Let's talk about Jose Abreu, folks. The reigning American League MVP and father figure to our beloved White Sox is off to an atrocious start here in 2021. Abreu's .188/.293/.313 slash line is one of the leading culprits behind this team's uneven 8-9 start. Is he the lone problem facing this team so far? Absolutely not, but a player that has been a force in the middle of the lineup and a consistently ominous presence for opposing pitchers since arriving from Cuba faltering out of the gate has undoubtedly hurt this team.
I've seen a lot of people talking in recent days on social media and on sports talk radio that it's a non-issue because Abreu is a notoriously slow starter. Well, that's not exactly true. Since stepping into the batter's box at 35th/Shields for the first time in 2014, Abreu has compiled a 126 wRC+ during the months of March/April when the season kicks off (sans 2020). This is remarkably close to his career 133 wRC+ across all games that the big Cuban has played. So the narrative that this is par for the course simply isn't something based in fact.
It's entirely likely that it's simply a goofy 17-game stretch to begin a season that has people's fears heightened because there isn't a larger sample size from which to draw any conclusions. However, there are some very odd things happening with Jose Abreu through these first 17 games that have me paying attention.
The most glaring change to Abreu thus far in 2021 is a very strange change to his plate approach and contact profile. Throughout his career, I admittedly did give him some flack for not taking many walks and being too swing-happy. I had somewhat of an epiphany last year when I came to the realization that Jose Abreu is at his best when he works counts, not to take walks, but to get pitches to drive and produce runs.
That Jose Abreu has been nowhere to be found through the first two and half weeks of the season. Thus far Abreu is walking at a 13.3% clip, which more than doubles his career 6.4% BB%. On the flip side, he's striking out more than ever before. For his career, Abreu has a 20.2% K rate, but that number has spiked to 33.3% this season!
The overall lack of contact is something that is jarring when you take a deeper dive into Jose's plate discipline profile and contrast it with his career numbers.
1st Pitch Swing%
The numbers above aren't meant to intentionally make your head spin, they're intended to illustrate some important points. For some reason, Jose Abreu is swinging the bat less often than he has at any point in his career. The issue is being compounded by the fact that he is swinging less often at pitches in the strike zone but when he is offering at those pitches, he's connecting less frequently than we've ever seen.
Abreu has also had an uncanny ability to swing at some ugly pitches while connecting and finding patches of green grass historically. That also isn't happening like we are accustomed to seeing here in 2021. Countless times we would see the slugger offer at a pitch out of the zone only to make contact somehow and drive in a pivotal run. For 2021, he is connecting on these offerings at a clip that is 17% below his career average. That is a problem, to say the least.
One final measure to watch as the season progresses is Abreu's performance against fastballs. To this point in his career, he has never had a season in which he slugged below .500 against heaters. He peaked last season by slugging a Ruthian .686 against the pitch. So far, he's slugging a vomit-inducing .179 against the offering in 2021. It's still a very small sample size, let me be crystal clear about that, but this is something that needs to turn around if we are going to get the type of production we have grown accustomed to out of #79.
It's not all bad for Jose Abreu, as his Average Exit Velocity and Average Launch Angle are very much in line with his career averages. So, again, this is most likely a fluky 17-game stretch of a long season. However, if the White Sox are to right the ship and start scoring runs the way many of us anticipated they would coming into the season, they need their big slugger to get back to normal.
For much of his career, Jose Abreu was the victim of a team that didn't have a strong supporting cast around him. That made his offensive exploits that much more phenomenal to watch as he seemingly carried the White Sox on his back for much of his tenure.
We saw the White Sox become one of the most explosive offensives in baseball last season, and most of us expected that to continue into 2021 and even improve. The Spring Training injury to Eloy Jimenez greatly diminished the force within the White Sox lineup, however, most expected there was still enough thunder to be one of the top-scoring teams in baseball. A lot of prognosticators, yours truly included, believed we would see Yoan Moncada bounce back after a season in which his production suffered as he dealt with the effects of COVID-19. That certainly hasn't happened to this point.
Is it possible that Abreu's newfound passivity in the batter's box is a function of him letting his guard down believing that his teammates will pick him up for the first time in his career? I can't answer that question, but it does make me think a little (which is scary). Has Abreu dialed back the aggressiveness intentionally causing him to take hittable pitches while getting caught "in-between" on offerings outside the zone leading to decreased effectiveness overall? It is still too early to tell, ultimately, but the hope for this team and fan base is that it's simply a blip on the radar and Jose Abreu will return to normal in short order.
Make no mistake about it, the White Sox need Jose Abreu if they are to have a successful season in 2021. The absence of Eloy Jimenez means that the remaining core group of Jose Abreu, Tim Anderson, Yoan Moncada, and Yasmani Grandal have to pick up the slack. Abreu has been a model of consistency since putting on a White Sox uniform in 2014, and I expect 2021 to be no different when all is said and done. The sooner he gets out of this early-season malaise, the better off things will be.