Mired in the worst stretch of his career, Jose Abreu was out of the White Sox lineup for Sunday’s series finale against the defending World Series champion Kansas City Royals at U.S. Cellular Field. Manager Robin Ventura’s goal in giving Abreu the day off was to allow the slumping slugger to hit the reset button on what’s been a disappointing season to date.
Through 43 games, Abreu is hitting .243 with a .714 OPS and six home runs. His offensive downturn was in the spotlight Saturday, when he grounded into a double play with the bases loaded in the seventh inning of the White Sox 2-1 loss to the Royals.
It’s clear the White Sox need better production out of Abreu. The White Sox have lost four consecutive series, and in that stretch Abreu hit just .217/.275/.304.
“Sometimes it’s better just to sit there and watch the game,” Ventura said. “And for him he just needs a little refresh.”
Abreu seems to have self-diagnosed his problems, admitting that he’s been swinging at too many pitches out of the strike zone. But fixing those pitch recognition/plate discipline issues is easier said than done, especially when the 29-year-old is pressing to break out of his slump.
“I’m feeling the pressure, probably, because my approach is not like I used to be,” Abreu said through a translator. “But I don’t have a specific reason to give you to why I am struggling right now. I just have to work hard.”
At the root of Abreu’s issues may be that opposing pitchers are successfully pitching him in off the plate. Just over 20 percent of the pitches Abreu has seen in 2016 have been inside and out of the strike zone, according to FanGraphs, which up about eight percent from 2015. And that strategy has worked for opponents — Abreu is swinging at more of those pitches than he did last year, resulting in lower-quality contact.
Abreu’s long, powerful swing was able to cover the low-and-away corner of the strike zone last year, but perhaps because he’s being pitched inside more, he hasn’t had success on those pitches. Abreu hit .133 on low-and-away sliders that stayed in the strike zone in 2015; in 2016, he doesn’t have a single hit on those pitches.
The fastball-in, offspeed-away plan is as old as baseball itself, but it’s worked against Abreu this year. He’s making less hard contact (28.6 percent, down from the mid-30’s in 2014 and 2015) and more soft contact (22.6 percent, about a five percent increase from the previous two years) and only has six home runs.
“It’s a matter of my approach,” Abreu said. “I’ve been swinging at a lot of pitches out of the zone and that’s not my approach.”
The White Sox, though, are confident Abreu will begin to start hitting like the guy who was such an important piece of their lineup from the moment he debuted in 2014.
“We are not worried at all,” third baseman Todd Frazier said. “He’ll be fine.”
Abreu successfully adjusted to being pitched differently in 2014 and 2015, and his work ethic has been consistently praised by coaches and teammates throughout his 2016 doldrums. Maybe getting the day off Sunday will provide the spark Abreu needs to get locked in, or maybe it’ll be a hard-hit ball this week.
But eventually, the White Sox expect it to click.
“We know what type of guy he is, and he will grind this out,” Ventura said. “He definitely will. We have all the faith it’s going to be back and he’ll be fine. It is a rut and you gotta get out of it.”