Over the past few years, baseball has been taken over by a small handful of Cuban superstars. Armed with massive contracts and defection stories that even Hollywood couldn’t write, players like Yoenis Cespedes and Yasiel Puig burst onto the scene in a big way. Others like Yasmany Tomas and Yoan Moncada have followed in their wake to varying degrees of success thus far.
Then there’s Jose Abreu. Lauded as possibly the most MLB-ready Cuban defector we have seen over the past five years, Abreu steamrolled his American League competition in 2014 en route to the AL Rookie of the Year Award. He hit .317/.383/.581, good enough for a 167 wRC+ that ranked third among qualified MLB hitters. Like Puig and Cespedes before him, Abreu’s six-year, $68 million contract looked like a bargain just months after it was signed.
Things tailed off a bit in 2015, though. Abreu still hit a respectable .290/.347/.502 with 30 home runs and 101 RBI, but his rate stats were not as impressive. His walk rate dropped from 8.2 percent in 2014 to 5.8 percent in 2015, and his ISO declined from .264 to .212. While these numbers aren’t bad — his 129 wRC+ was still 29th among qualified MLB hitters — they were a bit concerning for the White Sox and their fans, especially considering the success he had previously. This was especially true as Abreu’s decline continued into 2016. He hit just .272/.326/.430 in the first half, a 97 wRC+.
Fortunately, this story takes a positive turn. Since the All-Star break, Abreu looks like his old self, hitting .342/.393/.556 with 13 home runs in 257 plate appearances. His 153 wRC+ in the second half is tied for ninth among MLB hitters, and his ISO has climbed back above the .200 plateau. His walk rate has even started to tick upward, budging from 5.8 percent in the first half to 6.6 percent since the All-Star break.
Earlier in the season, Abreu struggled with pitches on the inner half of the plate, but still did plenty of damage on pitches away. FanGraphs’ Jeff Sullivan pointed out this phenomenon back in May, using Statcast data to show how large the gap was:
Against fastballs over the inner third, or more inside, Abreu has put up an average batted-ball speed of 86.6 miles per hour. That ranks him in the 54th percentile. Against all other fastballs — so, fastballs over the middle third or away — he’s put up an average batted-ball speed of 97.4 miles per hour. That ranks him in the 96th percentile. Abreu has a difference here of about 11 ticks, whereas the league average is closer to six. So, it’s demonstrated: Jose Abreu isn’t so great at handling inside heat. Not relative to what he does against other fastballs.
Josh Nelson of South Side Sox looked again in July, and found that Abreu also struggled to connect on pitches low in the zone, even those in the middle third of the plate.
As you can see, Abreu is still crushing pitches on the outer half of the zone. What is very alarming is how poor he is hitting pitches down the middle of the plate at the knees. His .222 batting average is in zone 8 of the zone chart and last year it was not an issue.
Abreu’s .272 batting average in the first half was passable, especially for a power hitter like himself. However, he wasn’t actually hitting for said power, with just a .158 ISO through the All-Star break. Most of that power, as we have alluded to, came on pitches on the outer half of the plate; he struggled on all pitches down and in, not just fastballs.
Since the All-Star break, Abreu corrected this hole in his swing. Opponents still pitch him inside, but he is doing much more damage on pitches on the inner half of the plate.
As you might expect, Abreu is pulling the ball more in the second half. He managed a 33.5 percent pull rate in the first half, well below the league average of 40.8 percent. Since the All-Star break, Abreu has posted a pull rate of 38.7 percent of the time. This mostly come at the expense of balls shot back up the middle, meaning that Abreu will still look to use the opposite field when necessary. In both the first and second half, he went the other way more often (29.8 percent) than the league average (25.1 percent).
Abreu is also making more hard contact. He increased his line drive rate from 18.0 percent in the first half to 25.1 percent in the second, and his hard-hit percentage has risen from 31.6% to 34.7%. He is also not hitting the ball on the ground as often, as he lowered his GB% from 47.8 percent in the first half to 41.2 percent since the All-Star break.
While the White Sox have not benefited in the standings from Abreu’s resurgence, it certainly gives them something positive to hold onto as they head into the offseason.
Between their top-heavy starting rotation and a core of hitters including Abreu, Adam Eaton, and rookie shortstop Tim Anderson, they have the makings of a solid core to build a team. There are other problems within the organization, to be sure, but Abreu’s strong second half is an indicator that he won’t be one of them as they try to get back into the playoff hunt.