Luis Robert Jr. doesn’t have to lead White Sox if he already does so much

White Sox outfielder Luis Robert Jr.
(Photo by Kamil Krzaczynski/USA TODAY Sports)

From his pregame comments to his in-game performance, everybody can learn something from Luis Robert Jr. on Tuesday.

Before Robert put the White Sox ahead for good with his resounding, satisfying solo shot that silenced the majority of the Wrigley Field crowd in the South Siders’ 5-3 victory over the Cubs, he responded to questions about leadership without providing an edifying answer.

While he’s far and away the team’s best player, he didn’t sound all that willing to step into a leadership role.

“I don’t see myself as a leader,” Robert said, through team interpreter Billy Russo, before Tuesday’s game. “I try to do my job and be on the field and do the things that we should all push to do and maybe be an example for others. But I don’t see myself as a leader.” […]

After he declined to call himself a clubhouse leader, he was asked if there are any leaders on this team and replied, “I don’t know.”

I’m inclined to set aside the language barrier, because even though you have to consider that something might be lost in translation, I’d rather reject the premise entirely and issue a moratorium about leadership, because there are so many reasons to table the talk.

First of all, the White Sox are 48-72. Unless they have a 24-game winning streak in their back pocket, this is going to be a team playing out the string. Nobody should be forced to receive a title transfer on an underwater asset, especially when nobody else is playing at or near Robert’s level.

If you didn’t listen to Monday’s Sox Machine Podcast with Scott Carroll — and you should, because I enjoyed the hell out of our conversation — he said that leaders have to be able to perform up to certain standards in order to be treated as such in the clubhouse. If you refuse to listen to that podcast, Liam Hendriks said something similar when he talked about the limitations due to Tommy John surgery.

“It’s been very hard for me to act in that kind of leadership role and try to take charge of things because I haven’t been on the field,” Hendriks said to the media Friday. “I don’t feel like I’ve earned that credit this year but not going out there. I’m a big “follow the leader” (advocate). OK, I’ll do this, people fall in line.”

The Sox are trying to make Andrew Vaughn into a bigger presence since the trades, but I was already pessimistic about his ability to finish a season with a flourish given his September history, and he’s already trending in that direction with one walk against 31 strikeouts since the start of July. He and everybody else have their own stuff to figure out before they try putting a particular stamp on this team.

I’d also give Robert some credit for being explicit. If you can pretend like you saw this quote without Robert’s name attached to it …

“I try to do my job and be on the field and do the things that we should all push to do and maybe be an example for others.”

… wouldn’t that description kinda fit José Abreu?

Of course, you have to stop the quote there, because Abreu didn’t reject the leadership mantle. He was also giving rides from the airport and furnishing iPads, so he did establish a certain amount of concern in the success of his teammates to establish a reputation outside of his play. I’m also more inclined to give him some credit for having a certain gravity, because as frustrated as everybody was with the White Sox’s .500-ness in 2022, maybe their collapse starts earlier without Abreu there.

But toward the end, Abreu expressed a certain amount of displeasure with way the White Sox failed to coalesce, as though he figured that at some point that everybody would get serious, but they came up well short of a quorum.

The White Sox never seemed to reflect on the kind of talent they acquired. And you don’t have to bring entirely speculative characteristics like attitude, desire or work ethic into the mix, because Rick Hahn and Kenny Williams never addressed the flaws in the on-field mix. Abreu was exceptionally productive during his time with the White Sox, but he had some weaknesses. He was a righty who sometimes struggled against righties, he could expand the zone too often, he get into ground-ball ruts, and he couldn’t play anything besides first base, but that didn’t stop the White Sox from adding aggressive hitters who struggled to lift the ball and lacked the athleticism to play plus defense. If the Sox were this stubborn about or blind to the things everybody could see, it wouldn’t be surprising if they also failed to account for soft skills and intangibles.

That’s why I don’t mind Robert saying he doesn’t think he has leadership in him, because maybe the Sox need everybody to be this upfront about what they don’t or can’t do. If Robert brings plus power, speed and center field defense, that’s plenty for one player. If he struggles to control his aggressiveness and doesn’t see himself being the center of a clubhouse, maybe the Sox can work on finding complementary talents for once.

And the emphasis should be on a diversified talent base. The Sox have tried to add leadership without particular regard for production at previous points at previous rebuilds thinking veteran presence was all they lacked, only to realize the projection systems had valid reasons to be bearish about the roster. Jerry Reinsdorf could have tried to prevent this by bringing in new executives who wouldn’t fall prey to the same blind spots time and time again, but the guy at the top has zero interest in addressing shortcomings, and that rolls particular feature of the team rolls downhill.

When the franchise is this compromised, you can’t expect for the team’s most credible player to fill in all the gaps. Just like Abreu, it’s fine to let Robert do what he does as well as he can possibly do it, because nobody in that uniform can produce the same kind of highs. If he summons the energy or confidence to improve in other areas, terrific, but dwelling on what he can’t do just results in unnecessary disappointment from a team that already produces so much without trying.

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…[D]welling on what [Robert] can’t do just results in unnecessary disappointment from a team that already produces so much without trying.”

What a glorious sentence, Margalus. Well done.