It sure feels nice to have an elite run-producing force in the middle of the White Sox lineup again. In his first season with the team, Jose Abreu made an immediate impact and drove in a stellar 107 runs, good for the fifth-best RBI total in all of baseball. RBIs aren't a great way to evaluate the best sluggers in the game, but they do tell a story of what actually happened on the field. RBIs are the intersection of talent, opportunity, and timely hitting.
Jose Abreu certainly had the first leg of that tripod in spades. He led all of baseball in slugging percentage by a comfortable margin this season. No one showcased better talent for driving in runs in 2014. Why, then, did he finish just fifth in RBIs? Was he not clutch?
A quick glance at Abreu’s splits shows that he hit .317/.444/.651 with runners in scoring position this past season. Furthermore, Abreu was baseball’s fourth-best hitter by percentage of baserunners driven in, at 19.6 percent. He did a spectacular job of taking advantage of the opportunities given to him by his teammates. The real issue here is that those opportunities were relatively scarce for a guy batting in the middle of the order. It’s truly remarkable that Abreu reached 107 RBIs, because he really had to scrape and claw his way there.
First, we’ll start with the obvious. Jose Abreu missed time due to injury and wound up with 622 plate appearances, which was at least 38 fewer than everyone who drove in more runs than he did. It’s tough to surpass people in a counting stat when they play more than you do.
Second, and more importantly, Abreu’s teammates didn’t do him many favors by getting on base for him. The major league leader in RBI in 2014 was Adrian Gonzalez. Gonzalez didn’t crack 30 homers, didn’t slug over .500, and hit just .276. Rather, he drove in 116 runs because he had the privilege of batting with 461 men on base over the course of 2014. That’s 98 more baserunners than Abreu’s 363.
In fact, Jose Abreu ranked 80th out of 146 qualified hitters in men on base per plate appearance. That’s even worse than it sounds, because the majority of the bottom 30 or so guys on the list are leadoff hitters that automatically bat once per game with no one on base. The White Sox were blessed with one of the game’s best talents for pushing runs across the plate and effectively limited his potential to do so.
This seems counterintuitive because the White Sox had one of the game’s best leadoff hitters in the form of Adam Eaton. Eaton finished the year with a .362 on-base percentage and drove himself in just once. We’ve documented Eaton’s tendencies to eliminate himself on the basepaths, but he was still close to league average as a baserunner. By all rights, he should be a great player for a slugger to follow in the batting order.
However, Eaton’s success at the top of the lineup didn’t translate to a great amount of RBI opportunities for Abreu, and there were several reasons for this to which we can point:
- Eaton only started 123 games
- The odd phenomenon in the first half of the season in which Adam Eaton and Gordon Beckham alternated hot streaks at the top of the lineup
- Eaton got on base a lot more during the second half of the season (.396 vs .340 in the first half), while Jose Abreu’s slugging fell off in the second half of the season (.513 vs .630 in the first half)
At the very least, two of these three things are fluky, so that points to some natural improvement in the efficiency of the lineup going forward. However, there was a fourth reason for Abreu’s stunted RBI total that’s more worthy of attention, namely that Eaton had very little help surrounding him in the batting order. The ninth slot in the White Sox lineup batted .218/.272/.318. Even though that’s superlatively bad, you typically expect your nine-hole hitters to sort of suck. The more pressing issue is the meager production the White Sox received from the second slot in the lineup:
That is a veritable dumpster fire of a triple-slash line from a lineup position that should be reserved for one of the best hitters on the team. The knee-jerk reaction is that Gordon Beckham seriously weighed down that performance. However, Beckham put in less than a half season’s worth of plate appearances (294) batting second, and he more or less matched that line (.223/.277/.342). The 432 non-Beckham reps from the two-hole were just as bad, and nobody provided any answers.
There’s a lot of statistical analysis out there that suggests that optimizing a major league team’s batting order only improves your season by a win or so. However, that one-win improvement is relative to a conventional lineup, and conventional lineups don’t put one of the worst hitters in the major leagues in front of one of the game’s best run-producing machines. Furthermore, if the White Sox have their sights set on contending next year, we’ve seen from the past two seasons that one win is a big deal. Both 2014 and 2013 have featured an American League team finishing one game behind the second wild card spot. This lineup construction is a problem, and it needs to be fixed.
The White Sox have several internal options that could upgrade the two-hole, but unfortunately, none of them are ideal:
- Avisail Garcia is a promising hitter, but he’s shown greater talent for driving in baserunners than becoming one
- Conor Gillaspie could be a nice fit against righties (.300/.360/.444 in 2014), but he’s a part-time player and he might see a reduced role next year due to his glove at third
- Alexei Ramirez doesn’t draw enough walks to support a high OBP
Of the three, Ramirez seems like the most likely option because he’s spent parts of each of the last five seasons batting second. However, he’s always found himself there after "Plan A" failed, so it’s clear the White Sox don’t view him as a great fit. This issue may be something for the Sox to keep in mind this offseason because barring a breakout year for someone like Micah Johnson, the best answer might be from outside the organization. With the team looking to contend next year, the Sox can ill afford to stunt Abreu’s run production by putting the Beckhams, Morels, and Keppingers of the world near the top of the lineup. They need a real solution to this long-standing problem now more than ever.