There’s a strong case to be made that José Abreu is the American League MVP at the midpoint of the 2020 season.
But, even in an election year, don’t expect him to do any campaigning.
“I don't pay too much attention to the personal accolades,” he said Tuesday through White Sox team interpreter Billy Russo. “I don't play for that.”
Despite being named the AL Player of the Week on Monday and rewriting a good chunk of the White Sox record book with a bonkers three-game series against the Crosstown-rival Cubs over the weekend, Abreu spent much of his media session Tuesday doing what he always does: turning the attention elsewhere, turning it toward his teammates and what this group could do over the second half of the season and beyond.
With how hot he is at the plate right now, it didn't quite work.
But indeed, the story surrounding the White Sox is the White Sox and what kind of noise they could make come October. That’s a big difference from much, if not all, of Abreu’s first six years on the South Side, when silver linings had to be plucked out of a half dozen sub-.500 finishes, and often he was that silver lining. But rebuilding has yielded contention in 2020, and even if the team’s still taking a long-term look at what this group can do over the better part of the next decade, winning baseball has brought new feelings from a roster and a fan base hungry for a pennant race.
As Abreu blasted six homers in three days at Wrigley Field, the White Sox did plenty as a team, taking two of three from the Cubs. They won Friday and Saturday, using a pair of homer-happy “light shows” to push their winning streak to seven games. Sunday brought an end to the streak, but the 2-1 loss was dripping with playoff feeling, the White Sox staging serious, dramatic threats in their final two at-bats.
Had there been the typically raucous crowd that accompanies those Crosstown series, it would have felt like what it was: the most meaningful matchup between the two teams since the 1906 World Series.
Even without completing the sweep, though, the White Sox made the statement that they belong in the conversation with the rest of baseball’s contenders. That’s the way this team is playing right now.
“What I take from last week is that we won two series, that we played really good baseball and we won games that we needed to win. And that's what is most important for me,” Abreu said. “Putting apart all the accolades and all the things we did as a team, all the records and stuff, I think just the victories, the wins that we got, that's what matters for me.
“We have a very good atmosphere on the team, and one of the most remarkable things is we have a different hero every night. It's not just me. One day it can be Lucas (Giolito), one day it could be Eloy (Jiménez) or (Luis) Robert or Edwin (Encarnación) or (Yoán) Moncada, Dallas (Keuchel). Every day it's a different guy, and that's one of the things that makes this team special.
“We're fighting, we're doing all we can do to win games, and every one of us is doing their part. And that is very important. That is something that really separates good teams.”
This is the Abreu way, of course, the guy who spent all of 2019’s 89-loss campaign telling everyone who asked how badly he wanted to stay on the South Side and how blindingly bright the White Sox future was. He’s a clubhouse leader and a mentor to the young players who have helped the team leap into contention mode.
But while he might want nothing more than to get back to business, it’s undoubtedly refreshing to see Abreu get a little recognition. He’s been as steadily productive as just about anyone out there since arriving from Cuba ahead of the 2014 season, something that plenty away from the South Side have missed as he’s languished in the middle of losing lineups.
What he’s doing in 2020 is nothing new for White Sox fans who have watched him the last seven years. But in this most unusual 2020 campaign, the season is already halfway over, and Abreu’s huge week vaulted him to the top of offensive leaderboards, putting him squarely in the MVP conversation with just a month left to play.
Abreu is jockeying with the Minnesota Twins’ Nelson Cruz for the lead in the two chief power categories, tied with Cruz for first in home runs, with 11, and one ahead of the Land of 10,000 Lakes’ slugger in RBIs, with 28. Abreu also ranks in the top five in the AL in hits (38), batting average (.322), slugging percentage (.669) and OPS (1.035). His 1.8 WAR ranks third in the AL, behind only Cleveland Indians pitcher Shane Bieber and Texas Rangers hurler Lance Lynn.
He might not want the attention, but he deserves it.
“I honestly don’t like the attention. That is not something that drives me to do the things I do every day,” he said. “What matters is to help people around me, come to the ballpark and try to help all the guys around me, help this team to win. That’s what matters to me.
“I’m not a person who likes that attention. I prefer the attention to be on the team as a unit rather than me. Helping this team to win games is my goal. I’m glad for all the attention, don’t get me wrong, but that is not something I value.”
Abreu might not be relishing the spotlight, but there’s one thing he’s taking a little pride in. Though proving the doubters wrong is more Tim Anderson’s thing on this White Sox roster, Abreu was listening when his three-year contract was dissected in the offseason. Though his consistent production should’ve been ample evidence, age tends to bring decline in baseball, so it wasn’t long before some suggested that Abreu might suffer the same fate that’s befallen many who have come before him.
Abreu’s happy that those questions are being answered. And loudly.
“After last season, there were a lot of people that didn't think I was able to do what I'm doing right now, that because I'm 33 years old, I wouldn't have enough in my tank to do the things I'm doing right now. … I told myself after the offseason, ‘I'm going to prove them wrong, I'm going to keep working hard, I'm going to keep doing what I'm doing to have success.’
“That's what I'm doing right now.”
But any pleasure derived from some national attention or proving the doubters wrong pales in comparison to the pleasure Abreu is taking in playing for a winning White Sox team. He’s always described his love for playing on the South Side, but it’s more visibly apparent than ever these days, whether he’s sprinting toward Anderson at the end of an inning, jokingly whipping the ball toward his shortstop, or standing on the top step leading a laugh riot whenever Encarnación does just about anything on the field.
With every new piece of the long-term puzzle arriving in the clubhouse finding his way under Abreu’s wing, it’s never been a question what he means to this team. And after the way he spoke last season, it’s no longer a question how much this team means to him.
He’s producing now, just like always — perhaps as well as he has in a White Sox uniform, at least during this current blazing-hot stretch — but now the White Sox are winning, capable of making his biggest baseball dream a reality: reaching the playoffs.
“It will be great, I won’t lie to you,” he said. “It will be a dream come true, a result of the hard work we’ve done over the last few years. We as a team, as an organization are in the right direction. We have to work hard, focus on the game, keep improving. That’s the key.
“Hopefully we’ll be in the playoffs, and that will be important to me.”