Even if José Abreu didn’t come away with a go-ahead two-run homer and the bulk of the run production in the White Sox’s 3-2 victory over the Tampa Bay Rays on Saturday, it still would be worth praising his early returns.
So let’s really indulge our process-oriented virtue and pretend that Abreu’s 401-foot drive off Corey Kluber’s hanging curve only traveled 391 feet, and he had to settle for an 0-for-4. That would make Abreu 5-for-30 with two doubles, three walks and eight strikeouts. That’s not what anybody wants, but it’s also not out of line.
Generally speaking, a slow start for Abreu can more or less be shrugged away. The first month has been his worst month, especially when removing his sensational introduction in 2014 (.253/.324/.436 since 2015). He looks miserable in cold weather before gaining steam that culminates in a supernova August. We know this guy.
Specific to this April, however, the traditional numbers are the only thing that would suggest that Abreu is struggling. In terms of contact quality and direction, you’d be hard-pressed to know that the temperatures aren’t to his liking.
Compare this April to the one that came before, and the results make it seem like I’ve transposed the table incorrectly.
But if you remove the actual results and swap in Statcast’s X (expected) stats, the “results” are more in line with better decisions and timing.
Abreu has made healthier choices, but he might not be seeing the immediate rewards of his heart-smart lifestyle because he stepped on the scale after one too many glasses of water. The year-over-year spray chart suggests he’s set to explode once knit caps are no longer necessary at Guaranteed Rate Field.
Small sample? Sure, but it’s reflective of the form Abreu should hope to maintain, even if the results are slow in cooperating.
For Abreu, Last year featured a troubling combination of his lowest-ever batting average (.261), highest-ever strikeout rate (27.6%), second-highest ground-ball rate (46.4%) and worst-ever double play total (28). Those ugly categories didn’t stop him from reaching the benchmarks in what Steve Stone would call the power numbers (30 homers, 117 RBIs), but it’s the kind of confluence that foreshadows a tougher time hitting them in years ahead.
These undercurrents are why I sensed that Abreu had conceded more to the aging process in the run-up to this season, which is his second-ever contract year. The last time he was on the verge of free agency, he demanded the White Sox re-sign him, lest he re-sign himself. This time around, he’s leaving his future a more open-ended question, and his teammates don’t seem to be taking his presence for granted.
This could be a tacit acknowledgment of the decline phase his MVP forced everybody to forget about, but given that an Abreu who wasn’t subject to geopolitical boundaries might be on a Hall of Fame track right now, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense — nor is it much fun — to start writing him off until it’s abundantly clear. Somebody so dedicated to hitting a baseball might keep figuring out different ways to get it done. Put this kind of spray chart in a warmer-weather month, and this is what such a reinvention would look like.
Granted, it’d risk sapping his numbers in different ways. If this season-opening spike in launch angle has staying power …
… then Abreu’s batting average might take a hit. His line-drive rate is running in the single digits, so maybe he’d end up trading some of those good-piece-of-hitting knocks the opposite way for one of these fly balls that didn’t quite get as far as they needed to.
On the other hand, Abreu hasn’t grounded into a double play this year after leading the league in that category three years running. That might be a trade Abreu and the White Sox are happy to make. If he’s more likely to be a .260 hitter than a .290 hitter as he advances into the back half of his 30s, he might as well try to be a .260 hitter who doesn’t make twice the outs on a couple dozen of those batted balls. That kinda defeats the benefits of rebuilding, specifically the part that results in a lineup that remains threatening after his spot.
Here’s where we emphasize the small-sample caveat, saying this is a mere eight games against a mere three teams in league that is contending with compromised preparation. Perhaps the pitching is unusually uneven to the point that Abreu finds taking and lifting easier. Perhaps Abreu’s just opening the season with an August-like timing and it’s subject to the usual fluctuation in the weeks to come.
If nothing else, we can all agree that his Statcast percentiles won’t remain quite this tumescent.
But there’s also a chance that Abreu spends more of this season selling out for power due to the diminishing returns on all-field hitting for a right-handed first baseman his size and age. Frank Thomas and Albert Pujols had to start making that choice around this point in their careers, although feet and ankle issues hastened their shifts.
Abreu has managed to avoid those sorts of issues, which is remarkable considering the punishment he’s absorbed elsewhere. It’s also well within his character were he playing through more pain than he let on. Whatever his condition, I just don’t recall Abreu coming out of the gate with one long fly after another, even in that 10-homer April of 2014.
He spent last year’s first month beating balls into the ground. He’s spent other Aprils getting jammed day after day before remembering how to shorten his arms. His first 30 at-bats of this season are a big-enough departure that it’s worth revisiting these trends in a few weeks to see how they’re holding up, and if so, whether the results start catching up.
I thought Abreu had a 3 HR day yesterday if only we were in July.
In a strange bit of optimism for me I think Abreu is a talented enough hitter to effectively evolve his approach to counteract aging and remain a valuable contributor into his later years à la Joey Votto, although with a different specific type of evolution than Votto.
I think he’s a Sox for life if he wants it but his next contract will be an interesting one. Does he go 2-3 years with the idea of if the Sox don’t win a World Series in that span he could get traded at some point to be on another contending team? Seeing him get to the mountaintop would be fantastic and clearly I want to see him do it on the Sox but I wonder what his priorities are.
Leury not in the lineup today. Is he hurt? Covid? Dead? Did TLR have a seizure?
I don’t know how they can win without him in the lineup, we will just have to hope for the best.
The o-swing % passes the eye test so far. Way fewer pitches chased low and outside than any time I can remember watching Abreu. Also working deeper counts. He doesn’t seem afraid to let an early strike go by with guys on base.
Love me some, Pito!
He’s being a lot more selective, too, which 1) adds to the idea he’s selling out for pop by hunting pitches he knows he can drive and 2) should also add to the walk rate. Last year was the first time he’s ever run a plus walk rate; if he continues this power-focused more selective approach I think he might crack double digits there this year, which would be pretty unusual (guys rarely *improve* their walk rates this late into their careers) but is a great way to partially offset declining bat-to-ball/BABIP skills. How he’s hunting pitches to drive reminds me a lot of Nelson Cruz’s similar commitment later in his career.
The other way walk-rate increases happen for an aging hitter is when he fouls off hittable pitches earlier in the count. I remember Jermaine Dye’s walk rate just about doubling…
… and then he retired.
But yeah, if he’s conceding that he can’t cover the entire plate (and inches off it) in a damaging fashion now and has possessed the talent to recognize such pitches, he might have the valuable kind of progress in that category.
Great points by both of you. Much like a great pitcher who has to learn to be “crafty” when he loses a couple ticks on his fastball, Jose will need to learn to adapt his game. He will need to sharpen his eye and potentially wait out pitchers to get something he can hit, but I’m confident he’s got a couple good years left