Way, way back in my MLB Season Preview Series, I lamented how quietly the Chicago White Sox had quietly limped to a 99-loss season in 2013. In doing my research for the post, I’d been surprised to see quite how bad they had been, and wondered how they had pulled off such anonymous incompetence. I figured it had been their anemic offense, something an influx of exciting new players would help cure, and thus get the Pale Hose back on the national radar. Using that logic, I wrote about Adam Eaton as the key to Chicago’s turnaround.
In a way, I was right; Eaton has been every bit the leadoff force that many predicted of him back before injury derailed his 2013 season in Arizona (and before Kevin Towers traded him at his lowest value). In a larger respect though, I was dead wrong; while Eaton’s arrival has undoubtedly had a positive impact on both sides of the ball, it has been the South Sider’s other notable offseason addition that has garnered baseball’s attention so far. One month into his major league career, 27-year-old rookie Jose Abreu has crushed his way into the wider consciousness, and, in the words of Jonah Keri today, “turned a moribund White Sox team into a must-watch outfit every night.”
Signed to a six-year, $68 million deal back in October (the largest in White Sox history in terms of total money), the acquisition of the right-handed slugger was deemed “a calculated risk, but one we had to take,” by none other than Chicago GM Rick Hahn at the time. Even after putting up video-game numbers in Cuba (Abreu batted .316 with 19 home runs and 60 RBIs over 83 games in 2013, while posting a .479 on-base percentage and a .604 slugging percentage*), there were still concerns over how his perceived ‘long’ swing would hold up against American League competition, the usual cultural shift worries, and whether the heavy expectations upon his shoulders (he’d be replacing beloved face of the franchise Paul Konerko at first base) would further impede his production translating. That “bold and aggressive” move though, is looking like a stroke of genius on the part of Hahn so far in 2014.
Abreu has been sensational during his first four weeks in the majors, obliterating pitches and setting all sorts of records along the way. With a major hat-tip to ESPN’s Stats and Information crew, through last nights games:
– Abreu’s 10 home runs are the most by a White Sox rookie in any month, and the most for a White Sox player since Konerko had 11 in 2001 (Jim Thome hit 10 in 2006).
– His 31 RBIs set an MLB rookie record for March/April, beating the previous mark set by… Albert Pujols. His impressive total also established a new franchise record for the opening month, topping Konerko’s mark of 28 in 2002, and has tied Frank Thomas for the most by a White Sox player in any month (Thomas had 31 in August 2003)**.
– And (as illustrated in this excellent piece) he’s just destroying the outside pitch: Eight of his 10 home runs have come against pitches on the outer half of the plate or off the outside corner, which along with his .797 slugging percentage against similar pitches, give Abreu the highest marks in baseball (His six extra-base hits against pitches out of the strike zone rank second only to Mike Trout).
Less statistically significant, but still valid: he’s destroyed at least one backstop phone, been called ” the best player in the world … ever … right now,” by Evan Longoria (admittedly after he hit the above walk-off grand slam against Grant Balfour and the Rays on Friday), taken pretty good pitchers by the names of David Price, Justin Verlander and Chris Archer deep already, and taught Danny Salazar to never, ever, hang a breaking ball again.
More than anything though, Abreu has awakened the Pale Hose offense from its 2013 slumber; along with Eaton, he’s at the forefront of a lineup which leads the majors in runs scored (143), and is largely responsive for keeping Chicago afloat at .500 in the AL Central (especially considering how ace Chris Sale is out and the rest of the team’s pitching stinks – only Arizona have allowed more runs). His monstrous impact has even made Hawk Harrelson more exclamatory than usual. So while it’s a cert that he won’t keep up his torrid pace of record-making (if he hits 62 homers and 193 RBI, I’ll turn vegan), Abreu has already achieved something I thought far more improbable; almost single-handedly, he’s made the White Sox watchable again.
* Numbers which actually made it a below-average year for the big righty. Including postseason appearances, he batted .392 over the 2010-13 seasons, with 133 home runs, 337 RBIs, 311 runs and 278 walks.
** Per the Elias Sports Bureau, the Cuban defector is the first rookie with 10 homers and 30 RBIs in a calendar month since Al Rosen and Luke Easter both did it for the Cleveland Indians in June 1950.