Heading into the season, the White Sox fancied themselves contenders. General Manager Rick Hahn had overhauled the team, which would supplement its already-dominant pitching staff with a formidable group of hitters. Chicago brought in a couple of accomplished veterans to play alongside the rising stars, and the result looked like a squad that could play in October.
The South Siders will likely not head to the postseason, as they currently languish at 61-68, 18.5 games out in the AL Central and seven games behind the Rangers in the Wild Card chase. Even though the pitching staff has dominated as expected, the position players have dragged the team down: Chicago has the lowest position player WAR in the majors. While many of the club's hitters have clearly fallen short, one of the more conspicuous candidates hasn't received as much attention, perhaps because he's hit well overall.
When Jose Abreu signed with the White Sox in 2013, no one knew how his skills would translate from Cuba to MLB. Sure, he'd crushed in the Serie Nacional, but the quality of the opposition he'd face in the States could make him look mortal. His rookie season saw him annihilate those fears, along with quite a few baseballs, on his way to a 167 wRC+ and 5.3 fWAR across 622 pate appearances. After year one, Chicago looked to have a perennial MVP candidate solidifying its lineup.
Year two's version likely won't take home any awards. Abreu is certainly still a good player, but he hasn't hit as well as he did in 2014. While he led the league in offense last year, he currently places 16th among the 77 qualified hitters in the 'Junior Circuit'. Because he doesn't add any value elsewhere, this means his WAR ranking has dropped from 10th all the way to 31st. What happened to the man whom both ZiPS and Steamer saw as a four-win player before the season?
Abreu's offensive work, like that of all players, comes down to four categories: strikeouts, walks, hits on balls in play, and power. In the first two elements, he's stayed the same — he's gone down on strikes at a 20.5 percent clip this year, compared to 21.1 percent last year, and his unintentional rate of free passes has stayed low, at 4.2 percent (as opposed to 5.9 percent last year). The other two categories have plummeted sharply:
At this point of the analysis, things become murky. By most of his peripheral numbers, Abreu has either stayed the same or improved:
- Abreu has made the same quality contact as he did last year, with an identical 36.4 percent hard-hit rate, and he's pulled the ball even less, as only 38.2 percent of his balls in play have gone to left.
- His fly balls have gone just as far — their average distance has actually increased a tad, from 305.5 feet to 313.5 feet — and his hard-hit rate on those has stabilized in the upper 40s, one of the top levels in the league.
- He's put the ball in the air to about the same extent in 2015 (30.4 percent fly ball rate) that he did in 2014 (31.2 percent).
With all of this going in his favor, Abreu doesn't seem to have any legitimate cause behind his shortcomings to this point. It looks like fortune has simply abandoned him; once it returns, he should be set to go.
One flaw dooms this theory: The 2014 version of Abreu lucked out in a few ways. For one, he led the league in BABIP on line drives with a .810 figure, despite posting the 17th-highest hard-hit rate and the 42nd-lowest soft-hit rate on those. He also hit about an average amount of ground balls, racking them up at a 45.5 percent pace; for someone of his size, who can't regularly leg out infield hits, that kind of approach won't last forever. Now that his fluky output via liners has normalized at a more reasonable .688, and his worm burner rate has climbed further to 48.4 percent, his BABIP overall has gone from great to merely good.
This shouldn't surprise anyone. Balls in play can fluctuate randomly from year to year — they only reflect a hitter's true talent level after he accumulates 820 tries. The men who can consistently gain base hits 35 percent of the time have either speed (Mike Trout) or elite line drive ability and ground ball avoidance (Miguel Cabrera). Abreu excels in neither area, so we shouldn't expect him to play at that echelon.
Since he hit a fair amount of grounders, Abreu didn't hit many fly balls last year: The aforementioned 31.2 percent mark ranked 56th in the AL. The balls that did go airborne inflicted a ton of damage, allowing him to lead the league in home runs per fly ball at 26.9 percent. As Mike Podhorzer observed after the season, though, some of those balls should have stayed in the yard. Abreu's distance only suggested a rate of 22.8 percent, an area to which he's declined in 2015 — his current 20.7 percent HR/FB% places him seventh among his contemporaries.
As with Abreu's depreciated BABIP, the change in ISO checks out. Hitters like Albert Pujols, who owns a career ISO of .270, will pair their elite fly ball distances with large quantities of said balls. If they don't give themselves enough opportunities to collect extra bases, they'll never reach the heights of the top power hitters in baseball.
Abreu still hits better than most other players in the world, and the White Sox will gladly accept his current level of production on a contract that maxes at $12 million per year. They should nevertheless temper their expectations for him, to take into account that players don't control much of what they accomplish. If the winds begin to blow in Abreu's favor again, he could reascend to the elite-hitting ways of old; otherwise, he'll remain a solid, above-average player.
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