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Deep Dive: José Abreu’s Past, Present and Future with the White Sox

The long-time first-sacker enjoyed yet another big year in 2021.

MLB: ALDS-Houston Astros at Chicago White Sox
José Abreu knocked in another 117 runs this year. Ho-hum!
Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

“Deep Dive” focuses on the depth of each position in the Chicago White Sox organization. Each position is broken into five parts:

  1. Depth in the rookie levels (Dominican through Great Falls)
  2. Depth in A-ball (Kannapolis and Winston-Salem)
  3. Depth in the higher levels (Birmingham and Charlotte)
  4. Under the Radar-type detail on one White Sox player
  5. Free agent options

This is the fourth section of the White Sox first base Deep Dive, which will detail José Abreu’s history with the Sox through 2021, and briefly illumine the other first base options on the White Sox roster.

José Abreu — how did he get here?

Abreu enjoyed quite the decorated career in Series Nacional, the top Cuban league. He began his professional career at just 17, holding his own with a .271 average against much older competition. From there, he blossomed into one of the top hitters in the league — or any league for that matter — hitting .399/.555/.822, .453/.597/.986, .394/.542/.837, and .382/.535/.735 in his last four seasons in Cuba. During that stretch, Abreu hit 111 home runs in 254 games and walked nearly twice as often as he struck out.

Pretty impressive stuff, eh? No wonder the White Sox spent so much money ($68 million for four years) in October 2013 for someone who had yet to face strong American competition!

Well, in 2014, Abreu proved many skeptics and doubters wrong. In what is still considered his career year, Abreu slashed .317/.353/.581 with 35 doubles, two triples, 36 homers, 107 RBIs, 51 walks (8.2%) and 131 strikeouts (21.1%). The AL Rookie of the Year wasn’t the only thing he won in 2014. Abreu also tied for first in slugging percentage and OPS, was the AL Silver Slugger Award winner at first base; won three Rookie of the Month honors (April, June and July); and two AL Player of the Month honors (April and July). He continued to produce solid numbers from 2015-17 by slashing .290/.347/.502, .293/.353/.468, and .304/.354/.552 respectively with at least 25 homers and 100 RBIs each year.

The 2018 season was a difficult one for Abreu, as he suffered through a grueling pair of injuries that shortened his campaign to just 128 games. As a result, despite clubbing 36 doubles, Abreu slugged a career-low in homers (22), RBIs (78), BA (.265), OBP (.325) and OPS (.798). Yet, despite those downers, he earned his second career All-Star appearance and copped a second Silver Slugger Award.

In 2019, his final arbitration year with the White Sox, Abreu enjoyed a terrific bounce-back campaign. In 159 games totaling 634 at-bats, he slashed .284/.330/.503 with 38 doubles, one triple, 33 homers, 123 RBIs (a career high), 36 walks and 152 strikeouts. Abreu’s numbers were basically a split between his 2017 (.304/.354/.552) and 2018 seasons (.265/.325/.473). Though he struggled a bit against righthanders (.257/.299/.472), Abreu definitely earned his keep against southpaws to the tune of a .360/.418/.591 slash line. Abreu also took advantage of his friendly home confines by slashing .309/.361/.544 in Chicago vs. .262/.302/.467 on the road. His best month came in August, when Abreu slashed .356/.409/.593 with 10 doubles, six homers, 28 RBIs and seven walks in 30 games. He also excelled with two outs (.316/.388/.584) and with runners in scoring position (.337/.368/.590).

Before the winter meetings began, the first-time free agent re-signed with the Sox for a three-year, $50 million contract with would take him through the 2022 season.

Unlike some free agents, Abreu didn’t simply coast. The 2020 season was an incredible season for him, as he won the AL MVP while helping the Sox make it to the postseason for the first time since 2008. In a shortened 60-game season thanks to Covid-19, all he did was slash .317/.370/.617 with 15 doubles, 19 homers, 60 RBI and 165 wRC+. Among the offensive categories he either tied or won outright included games played (60), hits (76), RBIs, slugging percentage (.617), and total bases (148). Abreu also won his third Silver Slugger Award. He also was terrific defensively, and saved many a run thanks to his surprisingly athletic play. He possessed a 3.0 bWAR, which would translate to 8.1 for a full season. Thus, it was no surprise that he won the American League MVP over the likes of Cleveland’s José Ramírez and the Yankees’ DJ LeMahieu.

With the Sox in 2021?

Due in part to playing through numerous nagging injuries, and also due to an expected regression from an outstanding 2020, Abreu had a good but less spectacular year in 2021. His numbers were all over the map with each passing month:

April: .213/.296/.394 with 5 HR, 19 RBIs, 12 walks and 29 strikeouts
May: .333/.422/.631 with 6 HR, 27 RBIs, 9 walks and 24 strikeouts
June: .182/.265/.307 with 2 HR, 8 RBIs, 7 walks and 23 strikeouts
July: .255/.351/.489 with 5 HR, 23 RBIs, 11 walks and 22 strikeouts
August: .330/.382/.661 with 10 HR, 25 RBs, 7 walks and 25 strikeouts
September/October: .250/.381/.372 with 2 HR, 15 RBIs, 15 walks and 20 strikeouts

When looking at the month-to-month stats, it’s clear that that his struggles in June (and to a lesser extent September/October) cost him his second straight RBI title. For the year, he slashed .261/.351/.481 with 30 doubles, two triples, 30 homers, 117 RBIs, 61 walks (9.3%), 143 strikeouts (21.7%) and a wRC+ of 126. He did have a great year, as he set a career high in walks and hit-by-pitches (23) while enjoying his second-highest RBI total (only behind 2019). It is interesting to note, that while Abreu did eclipse his previous career high of 15 times hit by pitch, he has ranked in the AL top five in that department for six of his eight seasons.

When digging a little closer into the numbers, it didn’t matter much to Abreu what time of day he played: he slashed .287/.372/.445 in day games and .246/.337/.501 under the lights. In the friendly atmosphere of Guaranteed Rate Field, he produced better results (a .257/.368/.526 line as compared to .265/.333/.439 on the road). With runners in scoring position this year, he was his usual clutch self as he slashed .286/.385/.557 in such situations. As expected, his numbers were better against southpaws (.294/.366/.603) than they were against righties (.251/.336/.442). He ranked among the top 96 percentile in maximum exit velocity, while also finishing among the upper 89% in average exit velocity and hitting the ball hard.

Digging yet deeper into his offensive profile, Abreu actually fared best against off-speed pitches this year (splitters, changes, forkballs, screwballs), as he slugged .310/.423/.690 against those offerings (he struggled most versus these pitches in 2020); he actually slugged an incredible .800 against changeups! Versus fastballs, he slashed .280/.357/.450 while struggling against breaking pitches (sliders, curves, knucklers) with a line of .213/.318/.452. This year, he pulled the ball at a rate of 40.4%, as compared to straight-away (35.6%) and opposite field (24%). On pitches where he made contact, Abreu hit fly balls at the second-greatest clip of his career (36.6%) but still hit grounders 47.3% of the time (also the second-highest rate of his career (he hit liners at a career-low 16.1%). This would explain why Abreu led the league in hitting into double plays for a third consecutive year.

Abreu’s defensive rating slipped significantly this year, as his range factor (putouts + assists/9) fell this year to 23rd among the 116 first basemen who played in the majors this season according to Baseball Prospectus; while still posting positive results, the decline could be attributable due to a combination of injuries and getting older.

Despite his defensive struggles and comparative offensive decline, Abreu still posted a 3.0 bWAR. Since each WAR point is worth approximately $7.7 million in the free agent market per FanGraphs, and he earned a cool $16 million in 2021, he still proved an impressive $7.1 million value based on bWAR. This, of course, doesn’t even factor in the intangibles that Abreu offers the team in leadership, work ethic and even recruiting that he offers the team.

As a final note, through his age-34 season in 2021, Abreu has amassed a 27.7 bWAR, .290/.350/.515 slash line (.865 OPS), 135 wRC+, 228 homers and 777 RBIs. All good stats, but not enough to make a compelling argument for Cooperstown — even if you add four or five more years. But what if you include his Cuban stats, you may ask? Despite playing eight years in Cuba, he really played the equivalent of four major league seasons there due to their shortened seasons. Thus, in the equivalent of 12 professional seasons including Cuba, these are his stats to date:

  • 1,753 games totaling 8,008 plate appearances/6,945 at-bats
  • 1,150 runs scored and 1,371 RBI
  • 2,146 hits including 426 doubles, 32 triples, 406 home runs and 3,854 total bases
  • .309/.392/.555 slash line culminating in a .947 OPS

With the shape Abreu keeps himself in, it seems like he could have another four or five solid years remaining, which could build upon the above counting numbers albeit with a slight possible drive in his OPS numbers. Obviously, as a whole, the Cuban league isn’t on par with the majors. However, if you combine those totals with the success and awards he’s attained as a member of the White Sox, and throw in the fact that his reputation throughout the league has been absolutely peerless, a compelling case could be made for eventual inclusion into Cooperstown’s hollowed grounds.

What does the future have in store?

Abreu has one more year in his current contract with the White Sox, at $22 million. It’s expected that management will find a way to keep him in a White Sox uniform until he’s ready to retire and become an official ambassador for the franchise. Thus, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the White Sox offer him an extension with perhaps a lower AAV to account for his eventual slow but graceful decline. It they can’t work an extension out, it’d still be likely they re-sign him to another free agent deal like they did after the 2019 season.

The White Sox have several contenders for his spot should Abreu either decide to leave via free agency or be willing to spend more time at DH. Andrew Vaughn jumped from A-ball to the majors in 2021 while playing both corner outfield spots and even some second and third base, but he’s obviously more comfortable with playing first; he’s expected to bounce back now that he’s got a year under his belt. Gavin Sheets is in a similar position, but also seems to be an internal contender to claim next year’s right field starting spot — at least in a platoon role. Yasmani Grandal is also capabe at playing there on his off-days from catching, while Zack Collins can also play there in a pinch.