Nobody really knew what to expect from Jose Abreu headed into the season. Sure, we’d all heard about his exploits while playing in Cuba’s Serie Nacional, but it was difficult to say with any certainty how his game would translate in the major leagues.
Well, it turns out the Chicago White Sox knew exactly what they were doing last offseason by signing the 27-year-old first baseman for six years and $68 million. The contract is already looking like a bargain with Abreu’s impressive start to the season, and if he puts up the numbers it seems he will, then the White Sox could have their first Rookie of the Year since Ozzie Guillen in 1985.
Abreu is only batting .217 through his first 15 games in the major leagues, but he was sitting at .300 on April 11 before playing the Indians. Since then the right-handed-hitting slugger has been mired in the first slump of his career, as he’s gone 1-for-20 with eight strikeouts in his last five contests.
However, in spite of his recent struggles, Abreu has already proven to be a monster, batting in the heart of the White Sox’ order with an .824 OPS (.324 OBP, .500 SLG) through 15 games. He has 13 hits on the season and eight have been for extra bases: four home runs, three doubles and a triple. Abreu’s four bombs were courtesy of a pair of two-homer games last week; he launched the first two home runs of his career on April 8 at Coors Field and then jumped the yard twice more on April 10 at home against the Indians.
Lastly, Abreu has been one of the more productive power hitters in the early going this year, as he’s tied for fourth in the major leagues with 14 RBI and ranks 17th in isolated power at .283, according to FanGraphs.com.
Besides being 6’3”, 255 pounds and ridiculously strong, Abreu’s modest 22.2 home run-to-fly ball rate this season not only speaks to his effortless power, but also his capacity to post sustainable power numbers. The 27-year-old’s game has featured lots of swing and miss so far and produced 13 strikeouts, but he’s only fanned 18.3 percent of the time overall, which ranks 67th among all qualified hitters. Abreu’s lower-than-expected strikeout rate is particularly impressive considering his 55.2 percent swing rate is the 13th highest in baseball.
Abreu’s ability to recognize and drive breaking balls this season has also been a pleasant surprise, especially after it was perceived to be his greatest weakness coming out of Cuba.
According to FanGraphs.com, Abreu has been productive against both curveballs and sliders thus far, posting pitch values of 1.5 against curves (meaning he’s produced 1.5 more runs than league average against the pitch) and 2.3 against sliders. The only pitches he’s struggled with are changeups (-2.6).
In terms of his early-season performance compared to his peers, Abreu currently leads all rookies in several offensive categories including home runs and RBI, and he ranks second in both slugging percentage and isolated power. And considering that Abreu is a relatively seasoned hitter with substantial professional experience, it’s easier to envision him maintaining that level of production than the standard 21- or 22-year-old rookie.
Yet, I’d be remiss not to mention that Abreu will have worthy competition in his quest to win the league’s Rookie of the Year award. Top-ranked prospects Xander Bogaerts, Nick Castellanos and Yordano Ventura each opened the season in the major leagues and are off to great starts for their respective clubs, and highly touted outfielder George Springer just made his debut Wednesday. Plus, there inevitably will be a host of prospects promoted to the major leagues as the season unfolds, including high-profile players like Francisco Lindor and Byron Buxton.
However, if Abreu plans to capture honors as the American League’s top rookie this season, he’ll have to outperform Yankees right-hander Masahiro Tanaka—which, based on the 25-year-old's first three starts (22 IP, 2.05 ERA, 28/2 K/BB), won’t be easy. That being said, I’ve always been one to put more stock in rookie hitters than pitchers, especially one such as Abreu with prior experience and a strong track record. And for that reason, I expect him to become the White Sox’ first Rookie of the Year in nearly 30 years.