José Abreu grounds into double plays, but he can also start them

From Frank Thomas to Paul Konerko to José Abreu, the White Sox have an enviable legacy of first base production that’s celebrating 30 years in business. They’ve combined for 1,062 homers, 18 MVP finishes and 14 All-Star appearances between them.

There’s a trade-off with such stability, which is their plodding, righty-righty profiles leave a lot to be desired defensively. Thomas struggled in all facets, Konerko’s range was defined by how far he could topple to either side, and Abreu needed a lot of work to escape “liability” status.

It’s a matter of priorities, and the results have generally been in the White Sox’s favor. This template of first-base production also makes it a lot easier to appreciate defensive excellence at first base whenever the team has stumbled into some.

Right now, it feels like Abreu’s in the middle of a hot streak at first base. He added another highlight to his reel on Wednesday by faking out Miguel Cabrera for a 3-unassisted double play.

And it’s one of those videos that can appreciated on a per-frame level.

[ngg src=”galleries” ids=”1″ display=”basic_imagebrowser”]

Double plays that start with “3” have been an increasingly prominent feature of Abreu’s game. That was fourth such twin killing on a ground ball to first this year, which means the Sox are tied with San Diego for the league lead. It’s a skill that Abreu has turned into an artform, especially over the last two seasons.

  • Since 2019: 20 (first in MLB)
  • Since 2018: 28 (second in MLB)
  • Since 2017: 36 (t-third in MLB)

Dylan Cease has benefited from it in particular. He was on the mound for the antics with Cabrera on Wednesday, which marks the third straight start that Abreu has started a double play for him. The one against the Royals on Aug. 2 was easy…

… but this one against Cleveland last Friday on Francisco Lindor involved a return throw, and it erased the first Cease leadoff walk of many on the evening.

* * * * * * * * *

Abreu’s artistry — or, in some cases, his success despite the aesthetics — hasn’t been limited to this particular skill. He had a really good scooping day at third on Tuesday, with Tim Anderson making him stretch to complete difficult plays, and Yoán Moncada forcing Abreu to contort his body to avoid indefensible errors. Look up the “abreu-gem” tag in the game recaps here, and we’ve logged a few more plays that we might not count on him making:

The lone error was a dropped catch on a high throw by Leury García, which was a play he should have made, but one that was overshadowed by Eloy Jiménez having a cartoon-villain-grade difficulty escaping a simple net.

By and large, it feels like some of the best glovework we’ve ever seen from Abreu, and it might be. You’re just never going to find the evaluations to be unanimously glowing.

Metric20192020Per 150
UZR-1.9-0.7-7.5
DRS-4323

Sample size has a lot to do with it. An entire season often isn’t a great indicator of defensive stability, and Statcast and Baseball Prospectus haven’t even rolled out their defensive metrics for 2020 yet.

Abreu’s particular numbers aren’t the point. It’s more that a stretch like this shows that his ceiling for the analytical idea of value is limited. When you look at the highlights, all of the balls are hit where he’s already standing. That he’s converting them into outs speaks well of his hands and arm, but since it’s been decades since we’ve seen a regular with range at first, we can be lulled into treating acceptability as excellence.

And then you see a play like the one Evan White made in foul territory, and the imagination starts expanding again.

In defense of the team’s first-base defense, the White Sox have tried to shore up the position over the past decade alongside Abreu. It’s just that the White Sox’s solutions were Adam LaRoche and Yonder Alonso, and neither hit well enough to play in any form. If that’s the front office’s idea of help, that’s why Luke edited out the stories he heard about bad Samaritans.

Abreu’s limited range is why he’s never going to light up WAR boards. Combine it with his aggressive approach at the plate and the White Sox’s self-pantsing in the “R” part of “WAR,” and I’ve generally evaluated Abreu off that scale as a result. The answer to the first question of the exam (“Is he hitting?”) accounts for 80 percent of the grade, and Abreu’s underwater right now. He’s hitting .263/.296/.438, and he’s threatening to lead the league in GDPs for the second year in a row. If he doesn’t pull up his launch angle, his noteworthy hard-hit rate only means he gets thrown out at first base by larger margins.

Defensively? He’s fine. There’s better, but we’ve seen worse, and with his throwing, there’s at least one thing he does pretty well. Make of that what you will, because I’ve realized while writing that Hawk Harrelson’s most ridiculous superlatives involved defense at first base. He had categories for …

  • “The best in the American League at taking plays to first base themselves rather than waiting for the pitcher to get over there”
  • “Best you’ll see at catching pop-ups”
  • “One of the best you’ll ever see, on rockets, staying in front of them”

… and Konerko won the last two titles.

Perhaps writing about Abreu’s abilities to start a 3-6-3 double play is a byproduct of the urge to find praise for a player who has to be out there. If so, there’s non-WAR value in keeping that skill sharp, for whenever Abreu goes, Andrew Vaughn will be there to carry this legacy further into the remainder of a fourth decade, and into part of a fifth.

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Jim Margalus

Writing about the White Sox for a 16th season, first here, then at South Side Sox, and now here again. Let’s talk curling.

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AshnodsCoupon

I realized awhile ago that Hawk is a lot like Trump, in a lot of ways but especially how they talk. Just look at this!

“One of the best you’ll ever see, on rockets, staying in front of them”

– Weirdly specific superlative to declare you’re “the best” at something that nobody would bother measuring.
– The syntax! It’s so Trumpy!

GoGoSoxFan

But it was a vey powerful rocket. Nobody’s seen a rocket like that! ! !

Willardmarshall

People are saying he’s one of the best….

burning-phoneix

Healthy young LHB goes to the plate, gets pumped with massive shot of many inside pitchs, doesn’t feel good and grounds to Abreu – DOUBLE PLAY. Many such cases!

MarketMaker

I’ve been increasingly down on Abreu over the last few years. His eroding plate discipline is killing my family and he has the worst footwork I’ve ever seen at first base. He steps into the foul line at a ridiculous frequency and his stretches to field throws to first are clunky at best. While range would be nice and it’s certainly something Sox fans don’t see much of at 1B, the leverage is in saving your fellow infielders from errors on errant throws. His lousy footwork frequently makes those saves look impossible when a more adept (well-positioned) 1B would stand a far better chance.

TLDR: I hate his contract. It was a liability before the ink dried and the Sox will make him absolutely force his way out of the top of the order by sub-par production at great detriment to the team. Is he replacement level already? I think so. But good article, Jim!

tommytwonines

If Eloy falls into a net and there’s no one around to see it…

MarketMaker

:shrugs:

asinwreck

Yes. That’s the Boylen theorum.

asinwreck

I seemed to have doomed him with that comment. Apologies to Mrs. Boylen.

Foulkelore

If so, thank you from Mr. Foulkelore.

iowasox1971

Did Abreu run over your dog or something? I don’t really understand the hate for a guy who’s been one of the few bright spots for this franchise over the past decade.

Whether the footwork is up to your standards or not, the fact is he has made some outstanding defensive plays this year. He’s not hitting up to his usual standards this year, but neither is Grandal, whose contract is even larger than Jose’s deal.

I agree with the sentiment often expressed that the Sox could have signed Abreu to a cheaper contract this past offseason. I do think that this most recent contract was a “thank you” to a guy who outperformed his original contract despite being in lineups that offered, at best, minimal protection. He also always expressed a desire to stay with the Sox, even though he’s never been on a winning team here.

Abreu is not as good as Dick Allen was for the Sox in the 1970s or as Frank Thomas was for much of his career, but he’s been a very capable replacement for Paul Konerko and the team has been fortunate to have had him.

John SF

He’s not hitting up to his usual standards this year, but neither is Grandal, whose contract is even larger than Jose’s deal.

Not OP, but as an Abreu lover who is also increasingly concerned with the contract, I think the issue is that:
1) Grandal was being paid for a premium definsive position where even just hitting for league average while playing average defense is very valuable

2) Abreu is being paid for a position where a 118 wRC+ is league average, which is 26% better than Pito could muster against RHP last year

3) there are much better reasons to believe switch hitting Grandal will bust out of his slump than Abreu will. And a return to 2020 form for Grandal is like a 150 wRC+ (see the recent Fegan article in the Athletic about Grandal / Burdi to read more about that)

4) Abreu’s contract is keeping us from getting best platoon value out of Collins as of this year, keeping us from getting Eloy and Moncada the DH days they need, and will (long term) keep us from having the spots for those guys plus any combination of Vaughn, Mercedes, Sheets — all of whom have probable major league bats to their credit.

5) Abreu’s past glory didn’t help us win any championships here (which is not his fault at all!). But his current struggles could cost us a playoff spot this year or next if it takes us that long to move him out of the 3-spot against righties.

That being said, Abreu is still in true elite category against LHP. And I think if he had been able to defect to the United States at age 16 he would likely have a good hall of fame case by his retirement. I love the guy. I love his smile. I love his work ethic. I love his intelligence. I’ve loved every year of his on the south side.

It’s partially because of that love that I hate seeing him put into a position that will tarnish his Sox legacy longterm.

iowasox1971

Abreu’s off to a slow start this year on offense, no question. He’s hitting into too many double plays, too. My point was that a lot also was expected of Grandal on offense, and Grandal hasn’t even hit a home run yet. Plus, Grandal’s alleged great defense has not been there. We still have too many close pitches go against us when he catches, and his glove work behind the plate has been poor at times. All that said, both guys likely will turn it around and be better at the plate as the season goes on.

Career wise, Abreu has an .841 OPS against righthanders and a .922 mark against lefties. Part of his relative struggles against righties the past two seasons could be attributed to the lack of protection in our lineup. I have not-so-fond memories of games where we had A.J. Reed batting cleanup. Also, our lack of depth the past few years prevented us from giving Abreu a rest against tough right-handers because the lefty hitters on our roster were worse options. Plus, many other top hitters struggle against same-side pitchers. Look at the overall stats to be fair.

Meanwhile, Collins isn’t playing much because he doesn’t even have a hit yet. To blame Abreu’s contract for Zack’s lack of opportunities seems foolish. Are you sure you didn’t confuse Abreu with Encarnacion?

Abreu is NOT going to cost us a playoff spot. Even when he’s not hitting at his best, he still drives in runs. Even with his slow start, he still would be on pace for 102 runs batted in this season if we were playing 162 games. I don’t mind him hitting third. We’ve tried Grandal in the third spot, and he hasn’t been all that impressive there either.

I asked the question over the offseason: Who could we realistically get to play first and hit third in the lineup? Nobody came up with any logical suggestions. Vaughn is not yet ready this year, and Mercedes and Sheets are far-from-proven solutions.

John SF

There’s no reason that the first baseman needs to bat 3rd in the lineup. And there’s absolutely no reason that Abreu should be batting third in *this* lineup against RHP.

Collins was better in the big leagues against RHP last year than Abreu, despite having very poor numbers overall. If we hadn’t resigned Abreu we would be seeing him platoon at 1B / DH more, and he would likely have some hits by now. Collins will almost certainly be better against RHP than Abreu at some point. It might be year 3 of Abreu’s contract or it might already be true. I meant Collins.

John SF

Edit: 16% not 26%. My bad.

A 92 wRC+ against RHP is in Abreu’s cards by year 3 though, at his current drop off rate.

AshnodsCoupon

Lowest WAR he’s recorded in a full (non-injury) season is 1.9 WAR in 2019, per FanGraphs. So I don’t think “replacement level” is fair unless you want to assert that his fielding is worse than FG thinks it is. Which, they had him third worst in the league that year by fielding runs below average at 1B, so not a lot more room to go lower than that.

Not out of the question that he gets closer to replacement level as he ages, though.

As far as that contract — I’m on board with rewarding a vet who’s given a ton to the team with an over-market contract, but it’s pretty clear that it’s an over-market contract.

dwjm3

1.2 f/war for Abreu in 2018

asinwreck

Advance Security at 1B.

John SF

f that’s the front office’s idea of help, that’s why Luke edited out the stories he heard about bad Samaritans.

Excellent and unexpected writing, per usual, Jim! A fun throwaway reference to textual criticism is a surefire way to get into my heart.

I can count on 1 hand, maybe 1 finger even, the number of people in my baseball universe who also know that nearly 2000 years before he was a dangerous 4chan conspiracy theory, “Q” was a source text for Matthew and Luke/Acts.

asinwreck

Looks like we’re getting two games on Saturday.

The St. Louis Cardinals, who have not played since July 30 and had another Cardinals staffer test positive for COVID-19, will return to action Saturday with a doubleheader in Chicago against the White Sox, sources told ESPN.

As a precaution, the team is asking all players to drive rental cars individually from St. Louis to Chicago.

John SF

Are there not at least a few players who don’t know how to drive? Seams like in the modern age of Uber, there would be a few Americans from big cities who never learned or a few international players who never got their licenses.

Also, the Covid logistics of 32 individual players renting cars (from where— airports?!) seems like a nightmare.

I would usually trust a club to handle both of these issues seamlessly. They literally have professional logistics folks. But the Cardinals are trying to handle Covid while experiencing Covid— and so far that has included things like not contacting a player’s hair cutter he interacted with the day before testing positive! (And what the F was he doing getting a hair cut from a stranger anyway! Can the team not call in a safely tested professional to give everyone a trim if they need it one time?!)