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Jose Abreu seeks rebound from painful first half

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White Sox first baseman received more bruises than he dished out

Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

We know that the White Sox’ first-half record of 45-43 felt little like 45-43, because they’ve seldom played like a team that hovers around .500. Based on the way we and others talk about the season, the consensus divides the first half into three chunks:

  • Chapter 1: 23-10
  • Chapter 2: 10-26
  • Chapter 3: 12-7

I’d been reluctant to close Chapter 2 because White Sox personnel had been flagged for false starts in declaring it over. Winning five out of their final six series — even if the sixth was a loss to the Braves -- gave us a long enough look at a different product.

It’s subject to interpretation, though. Even with the rebound, the Sox were still well under .500 over their last 55 games (22-33), which is five-eighths of the season to date. If you watched the first half and determined that their true talent lies under .500, well, they’ve been that team longer than they’ve been a winning one this year. You’d be uncharitable, but you might not be wrong.

When a team goes from 13 games over .500 to three games under, there isn’t a single counterpoint compelling enough to even the scales. The White Sox undermined the whole concept of "wins in the bank" with a ruthless efficiency. How does one undo that punch to the gut?

One can’t. Not concisely, at least, and if you have to stack together multiple statements to frame 45-43 as a minor triumph, it crosses the line into whitewashing/propaganda.

If you limit yourselves to two moves of spin, here’s the best you can do.

  1. The White Sox are over .500 well later into the season than they were last year. It’s progress, even if it’s the "trench warfare" type of progress.
  2. If somebody told you Jose Abreu was going to be replacement-level player in the first half, what would you expect the White Sox’ record to be?

You can quibble over Abreu’s WAR since there’s a large discrepancy between the two (0.9 bWAR; -0.3 fWAR), but it’s too close for comfort regardless. He hit .272/.326/.430, which would be a great line for Avisail Garcia. Only a fair amount of RBIs has kept the Sox from really feeling it -- he’s on pace for 90something, even though he seldom drives in himself anymore.

The reason behind Abreu’s struggles is pretty simple -- they’re hammering him inside, and he isn’t able to get around on it. The Baseball Savant heat maps show that one of the hot spots is practically on his lead elbow.

His pull rate has consequently dropped from 40 percent in 2014 to 33.5 percent this year, with the increase in soft contact (17 percent to 20 percent) eating into his hard contact. He isn’t chasing more pitches than usual. He just isn’t hammering the mistakes like he used to, perhaps because the misses are increasingly limited to one side of the target.

While Abreu is still on track to eclipse his personal high in HBPs, it seems like he’s been drilled more than nine times. It’s probably because they’ve been predominantly fastballs in the same location. Adam Eaton has been plunked 11 times, but he sometimes gets his choice in the matter.

Abreu, though? He doesn’t get the breaking ball to the lower body, or the mildly inside fastball to dip his forearm into. They’re direct hits, and they’ve caused some strange reactions ("Well, what Jose wants to do is drop the bat. That’s the first thing."). Looking at his game log, there is some correlation between the timing of his slumps and the timing of these HBP clusters.

If the combination of inside fastballs and really inside fastballs are crippling Abreu’s chances of returning to the upper echelon of hitters, I don’t know if there’s an easy solution. My ideas include:

*Body armor: Abreu has resisted wearing an elbow pad for his entire career, but if he’s hitting with discomfort already, maybe it’s an easier sell. Then again, he might need a flak jacket.

*Opening his stance: I can say "he should open his stance" and sound smart, but I don’t know how it applies on an individual basis. If he’s never made dramatic alterations to his stance, this just might result in him getting a fastball to the diaphragm.

*Retaliation: We saw Jose Quintana throw at/behind Evan Gattis after Abreu took a direct hit from Chris Devenski, which suggests the situation has crossed a threshold. Opponents aren’t seeking to injure Abreu, but it’s a risk they’re too willing to take. But you can’t go to this well too many times without getting suspended.

*Protection: Not limited to Todd Frazier, although a batting average over .230 would threaten opponents more than what he’s shown. If the Sox no longer have an All-Star batting third, they’re going to need more adequacy from the spots — plural — behind Abreu.

That’s where Justin Morneau comes in. He’s still rehabbing in Birmingham, where he checked in with Barons broadcaster Curt Bloom:

Morneau went 1-for-3 with two walks on Thursday, which qualifies as one of his better games. He going through spring training in July, so he shouldn’t be expected to deliver much of an impact, at least at the beginning of his White Sox career.

The hope is that another experienced first baseman on the roster will allow Abreu to heal up when needed, even if Morneau is batting sixth or seventh instead of third. Fortunately for the Sox, even the smallest amount of production would represent an improvement for that role. Having acknowledged this, now we wait for Garcia to strike him down.