1. South Side of Chicago Is the Baddest Part of Town
From Ron Kittle to Ted Williams to Roy Hobbs, the Jose Abreu Power Show is evoking historical names, unforgettable blasts…and, most importantly, redirecting the White Sox toward the future.
In becoming the talk of the game as quickly as any one of his 12 home runs traveled from bat to seats, Abreu set major league rookie records by smashing 10 homers and collecting 31 RBI in the month of April. He blew past teammate Paul Konerko’s old club-record 28 RBI for the month of April.
His 12 homers are the highest total in White Sox history through a player’s first 32 career games. And his 32 RBI over the same period tied Joe DiMaggio (1936), Ted Williams (1939) and Albert Pujols (2001) for the third-highest RBI total in history by a player in his first 29 games, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
In Denver last month, Abreu, 27, smashed a foul ball so hard that he tore part of the cover from the ball. Yes, just like in The Natural. Cue the soundtrack.
Abreu’s "powerball" is fast becoming the talk of the game; no surprise given that, at his current pace, the slugger would finish with 61 homers and 172 RBI. Albert Belle currently holds the Sox franchise record at 49 and 152, set in 1998.
Only one rookie has ever slugged more than 38 homers in a season: Mark McGwire, who hit 49 for the 1987 Athletics.
All of this is thrilling for the rebuilding White Sox, who signed the Cuban defector last winter for $68 million over six years. But his fierce plate demeanor isn’t the only thing the White Sox love about him—or, the only thing that’s going to make him successful.
Scouts, impressed with his earnest work ethic and no-nonsense demeanor, are raving about Abreu, a native of Cienfuegos, Cuba, nearly as much as Sox fans.
“Have you seen him? His body, his frame…physically, he’s perfect,” one says. “He doesn’t wear his cap sideways, he wears his uniform right, he hustles, he runs…he does everything right.”
Fact is, Abreu’s personality might be as powerful as his bat. And the White Sox already have noticed that positive influence on players such as Dayan Viciedo and Alexei Ramirez.
“He’s like the big bear,” Sox bench coach Mark Parent was saying during a telephone conversation the other day. “He just kind of mumbles something, and they stand up and listen.”
Teammates gush about Abreu’s batting practices, how such a big guy—6’3”, 255 pounds—works on hitting to right field and then to all fields. They rave about Abreu’s attitude and how hard he works. Parent concurs.
“He’s a really focused kid,” Parent says. “He came to the States to play ball and make a good living at it, and that’s what he thinks about 24/7. He’s the first one to the ballpark.”
And he’s told Parent and manager Robin Ventura that just as soon as his English improves, he intends to take charge in the clubhouse and use his influence to try and push the Sox further forward.
“He knows what he wants, and he’s working toward it,” Parent says. “He doesn’t get distracted like so many young players do with cars and with buying houses. This kid is really focused.
“The equipment he has is all fine. He doesn’t need the latest gadgets.”
Cuban baseball expert and author Peter Bjarkman told USA Today’s Jorge L. Ortiz this winter that Abreu is a better overall hitter than fellow Cubans Yasiel Puig and Yoenis Cespedes and should be “the best Cuban player to come to the majors during the three decades of the defectors era.”
Say this: After one month, Abreu has certainly left us wanting more.
Abreu is so serious about all aspects of the game that Ventura and his staff have quickly learned that when they do need to step in and teach him something, timing is everything.
“One of things is, he’s really hard on himself defensively,” Parent says. “If he’s not in the right spot, or if he’s supposed to trail a guy on a double to (back up) second base, if he doesn’t do it, he gets real down on himself if he has to be reminded about something.
“You know how some people let at-bats affect their defense? He’s sort of the opposite. He lets defense affect at-bats. He’ll get a little disappointed in himself, and you can tell.
“It’s tricky for us as coaching staff when and when not to remind him about something he’s supposed to be doing. We might wait until after the game.”
If you were the Sox manager, you’d pay attention to the flashing caution light and pick your spots too. Abreu isn’t just collecting numbers against bottom-feeders.
Already this year, he’s deposited home runs against the Tigers’ Justin Verlander and the Rays’ David Price (the only homer Verlander has allowed this season against 199 batters faced, by the way). He sent a pitch from hard-throwing Indians right-hander Danny Salazar on a 439-foot ride.
Though the Sox are beat up right now—Adam Eaton (hamstring), Conor Gillaspie (left hand), Chris Sale (arm), Felipe Paulino (rotator cuff) and Avisail Garcia (shoulder) all currently are idled on the disabled list—they are hanging in there at 16-17 and with a younger and more athletic team.
That last part is vital, given that the Sox last season (63-99) compiled their worst winning percentage (.389) since 1970, and that attendance has plummeted in each of the past seven seasons.
Now they look like they’ve won the lottery with Abreu, a long-term keeper whose only flamboyance comes when they measure the distance of his latest homer.
2. Snakes Alive, Barely
Diamondbacks general manager Kevin Towers spent some time at his beachfront San Diego home over the weekend as Arizona played in Petco Park. If things don’t change soon, Towers will have plenty of time to spend in his own bed.
It’s no secret that both Towers and Diamondbacks manager Kirk Gibson are on the hot seat, but sources in Arizona say owner Ken Kendrick is more disenchanted with the GM because he constructed the roster.
Given injuries to Patrick Corbin, David Hernandez and Mark Trumbo, that roster is seriously compromised right now. But it doesn’t help that former Diamondbacks Justin Upton (Atlanta), Tyler Skaggs (Angels) and Adam Eaton (White Sox) have, to varying degrees, succeeded elsewhere.
There have been a couple of times this season that the Diamondbacks have been believed to have been within a day or two of making significant changes, including last week in Chicago before the Diamondbacks came back to beat the Cubs in the final two games of that series.
Now? What makes most sense is that Towers is safe for another month, at least until after the June draft. Because to replace a GM before then would throw Arizona’s draft into complete chaos.
But stay tuned. With that 3-15 Chase Field record, anything is possible.
3. Ray Trippin’
Losing Matt Moore (elbow) for the season and Alex Cobb (oblique) for several weeks was going to affect Tampa Bay, but when the Rays started their recent 10-game trip 1-4 with an 8.22 bullpen ERA and several short starts, it looked like the worst-case scenario.
Especially when, following a rainout in Boston, the Rays were scheduled to face the Red Sox and Yankees five times within approximately 75 hours. Then they swept the Red Sox in a doubleheader Thursday and won two of three in Yankee Stadium to finish the trip at 5-5.
So don’t view manager Joe Maddon’s tweet following Sunday’s win, keyed by Wil Myers’ four RBI and inside-the-park homer, as pure hyperbole. The man has a point:
Under the circumstances, one of the best 5-5 road trips in the history of the Rays.— Joe Maddon (@RaysJoeMaddon) May 4, 2014
4. The Return of K-Rod
Once, Francisco Rodriguez had a heater that clocked in at 95 mph and helped author the K-Rod brand.
Now, that fastball tracks at about 89 mph, and it is a killer changeup that has led to one of the best re-emergence stories of the season.
Rodriguez’s 13 saves in March/April tied a major league record set by Kazuhiro Sasaki with the 2001 Mariners. His old unhappiness with the setup role he inherited when the Brewers acquired him from the Mets in 2011 has been overcome by a patience and wisdom that comes with…gosh, can K-Rod really be 32 already?
Despite the drop in fastball velocity, K-Rod is still, well, K-Rod: He had fanned 24 hitters and walked only four in 17 innings heading into this week. He had a couple of chances to leave the Brewers as a free agent but instead signed a one-year, $3.25 million deal last winter to stay.
Don’t underestimate two key ingredients in K-Rod’s happily-ever-after story with the Brewers: Since his arrival in ’11, he has developed a deep affinity for the city of Milwaukee. And there is a strong trust factor with manager Ron Roenicke, who was an Angels coach under Mike Scioscia back in 2002 when the Angels won their only World Series.
5. From Isotopes to Dodgers in Record Time
Red Patterson might sound like the name of a Dodgers executive from the 1950s, but it is the name of a real, live starting pitcher for the club within the past week. Stephen Fife too.
As Clayton Kershaw’s return approaches (Tuesday) and Hyun-Jin Ryu landed on the disabled list, and with rain falling in Minnesota last week, the Dodgers used seven different starting pitchers in seven games.
Patterson and Fife made it two members of Triple-A Albuquerque’s rotation that started for the Dodgers within a few days of each other.
6. Opposite of Aerosmith's "Walk This Way"
Tim Hudson this season has walked two batters—count ‘em, one, two—in 45.2 innings.
Pitching like he’s 28 instead of 38, Hudson has been San Francisco’s best and most consistent starter so far, working seven or more innings in every one of his six starts. He’s surrendered two or fewer earned runs in five of those six starts.
His walk rate of 1.2 percent easily is the lowest in the majors, according to FanGraphs, with the next closest, the Mets’ Bartolo Colon and the Rays’ David Price, more than double Hudson’s percentage (2.5 percent each).
As you would expect, Hudson’s 15.50 strikeouts-to-walks ratio also easily leads the majors, ranking ahead of Price’s 11.00. He next pitches Tuesday night in Pittsburgh. The Pirates had better be swinging.
7. Working Overtime vs. Cutting Out Early
As pointed out by baseball statistics guru Bill Chuck, the Dodgers lead the majors in playing eight extra-inning games so far this season (they’re 3-5).
Flip side? The Indians were the only team in the majors yet to play an extra-inning game--until they dropped a 1-0 decision to Minnesota on Tuesday night in 10 innings.
8. This Week in Being Hit in the Face
Not long after the Brewers’ Jean Segura was clobbered by Ryan Braun’s bat, there was Arizona manager Kirk Gibson over the weekend, talking about handling outfielder Alfredo Marte.
Marte was making his first appearance in the majors since being shipped back to Triple-A Reno last May. Not long after that demotion, he was hit in the face with a pitch, and Gibson was not totally kidding when he asked Diamondbacks reporters not to ask him about it.
“I think it affects different people in different ways,” Gibson said, remembering back to when Oakland’s Tim Birtsas hit him in the face with a pitch in the mid-1980s. That incident brought out the football player side of Gibson: He said he took 37 stitches, somehow avoided a concussion and yet was in the lineup the next day.
“The wrong thing to do,” Gibson said of his tough-guy demeanor back then.
“I looked like a bad Halloween mask,” he said. “It definitely affected me.”
He said his Hall of Fame manager, Sparky Anderson, taught him a lesson at the time when, after Gibson demanded to play the next day, Anderson kept writing his name in the lineup every day thereafter.
“Sparky made me play until I said ‘Uncle,’” Gibson said. “I was 2-for-42 when I finally said ‘Uncle.’”
9. Mendoza Line Update
Mario Mendoza, he of the Mendoza Line, recently was fired as manager of the Tijuana Toros of the Mexican Summer League. Seems so unfair: The Toros are above the Mendoza Line with a .379 winning percentage.
9a) Rock ‘n’ Roll Lyric of the Week
A toast to Cinco de Mayo (with margaritas and burritos, of course!)…
“Adios and vaya con Dios
“A long way from GA
“Yes, and all the muchachas, they call me big poppa
“When I throw pesos their way”
—Zac Brown Band, Toes
Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. He has over two decades of experience covering MLB, including 14 years as a national baseball columnist at CBSSports.com.
Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball here.