Let’s talk about Jose Abreu, folks. The reigning American League MVP and father of our beloved White Sox begins a grim career here in 2021. Abreu’s .188/.293/.313 slash was a big culprit in the team’s inconsistent 8-9 start. Is he the only problem this team has had so far? Absolutely not, but a player who played a strong role in the middle of the lineup and has been a constant threat to opponents since his arrival from Cuba is stumbling and has certainly hurt this team.
I’ve seen a lot of people on social media and sports radio the last few days say it’s not a problem because Abreu is notoriously slow to start. Well, that’s not entirely true. Since Abreu came to Battery Bay on 35/Sields in 2014, a 126 wRC+ has been collected in the March/April season opener (not counting 2020). That number is surprisingly close to his 133 wRC+ in all the games the big Cuban has played in. So the narrative that this is a no-brainer is just not based on fact.
It’s likely a 17-game streak early in the season that reinforces people’s fears because there’s no larger sample to draw conclusions from. However, there are some strange things going on with Jose Abreu in these first 17 games that make me sit up and take notice.
Abreu’s most noticeable change so far in 2021 is a very strange change in his approach to the boards and his contact profile. I have to admit that throughout his career I criticized him for not going out much and being too cheerful. I had a kind of epiphany last year when I realized that Jose Abreu is at his best when he’s training, that he’s counting, not to get walks, but to get pitches and score runs.
Jose Abreu was nowhere to be seen for the first two and a half weeks of the season. Abreu is currently at 13.3%, which is more than double his BB% of 6.4%. On the other hand, he strikes more than ever. Abreu has 20.2% K’s in his career, but that number has increased to 33.3% this season!
The general lack of contact is something that stands out when you take a closer look at Jose’s discipline profile and compare it to his career numbers.
|Zone %.||Zonal fluctuations %.||Contact with the % area.||Chase%||Chase Contact%.||Swing%.||Swing from the 1. Scene||breath of air||Meatball Swing|
The above figures are not intended to deliberately fool you, but to illustrate some important points. For whatever reason, Jose Abreu doesn’t swing the bat as often as he did at any point in his career. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that he swings at pitches in the strike zone less often, but when he does bid on those pitches, he is less likely than ever to hit the ball.
Abreu also had the incredible ability to swing, connect and historically find patches of green grass on some ugly pitches. It’s also not happening in the way we’re used to here in 2021. Countless times we’ve seen a hitter make an offer outside the zone, only to make contact and take a spin. In 2021, he will take advantage of these offers at a rate 17% below his career average. This is a problem, to say the least.
One final metric to watch during the season is Abreu’s performance against the fastball. Until then, he had never had a season where he had gone below 500 against the drivers. He peaked last season when he hit .686 in the outfield with a routine. So far, he’s shooting .179 against the spread in 2021. It’s still a very small sample size, let me be very clear about that, but it’s something that needs to be turned around if we’re going to get the kind of production that we’re used to from number 79.
It’s not all bad for Jose Abreu, as his average failure angle and average launch angle are very close to his career averages. So again, it’s probably a 17-game stretch of a long season. But if the White Sox are going to turn things around and start scoring like many of us expected at the beginning of the season, they’re going to need their big bat to get back on track.
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For most of his career, Jose Abreu was a victim of a team that didn’t have a strong support system around him. His offensive output was so phenomenal that he seemed to wear the White Sox on his back for most of his tenure.
Last season we saw the White Sox become one of the most explosive offensive teams in baseball, and most of us expected that to continue and even improve in 2021. The injury to Eloy Jimenez in spring training significantly reduced the strength of the White Sox’s lineup, but most expected them to still be strong enough to be one of the best teams in baseball. Many prognosticators, including yours truly, thought Yoan Moncada would return to form after a season where his production suffered from the effects of COVID-19. That certainly didn’t happen.
Is it possible that Abreu’s newfound passivity in baseball is due to the fact that he is caught off guard and believes his teammates will catch up to him for the first time in his career? I can’t answer that question, but it does make me think a little (and that’s scary). Did Abreu compromise his aggressiveness by intentionally forcing him to take impact throws when he was out of the zone between offers, resulting in less efficiency overall? It’s too early to tell, but the hope of the team and fans is that this is just a blip and Jose Abreu will be back to his old self in no time.
Make no mistake, the White Sox need Jose Abreu if they want to succeed in the 2021 season. The absence of Eloy Jimenez means the remaining core of Jose Abreu, Tim Anderson, Yoan Moncada and Yasmani Grandal will have to step up. Abreu has been a model of consistency since donning a White Sox jersey in 2014, and I expect him to be no different in 2021 when all is said and done. The sooner he recovers from this early illness, the better off he will be.