Just as Chicago White Sox rookie Andrew Vaughn was finding a groove at the plate, his security blanket on defense has been taken away.
The 23-year-old former Cal slugger has warmed in the batter’s box. Over the past nine games entering play Tuesday, Vaughn is hitting .379 (11-for-29) with a .419 on-base percentage and a .483 slugging percentage.
Compare that to his numbers over the first eight games he played this season: A slash line of .136/.321/.227.
“I think at first definitely you are on the big stage and I haven’t really been on that stage before, I definitely was pressing a little hard,” Vaughn told reporters over the weekend. “Trying to create a result instead of just going out and having fun and playing the game that I love and have been playing since I was a little kid. Tried to take a step back and just slow it down and be myself.”
We’ll get back to Vaughn’s progress at the plate, but the White Sox have been thrown another curve ball that will impact their defense — and possibly Vaughn in particular.
Center fielder Luis Robert, who won a Gold Glove last season, is out 3-4 months after sustaining a complete tear of his right hip flexor while stumbling over first base Sunday. The White Sox said Robert will be examined further over the next couple days to determine if he needs surgery or can recover through rest and rehabilitation.
Vaughn played first base at Cal but has been in left field for the White Sox after starter Eloy Jimenez ruptured his left pectoral tendon in spring training, putting him on the shelf for 5-6 months.
Vaughn is just learning to play in the outfield, and so far, so good. He has zero errors in the modest total of 25 chances in left but admitted several weeks ago that the presence of Robert in center field gave him a sense of comfort.
“I was trying to make myself comfortable knowing that I had a Gold Glover to my left in Luis Robert,” Vaughn said. “If the ball gets hit to my left, I kind of know he’s got it.”
Not anymore. Not for a while, anyway. The White Sox say they will try to fill the position with internal choices before exploring whether they must trade for a center fielder.
“It’s obviously very difficult and not at all how any team draws things up,” Chicago GM Rick Hahn said. “You certainly try to create as many contingencies and protections as you can. There are certain star-caliber players that are more difficult to replace than others.”
Robert, 23, is significant to the White Sox both at the plate and in the field. The American League Rookie of the Year runner-up last season, he is slashing .316/.359/.463 with nine doubles, one triple, one home run and eight RBIs in 25 games.
“It’s disappointing, there’s no sugarcoating that,” Hahn said. “It’s a blow.”
The GM said the play of Vaughn and rookie DH Yermin Mercedes — who won AL Rookie of the Month for April after batting .415 — has “helped mitigate the urgency to replace the vacancy created by Eloy.”
Vaughn said he’s worked in the batting cage to slow down his approach, what he called “going back to my roots.” Manager Tony La Russa sees the difference.
“It’s just a better approach,” La Russa said. “The timing thing is so important. There’s a certain timing to where you get your bat ready to, they call it launch, and what the bottom half is doing, does it get on time? Sometimes you’re a little late getting there and the timing gets messed and your head flies. But his fundamentals have been better and he sees the ball better and he’s going directly to it better.”
As expected, Vaughn is hitting better (.333) against left-handers than right-handers (.256), and he’s been more comfortable at home (.321) than on the road (.217).
Vaughn is enjoying every aspect of the experience, and is using every chance to improve himself.
“Just working on that routine and just staying within myself, not trying to force the ball to a certain spot on the field during batting practice,” Vaughn said. “Just going out there and hitting it where it’s pitched. Just having fun with it and enjoying being here.
“You’ve got to be a little kid. It is your job but if you go out there and have fun, everything works out.”
Cover photo of Andrew Vaughn (crossing the plate) by Kamil Krzaczynski, USA Today
Follow Jeff Faraudo of Cal Sports Report on Twitter: @jefffaraudo