Abreu’s compelling recovery

Jose Abreu is hitting .366/.413/.664 since Aug. 1. Wow, that’s real good!

Given his importance to the White Sox, and the fact that just this not even five week outburst in the middle of a previously mundane season has been enough to give him easily the best batting line on the 2016 team means that there is a lot of reason to buy into anything that has happened to Abreu leading up or during this period as a permanent fix.

If Abreu is merely having a late-season crest that brings him toward the ~.850 OPS comfort zone he finished around last season (he’s currently at .293/.346/.476), that is not nearly as world-changing for the White Sox, nor as meaningful for Abreu himself, nor as meaningful for our attempts to find some insight into what kind of issues can derail or hamper an elite hitter.

The first, and most romantic notion, is that Abreu being reunited with his five-year-old son Dariel at the beginning of the last month has provided him some sort of clarity of purpose, ended his loneliness, or simply stilled his moral conflict about his departure. Abreu’s son was just two-years-old when he left the country, so young that Abreu could not accept bringing him along on his risky sea voyage out of Cuba. Being a baseball star in Cuba certainly didn’t offer generational wealth, fame, and the fulfilling challenge of facing the best competition in the world, but Abreu admittedly lived comfortably and, and lived with his son. As harrowing as his journey was, his decision to leave might have been more so, and the uncertain future for his ability to reunite with his son was the weight that hung over all of it.

Little Dariel saw his father in the US on Aug. 8, then watched him play later that weekend in Miami, and now has a five-year visa in his possession. Hitters strive to make their work routine, to standardize their preparation and make every at-bat a read-and-react task that borders on automation, but the resolution of a major crisis in Abreu’s life could surely have a major impact on his ability to focus, properly rest, manage his time, and many things we’d be kidding ourselves to think they do not have an impact at the highest level of competition.

Strangely, all my self-satisfied feelings of being considerate and humanistic for considering Abreu’s personal life as meaningful, wash away when I start mapping out the splits of his batting line to major events in his life. Assessing whether it’s gotten harder to jam Abreu since he held his youngest child in his arms seems like a grotesque calculation, but also the opposite of how we should think of its impact. Baseball might be a game of specific adjustments, but it’s rare that we would be able to assess Abreu’s personal life as anything beyond a general positive, or a general negative effect on his work.

For his part, Abreu both refuses to cast his son in the role of a talisman, but then turns back around and hints that something might be there. Through an interpreter, he told Scott Merkin:

“I didn’t hit because I didn’t hit,” said Abreu through interpreter Billy Russo. “His presence was huge for me from my offensive standpoint. But I don’t want the people to think because I wasn’t with him I wasn’t performing well.

“It’s not his fault. It wasn’t something that I couldn’t perform my best. It’s baseball. Having him here was important for me. It was a little extra motivation for me.”

As a Baseball Prospectus site, following the road from tangible changes to measurable results is a more comfortable line of thinking, and behind Abreu’s unique family situation is a more typical tale of a hitter crediting a hitting coach for an important tweak in his approach.

The Sox offense has the rare history where bringing on a second hitting coach before the 2016 season didn’t read as over-tinkering or a possible source of mixed messages, but a necessary zealous response to a crisis. If it wasn’t already, Greg Sparks’ entire salary could be justified by Abreu’s praise of his work to the Sun-Times’ Daryl Van Schouwen. Abreu cited a conversation about using his hands to adjust to pitches while keeping the rest of his body quiet.

That conversation reportedly took place during a series in Minnesota on July 29-30. Everything after that is in the range of the insane split that begins this piece. In the two series after that conversation, but before Abreu saw his son stateside for the first time, he hit .391/.462/.870. Of course, it’s not like he was surprised by his son’s arrival, which had surely been in the works for a while, and these six games are not some proof that the role of personal peace in baseball is fraudulent. But we’ve also had a season of wondering aloud about whether Abreu has a specific adjustment to increased efforts by pitchers to jam him inside, and now there’s video of tucking his hands in and fighting off inside pitches.

Or this more extreme case:

The latter video prompts Hawk Harrelson to blurt out “The Big Hurt!” in reference to Frank Thomas. While Hawk is far from immune to overly friendly comps, the invocation of the God of Impossibly Large Men Tucking Their Hands In To Adjust to an Inside Pitch feels appropriate here. Even though Abreu will never reach that level, anything that makes him less easily exploited could help direct more pitches to the zones where his power resides. It’s worth mentioning that I picked these two clips because they both happened on the day Van Schouwen’s article posted, as in the moment I started looking for evidence, Abreu was already providing it by the barrel.

There’s an easy resolution of “both!” to this either/or forming in my head between the mechanical adjustment and a resolution in his personal life’s role in jumpstarting Abreu’s season. The reason teams try to have all their bases covered in preparing their players to be at their best is that everything in their lives is a potential key factor. As far as permanence, and providing a comforting, full explanation for Abreu’s troubles and assurances that they are now resolved and will never recur, the answer is of course, “neither.”


Lead Image Credit: Jordan Johnson // USA Today Sports Images

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