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Despite facing Shohei Ohtani and the better part of an Angels bullpen that combined to strike out 15 White Sox, José Abreu managed to go 4-for-4 on Wednesday, capping off a June that resembled his August God Mode. He hit .356/.431/.533 even though considerable and readily apparent hip soreness, boosting his overall line to .284/.375/.451. After a dreadful start to his season, his OPS+ (136) is back to his lifetime average (135).
It’s taking a different shape. His 38 walks would be good enough for the fifth-highest total of his career, which doesn’t sound like much until you consider that he’s only played in 72 games. The categories that Steve Stone refers to as “the power numbers” are taking a hit. He’s barely on pace for 20 homers, and he’s not even on pace for 80 RBIs.
James Fegan wrote a great story about Abreu’s evolving approach, saying that Abreu’s drastically higher walk rate and drastically lower strikeout rate, combined with elite batted-ball statistics, would put him in any article about potential breakout candidates if he were 25 years old. Since he’s 35, we’re more inclined to poke at the missing power for how he’s aging.
This year is trending toward Abreu’s lightest for isolated power (ISO, or slugging percentage minus average), and he’s on pace for 20 home runs this season. His full-season low is 22, and even that was when injuries cut his season to 128 games in 2018. He hit 19 home runs in 60 games in 2020. And it’s a good thing his on-base ability has silenced questions about his power, because who knows what the possible answer is to that. His average exit velocity, hard-hit rate and frequency of balls hit over 95 mph are all frankly elite. His groundballs are slightly up from last season, but his flyball rate is also at a career-high with hardly any pop-ups. And as we spent some time establishing, Abreu is swinging at good pitches, maybe more so than he ever has.
If he weren’t at an age and point of his career where everyone monitors signs of decline, Abreu might be a lot more tempting as a potential breakout candidate — someone who is doing things that typically generate more power than he’s shown thus far. Because a normal Abreu, swinging this prudently, has been the stuff of dreams for a while now.
My guess is that the combination of miserable April weather and a corpse of a baseball cost Abreu some homers early, and his best contact as of late has gone to the hardest part of the park to leave — the opposite-field power alley. That could be a bat-speed thing. That could be the hip injury costing him some torque. That could be a concession to aging. Instead of selling out for power and opening himself to getting beat, he’s reining it in and concentrating on avoiding outs. Abreu is talented enough that the last option could very well be a choice.
What’s unfortunate is that Abreu’s current mode should be perfect for this offense. Thinking back to when Abreu signed his three-year deal after a productive-but-flawed 2019 season, if you told me that Abreu faced a fight to reach 20 homers in his final year of that contract, it would’ve merited a shrug.
However, if you told me that this age-35 version of Abreu was running a .375 OBP in place of a .500 slugging percentage even though the plunkings have ceased, it would’ve merited a hug.
Picture that .375 OBP behind Tim Anderson and Yoán Moncada! Picture that .375 OBP in front of the 30-homer power of Eloy Jiménez or Luis Robert! Abreu would be aging in the ideal fashion, transforming into a guy who keeps the line moving while handing the pine-tar-smeared baton to the next generation of White Sox run producers.
Alas, Abreu is trying delegation right when when everybody else faces relegation. That next generation of run producers is mired in arrested development, so when Abreu goes 4-for-4 against Shohei Ohtani, he doesn’t score once, because the rest of the lineup behind him goes 1-for-18 with eight strikeouts. With Andrew Vaughn still figuring out how to manage a six-month grind, the baton has nowhere to go, unless the White Sox ship it with Abreu to a real contender at the deadline.
With the calendar flipping to July, that discussion is no longer premature, although it can’t quite be called “pressing” either. The White Sox have a ton of games against the Twins and Guardians, so the Sox could very well drag the division leaders back into a rock fight. Even the Sox they stay flat, Abreu’s unconventional rapport with Jerry Reinsdorf puts too many possibilities in play to focus on one. Maybe he re-signs without incident. Maybe the White Sox cram a No. 79 retirement ceremony into the schedule while Abreu is playing for the other team.
Still, when every Rick Hahn media session sounds the same, when every series loss comes with a self-affirmation, when Tony La Russa says “I don’t look at results” regarding a never-good hitter who is now one of baseball’s worst, the Sox might benefit from any source of urgency, even if the ramifications from this one are the least fun for fans to consider.