Where and when the legend of Luis Robert begins is up to interpretation. It could have started when he hit .401 as an 18-year-old in Cuba's best league. It could be when he signed with the White Sox for $26 million in May 2017. Maybe it won't begin for real until next year when Robert inevitably makes his Major League debut.
Or consider the version that opens with a ground ball to third base nearly one year ago to the day. On Nov. 9, 2018, Robert hit cleanup for the Glendale Desert Dogs in the Arizona Fall League. He beat out that ground ball for a leadoff single, stole second base, then tagged up on a deep fly ball to left-center field. As Robert rounded third, the shortstop walked the cutoff throw back to the infield.
"You could see his eyes get big," said Charles Poe, a White Sox instructor and Glendale's first base coach that day.
Robert noticed the nonchalant fielding, so he raced home, slid in with his left hand and beat the throw. Everyone else on the field stood still. The top White Sox prospect had manufactured a run almost entirely on his own, daring the opposition to stop him. They couldn't.
That baffling display of talent came after just one of Robert's 79 AFL plate appearances -- he hit .324 with an .800 OPS. Other top prospects posted better numbers, but this was significant for Robert because his 2018 was mostly a wash. Injuries limited him to 50 games. He never homered.
If Arizona showed a glimpse of what a healthy Robert could do, 2019 revealed the full picture. The 22-year-old ascended to No. 3 overall on MLB.com's Top 100 list by batting .328 with a 1.001 OPS across three levels and being just one of two Minor Leaguers to collect 30 dingers and 30 stolen bases. He finished the year on the precipice of the bigs and was the staff pick for the Top Offensive Player MiLBY award.
"A freak of nature, a phenom," said Poe, the hitting coach at Double-A Birmingham this year. "A lot of things come to my brain, but I knew when [the White Sox signed] Luis, that he was something special."
Fans' Choice: Cardinals' Dylan Carlson »
That also became apparent to Class A Advanced Winston-Salem manager Justin Jirschele on the first night of the season. Robert went deep twice and drove in five runs, and thus began a month-long tear. He had multiple hits in 11 of his first 13 games and his average never fell below .423. By the time the center fielder was promoted to the Southern League at the end of April, his OPS and wRC+ had climbed to 1.432 and 305 respectively.
In Robert's first home game for the Dash, he came to the plate with a runner on first and the score tied. From the third-base coaching box, Jirschele envisioned what the at-bat could produce. Any sort of hit would suffice, the manager just wanted Robert to keep the line moving. But, he thought, a homer would be nice. Jirschele got his wish with a "majestic" first-pitch shot that landed beyond the tall center-field wall.
"Night after night, he kept going out there and putting together big-time nights for us," Jirschele said. "Just kind of taking that next step and every single night doing something, whether it was offensive or defensive, he would do something through the course of nine innings that you looked up and you were like, 'Wow, this is a special talent here.' … It was something I've never seen before."
Robert's improved demeanor and approach in the batter's box, Jirschele said, brought out the best in the 6-foot-3, 185-pound prospect. He had a plan with which he stuck. He didn't chase pitches he couldn't drive. And that all began with health.
Offseason MiLB include
"I think last year the nicks and bruises and pain he was trying to play through at times was really affecting not only what he could physically be able to do, but the mental side of it as well," Jirschele said. "That freed him up big time this year and the confidence grew. And again, he's a year older, he's mature, he's more comfortable being around his teammates, being in the game, being in the ballparks -- I just think a little bit of everything about being a year older and being more comfortable, he was able to put it all together."
Robert's coaches saw his desire to learn English as another factor in his development. Jirschele noticed the playful banter with Dash teammates. When the slugger arrived at third base, Jirschele would have him repeat instructions and scenarios. How many outs? Two outs. Are we running on contact? Yes, we are running on contact. Comfort in conversation translated to comfort on the field.
These changes only manifested further in Birmingham, where Poe said Robert came out of his shell. They had conversations in the cage that were more fluid than in years past. When Robert returned to the dugout after a monstrous hit, he spoke with a welcome arrogance -- "Oh, you like that s---, C. Poe?"
View the MiLBY results »
Double-A pitchers tested Robert's plate discipline. Walks frustrated him. "They're not going to just put it on a tee for you to hit it," Poe advised. Robert's strikeout rate dropped nearly two percentage points from the Carolina League, down to 22.1 percent. His production, while still elite, normalized. He hit .314 with eight home runs, 21 stolen bases and an .880 OPS in 56 games.
Robert's legend grew in tandem with his discipline. One night in early June, an 0-2 breaking pitch hung. He vaporized it. The ball sailed 453 feet over the scoreboard in left at Regions Field. Poe swears it went further.
"A lot of people don't believe that happened, but we have it on video that he cleared that board and it's still amazing," Poe said. "I can't believe that went that far off his bat. If it was anybody that would do it, he could do it."
Video: Birmingham's Robert crushes solo jack
As the crazy stories mounted, so did the accolades -- Futures Game, Southern League All-Star, Triple-A debut. Robert joined Charlotte on July 11 -- two homers and seven RBIs that night -- and batted .351 that month. He clubbed 16 International League dingers in all, which matched his total between Winston-Salem and Birmingham despite logging 99 fewer at-bats with the Knights.
The one thing that avoided Robert was a spot in Chicago's clubhouse. White Sox director of player development Chris Getz told NBC Sports Chicago the club believed the decision to keep Robert in Triple-A was the best route. He cited the familiar topic of Robert's "ultra aggressive" at-bats, which he said must become more consistent. Robert hit .297 with a .974 OPS in 202 at-bats at the Minors' highest level.
"I'm sure if they wanted to start his clock they probably could have brought him up there," Poe said. "But they probably didn't want to start his clock. But he was fascinating to watch throughout the season and there's nothing this guy can't do."
The top Cardinals prospect has officially double-dipped this award season.
Carlson won a MiLBY earlier this week as the staff pick for Breakout Prospect after beginning this season outside the Top 100 and ascending to his current status as No. 24 overall.
The previous billing fit. Though he was a first-round pick in 2016, Carlson had never posted an OPS better than .738 before this year. He spent 2018 between Class A Peoria and Class A Advanced Palm Beach and managed 11 home runs between the levels. He wasn't bad, but he found the process of development to be a challenge.
This year was different, beginning with an invite to big league camp before his 21st birthday. He opened the Minor League regular season as the fifth-youngest player in the Texas League, and it didn't matter; he batted .286/.369/.512 with 10 home runs in the first half and was named a midseason All-Star. And although Carlson spent the last few weeks of the season at Triple-A Memphis, he earned the Texas League MVP award, in part because his .882 OPS ranked second on the circuit.
The bump up to the Pacific Coast League only bred better numbers as Carlson compiled a .361/.418/.681 slash line in 18 games. He brought his season totals for homers and stolen bases up to 26 and 20 respectively and proved his breakout season was worth more than just one award.