden released his breakout predictions for 2023 in The Athletic. Of the ten players he named, two White Sox players, Luis Robert Jr, and Andrew Vaughn, made the cut. So why should you care what Jim Bowden predicts? Because he has 16 years of experience as the former Sr. Vice President and general manager for the Cincinnati Reds and Washington Nationals. In 1999 he was named the MLB Executive of the Year by Baseball America.
Bowden parlayed those credentials to become a senior MLB Writer for The Athletic, the lead MLB Analyst and Insider for CBS Sports-HQ, and a regular talk-show host on SiriusXM for the MLB Network and Fantasy channels. The bottom line is that he is well-respected in the industry, and his opinion usually carries some weight.
Luis Robert Jr.
The newly minted Luis Robert Jr has always been considered a five-tool player. He was deemed “the next Mike Trout” before even playing a game in the major leagues. So far, Robert has been solid. But not nearly the star everyone envisioned when he got called up from Charlotte.
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As a rookie, he won the Gold Glove Award in the shortened 60-game season, but since then, he has struggled to stay healthy for an entire 162-game season. Last year he slashed .284/.319/.426 with 18 home runs, 56 RBIs, and 11 stolen bases. Those are not bad numbers by any means, but they could have been even better, having he not been battling a nagging wrist injury during the second half of the season. He is on the precipice of being great but just hasn’t taken that next step yet.
Here is why Bowden thinks he can break out in 2023:
“I like his hit tool and defense better than most. Robert has yet to live up to my lofty expectations, but last year that had more to do with injuries, including trying to play through pain in his left wrist and hand. What I like about Robert is that he hits all types of pitches. He’s a .300-plus hitter against the fastball, but he’s also proven he can hit all the secondary types of pitches; in fact, he hit more home runs against breaking balls last year than fastballs, and he hit more than .400 against off-speed pitches. He also has the skills to develop into a well above average defender.”
Bowden also added:
“I believe he will break out this year with 25 to 30 home runs and at least 30 stolen bases, thanks in part to the rule changes that encourage running. So get ready for The Robert Show.”
There is a lot to unpack there, but also reason to believe that Bowden will be correct. In Roberts’s first 124 games in the MLB, he hit 24 home runs. He has the power. The problem is he has never played over 100 games in a season. If he can, he could easily surpass 25. Last season he had 12 home runs in the first half, then was limited to just 19 games in the second half of the season. When he was on the field, he was swinging with just his arms and sometimes with just one hand, which made it difficult to generate any power.
His stolen base numbers should reach new career highs. As Bowden mentioned, the new rules are advantageous for base runners. Robert has above-average speed, according to StatCast. Under Tony La Russa, he was rarely allowed to utilize it.
New manager Pedro Grifol has stressed the importance of aggressive base running. He should be more liberal in giving the steal sign than his predecessor. Tim Anderson even alluded to this on a podcast with Barstool Sports.
Most of Robert’s success this year will come down to health. If Robert can stay healthy, he can produce. He will also have to stop chasing breaking balls out of the zone. This Spring, he has seven strikeouts in the World Baseball Classic in 22 at-bats. The majority of those have been the result of Robert going dirt farming.
Andrew Vaughn has improved in each of his first two seasons. Now that he has settled into his natural position at first base, he seems poised for a breakout season. Bowden thinks so too.
“Chicago let Abreu walk in free agency to clear the way for Vaughn after making him play the outfield corners and designated hitter most of the time over his first two years in the majors. Now that he’s at first base, he can concentrate on doing what he does best: hit and hit with power. He turns 25 in April, and I can’t wait to see what he does this season. I think his home run total will swell from 17 last year to 22-24 this year, and his on-base percentage will be much higher-closer to what he did in the minors, perhaps even reaching the .350 range.”
Vaughn has all the tools necessary to join the likes of Allen, Abreu, Konerko, Thomas, and Thome in the long lineage of great White Sox first basemen. During the two-year snapshot he has provided during his brief MLB tenure, there is plenty of evidence his ceiling is very high. And this has been despite the White Sox doing everything they can to throw adversity his way.
Despite logging just 254 minor league at-bats, Vaughn was thrust into the Opening Day roster in 2021. If the lack of minor-league seasoning didn’t make things hard enough, the White Sox also asked him to learn an entirely new position. Learning how to hit major league pitching is hard enough. Trying to do that while also worrying about nuances of the outfield is a recipe for disaster.
Despite the adversity, Vaughn handled himself well. He slashed .235/.349/.411 with 15 home runs and 48 RBIs. Very respectable considering the circumstances. Despite the low batting average, Vaughn hit the ball hard. His 91.1 average exit velocity ranked 42nd in MLB. His hard-hit percentage placed him in the 81st percentile.
Where Vaughn ran into trouble was right-handed pitchers. He hit .269/.383/.555 with ten doubles and eight home runs, vs. left-handed pitchers compared to .221/.277/.332 with seven homers against right-handers. This led to him platooning with Gavin Sheets near the end of the season.
During the offseason, Vaughn went to work and showed his maturity as a hitter. In 2022 he raised his batting average to .271 while leading the White Sox with 17 home runs and 76 RBIs. Mind you, the bar was set very low on an underachieving 2022 squad, but still an accomplishment nonetheless.
He also slashed .260/.309/.444 against right-handers with 16 home runs and 63 RBIs, a vast improvement from the previous year. He still crushed lefties, hitting .307 in 114 at-bats.
The California kid also reduced his strikeout rate from 21.5 percent to 17.3 percent. He chased more pitches in year two but reduced his whiff rate by almost four percent. Vaughn has shown the ability to make adjustments. Right-handers are no longer his kryptonite, and he figures to improve even more in year three.
The California native also consistently hits the ball hard.
His .271 batting average wasn’t a good representation of how well he squared up the baseball.
According to Baseball Savant, his average exit velocity of 90 mph placed him in the MLB’s 82nd percentile. His hard-hit percentage was in the top ten percentile. Meanwhile, he also ranked in the league’s top half in expected batting average, slugging percentage, and xwOBA.
Vaughn has had some tough luck hitting the ball right at people. But when you constantly hit the ball hard, good things happen.
Finally, fatigue won’t be as much of an issue for him at first base. Even though he is in his mid-20s, Vaughn clearly hit a wall in each of his first two seasons.
His numbers dipped during the back end of the year. His September splits have produced his lowest batting average and OPS. His pre-All-Star Game slash line is .301/.350/.470, his slash line after the break is .234/.285/.381.
Wear and tear on his body played a factor. His 134 games played in 2022 were the most he has ever played in a single season.
Many will point out that he is young and that it shouldn’t be an issue. But Vaughn was running around the outfield for most of the season, something his body was not accustomed to. Eventually, all those hours logged tracking fly balls mixed with the grind of a 162-game season take their toll.
Bowden has selected two players with a very compelling case for big seasons. Place your bets now.