GLENDALE, Ariz. — It’s understandable the White Sox plan to go into the season with Tim Anderson and Yoan Moncada flip-flopping in the leadoff spot and No. 2 hole.
If the Sox are ready to compete, as most expect, every game will matter from Opening Day on. So it makes perfect sense to insert a couple of experienced bats up top and let Luis Robert settle into the majors batting lower in the lineup.
But the 1-2 punch of the future is likely Robert and fellow rookie Nick Madrigal, and the sooner the Sox go that route, the better off they’ll be.
Madrigal had a .395 on-base percentage against right-handers last year in the minors and a .438 OBP with runners in scoring position and two outs. Robert posted a .372 OBP against right-handers and a .429 OBP with runners in scoring position and two outs.
They played together at three minor league stops, often paired as the Nos. 1-2 hitters.
“It does feel comfortable,” Madrigal said Tuesday at Camelback Ranch. “I don’t know what the plan is. We haven’t played with each other yet this spring. Last year we were hitting pretty close, back-to-back. It was great hitting behind him. Made things a lot easier.
“Him being on second or third base with me up, it seemed like he was always on base. He does a lot for the lineup, and I feel comfortable with that back-to-back combo.”
Madrigal stole 35 bases last year and Robert stole 36. Imagine two young hitters getting on base and wreaking havoc for all the big dogs behind them. It could jump-start the crowds at Sox Park and provide the kind of spark the team has lacked during the rebuild.
“It was fun,” Madrigal said. “There’s a lot of action when we get on base.”
Would Madrigal have the green light to steal? Depends on the situation.
“I think I am one of the guys where, if the time comes, they’ll free me up,” he said. “If it’s a close game, I probably won’t run as much. It all depends on if the pitchers are slide-stepping. There are some great catchers in the league. I’ll definitely have to do a lot of scouting and pick my times to go.”
Manager Rick Renteria already said he won’t use Robert in the leadoff spot at the outset so the rookie doesn’t have too much on his plate. Madrigal isn’t even assured of making the team out of spring training, despite hitting .341 at Double-A Birmingham and .331 at Triple-A Charlotte last year.
But if he doesn’t make the Opening-Day roster, he should be up soon and eventually figures to move into the No. 2 hole or the No. 9 spot as a second leadoff man.
Madrigal, who turns 23 on March 5, is listed at 5-foot-8 and 175 pounds. His style of play will remind those of a certain age of Sox legend Nellie Fox.
“I’ve definitely heard the name,” Madrigal said. “I haven’t followed his numbers that closely, but I have heard his name a ton. I know how great of a player he was. People have mentioned it to me.”
Fox, a left-handed hitter listed at 5-10 and 160 pounds, played 14 years for the Sox in the 1950s and ’60s, teaming with Luis Aparicio to provide a jolt at the top of the lineup. It’s still easy to envision Aparicio leading off with a single, stealing second and scoring on a Fox single to right to give the Sox an early lead.
They were known back then as the “Go-Go Sox,” and though younger fans may be unfamiliar with the names, they’ve probably heard the old song, “Let’s Go, Go-Go White Sox,” that’s still played at the park. It first became popular during the pennant-winning 1959 season, when Fox won the American League Most Valuable Player award, and the song enjoyed a resurgence during the 2005 World Series championship season.
Fox struck out only 216 times in 10,351 plate appearances, never fanning more than 18 times in a season. In his first two minor league seasons, Madrigal struck out a total of 21 times in 705 plate appearances.
In the era of launch angles and a swing-for-the-fences mentality, Madrigal is a throwback to a different era. Developing those contact skills over the years has made him one of baseball’s more intriguing prospects.
“Every year you gain more and more knowledge,” he said. “You pick up different styles of the game, the way pitchers are approaching things. Like in today’s modern era, pitchers are trying to work at the top of the zone with how hard they’re throwing, and fastballs are rising.
“That’s more popular now, and before it was something they didn’t (do) because of all the home runs allowed at the top of the zone. Just picking up things here and there. Scouting reports are getting better every year.”
Moncada cut down on strikeouts last year from a league-leading 217 in 2018 to 154 and raised his average from .235 to .315. But his power and run production make him a better fit down the lineup. Anderson led the majors with a .335 average in 2019 but drew only 15 walks.
Like Anderson, Madrigal rarely walks; he had 44 in 120 games last year. But his bat control and lack of strikeouts make him the best choice near the top of a lineup, especially if Robert is getting on base ahead of him.
“It’s not a huge deal to me,” Madrigal said of his low strikeout percentage. “It’d be more important for me to do more things for my team, be more productive or get more walks. If I led in one of those categories to help the team win, I’d be more happy with that, rather than just putting the ball in play.”
For now, making the team is the only thing concerning Madrigal. Everyone knows he’ll be up at some point this season, but making it out of spring training would mean he forced the Sox to adjust their plans because of his performance.
“Some people might think it’s crazy, but last year I thought I had a great chance to break camp (with the Sox),” he said. “Even though I was still in high-A at the time, I truly thought there was a chance.
“People might laugh at that, but that was my mind-set. And it’s kind of the same this year, even though I’m a lot closer.”
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