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KANSAS CITY, Mo. – As we crowded around Luis Robert’s locker Monday night, José Abreu gave an unprompted explanation of his current hitting philosophy.
“See ball, hit ball,” he said with a huge smile on his face before letting out an eardrum-rattling yell in the middle of the clubhouse, generating belly laughs from anyone within earshot – which, you know, was everyone.
Abreu might be slumping, but he’s not at all down in the dumps.
“He’s the ultimate grinder and competitor,” Dylan Cease said Tuesday. “He could severely sprain his ankle and he’ll want to be taped up and out there limping, if he can. To have someone with that kind of fighting spirit, I think just sets a good tone for everybody.
“He’s loose. He brings not only intangibles, but (he’s a) middle-of-the-lineup bat that always has good at-bats, RBIs, moving guys over. As professional as it comes.”
White Sox fans don’t really need a millionth example of how much Abreu means to this team and this organization, though. They’re quite familiar after watching him for much of the last decade.
What they need is for him to start hitting. They need this whole team to start hitting.
While the MVP is showing some signs of snapping out of an early season cold spell, the White Sox offense continues to sputter, no matter whether the result is a win or a loss. Despite a lineup loaded with talent, they ranked 26th in the majors in runs scored when they woke up Tuesday morning. While they sit middle of the pack in homers, they have only rarely scored in bunches, going over four runs in a single game just eight times out of 36. One time all season have they won a game by more than four runs.
It’s a group effort, of course, and outside of Tim Anderson, who’s batting .328, and Luis Robert, who’s gathered a hit in 15 of his last 16 games – including the game-winning homer Monday night – it’s difficult to argue that anyone is consistently hitting as expected in this White Sox lineup.
Abreu, though, batting in the middle of the order, has been one of the most noticeable offenders, the .200 average he carried into Tuesday’s doubleheader nowhere near the wildly consistent production he’s put up throughout his All-Star career. Abreu’s done this kind of thing before, and slumps have not been uncommon, even when his numbers have found their normal resting place by season’s end.
As mentioned, there are signs his bat is heating up now that the icy cold Midwestern temperatures that defined April are in the rear view mirror. He was on base three times in Monday night’s win and three more times in Game 1 of Tuesday’s twin bill, in which he delivered a two-run double.
“Looking more like himself, isn’t he?” Tony La Russa said between games.
Abreu’s slump has coincided with a slow start for another middle-of-the-order bat in Yasmani Grandal, whose numbers are even more severe: a .174 batting average after Game 2 on Tuesday. Of course, it took Grandal forever to raise his average above .200 last summer while reaching base at an ungodly clip and smacking home runs. Those skills haven’t been as frequently demonstrated so far in 2022, but he did get a hold of one Monday night, belting a two-run homer.
The lack of production from the middle-of-the-order hitters – that includes Eloy Jiménez, who’s been absent since late April with an injury – has driven fans mad and is a good explainer for a number of issues plaguing the White Sox, be it the general lack of offense or the countless close games that have led to a taxed bullpen.
The team has leaned on saying it’s early in the year, something that is certainly true, even if it gets less early every day. Though that answer is unsurprisingly displeasing to those living and dying with nightly results, it’s also not difficult to accept when you look at what guys like Abreu and Grandal have done over the course of their accomplished careers.
“It’s a lot easier when you’ve got a track record,” La Russa said of his view of his players’ offensive struggles. “It’s the saying, but it’s true: In six months, you’ll be somewhere around your bubble gum card. … They’re going to hit. The sooner the better. … We’ve got some offense coming from those guys.
“I’d have to think back over the years (to come up with) a guy with a legitimate track record (who) was so bad that you were either going to phase him out of your plans that year or sit him for an extended period. You just do the normal thing. … I think having Reese (McGuire) here helps keep Yaz fresh. Pito, we talk to him all the time. I feel good talking to him, but also the coaches close to him. You can hear him in here, he knows he’s going to hit.”
Those are perfectly reasonable expectations. Abreu hasn’t hit below .260 in a season as a major leaguer, and he nearly won his third straight AL RBI crown in 2021. Grandal has been to a couple All-Star Games himself and is fresh off posting a jaw-dropping .420 on-base percentage last year.
But in the age of instant gratification – while we spend each day evaluating a team that cares about firing on all cylinders in late September far more than doing so in mid May – it can be difficult to wait.
Similarly difficult was to watch the White Sox take on the best-in-baseball Yankees last weekend and avoid comparing one team to the other. The White Sox were built to be a menace, a terror, a nightmare for opposing pitching. The Yankees are living that reality right now, and they terrorized South Side pitching over four games, the heavy-hitting quartet of Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, Josh Donaldson and Joey Gallo blasting a combined nine balls out of Guaranteed Rate Field.
“Well,” Dallas Keuchel said, asked what the White Sox learned during that series with the aptly named Bronx Bombers, “we learned they can hit the ball really far.”
The White Sox, uh, haven’t been doing that kind of thing on a regular basis.
It’s not to say there haven’t been bright spots, of course, and the early season gripes that hitters were being too aggressive (or rather, not being patient enough) have been rendered moot in certain cases, specifically with Anderson and Robert, the team’s two best hitters being guys whose bread and butter is based on aggression.
That’s not to say that every player on the team would benefit from the same approach, obviously. But maybe let the guy who’s hitting close to .330 keep swinging.
On the other hand, everyone being a little more like Anderson and Robert might actually lead to more of that “patience” White Sox fans have clamored for.
“The way you draw walks is (for) the other side to know you’re aggressive, and they start out making pitches from the first thing they throw,” La Russa said. “Most of these guys, if you force them to throw to the edges, all of a sudden your count is going to be 2-0, 2-1 and 3-1. And if you maintain that discipline and you don’t get that great pitch, you walk.
“To me, that’s what we’re not doing. We’re pretty high up there for chasing out of the strike zone, which means we’re not getting a lot of walks. The answer is not to give them Strike 1 and be more disciplined getting strikes.”
If only the solves were as easily done as they are said.
The White Sox were silenced by Brady Singer in the second half of Tuesday’s doubleheader, doing practically nothing offensively while Anderson, Abreu and Grandal sat on the bench. A laser of a base hit off Robert’s bat in the first inning was no harbinger of things to come, and the offensive struggles were exemplified in a 2-1 defeat.
But that the day’s first game was close enough that La Russa had to call on Liam Hendriks said plenty, too.
If the White Sox are going to reach their championship-level goals, it’s the biggest “duh” statement in the world that they’re going to have to start hitting – and hitting much more than even the winning efforts have seen.
Abreu getting things going can be of particularly important help.
For the White Sox’ sake, they’ll hope the primal screams coming from the clubhouse are bringing Abreu’s bat to life.
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