CHICAGO -- The leadership, desire and ability certainly have not changed for José Abreu in his ninth season playing for the White Sox.
In fact, when the 35-year-old Abreu scored a first-inning run on a Gavin Sheets single during Sunday’s 11-5 victory in Detroit, he flashed a big love-of-the-game smile as he raced around third. But for the first time in a fully healthy or non-pandemic influenced Major League season, Abreu’s final statistics will look slightly different.
Abreu enters Tuesday’s crucial series opener against the Guardians ranked fourth in the American League with a .309 average, with his career-high .317 mark from 2014 and 2020 not completely out of the question. His .383 on-base percentage currently matches his rookie season for a career-best.
While his average has risen above an impressive career ledger of .292, his power and run production numbers have dipped with 15 home runs and 71 RBIs. He ranks second to Andrew Vaughn on the White Sox in both categories, with a recent career-worst 37-game homerless drought coming to an end this past Tuesday against the Rockies.
A 16.5 percent strikeout rate and a 9.5 percent walk rate represent top single-season efforts for Abreu, and his 52 percent hard-hit rate is in the top 3 percent of the league. Abreu’s 122 singles led the Majors entering Monday’s action, one more than Luis Arraez and Amed Rosario, but neither player is considered a pure middle-of-the-order presence such as Abreu.
“Taking a lot of walks has gotten him out of his hit-first rhythm,” said White Sox hitting coach Frank Menechino of Abreu. “But he’s starting to hit the ball the way he normally can and with Eloy [Jiménez] behind him, [who’s] hot, it’s making it easier for him to just do what you have to do to win ballgames, not necessarily personal numbers or stuff like that.
“I know he’s not happy with 15 homers. When you are a power hitter and you start trying to hit homers and get a little bit out of whack, it’s tough. I can’t explain it. I would have never thought he’d only have 15.”
From 2014-17, as well as in 2019 and 2021, Abreu hit at least 25 home runs and drove in at least 100, with last season’s effort featuring 30 homers and 117 RBIs. His plate discipline already showed improvement in ’21 with 61 walks, and Abreu is just two away from moving beyond that total this year.
These RBI and home run changes aren’t solely about Abreu. The White Sox offense had been stagnant overall until the last three weeks, and key components such as Tim Anderson, Luis Robert, Jiménez, Yoán Moncada and Yasmani Grandal have been absent from the lineup due to injury or have been dealing with a season of underperformance.
“So, if it’s just him, they’re going to pitch around him,” White Sox acting manager Miguel Cairo said. “Sometimes he can be a little overanxious to swing and swings out of the strike zone. But he takes his walks this year, he takes what they give him. It’s good to see.
“He can be a power hitter and he can be a .300 hitter. And if you hit 30 homers, you don’t hit .300. Not too many guys can do that. He’s hitting some homers, getting some RBIs with doubles, base hits. He’s hitting line drives. You want to be a complete hitter and that’s what he is right now.”
Menechino knows Abreu as the consummate team player who only cares about winning. If the situation arises to get a guy in, Abreu is going to do whatever it takes. But Menechino also thinks a batting title might be a possibility for Abreu, although it would take a hot final 15 games.
When asked about that hitting accomplishment, Abreu said it’s motivation. But it’s not as important of a driving factor as what he finds in just helping the team.
“I’d rather see home runs and RBIs than win a batting title,” Menechino said. “I think he would too, but it would be pretty cool if he won a batting title. He doesn’t really talk much about it. I don’t really grill him about it.
“We just keep working and shortening up his swing a little bit. He’s so selfless that I think when the situation arises for him to get a base hit, he’s going to take the base hit.”