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Abreu Awakens

During the White Sox' recent road trip to Seattle, Hawk Harrelson lamented that Jose Abreu has swung at more pitches outside the strike zone this season than any other major league batter.

Then on Thursday right, before Abreu hit his first home run since June 23rd, a two-run shot in the second inning to help the Sox beat Detroit 6-3, Harrelson and Steve Stone had this exchange.

Hawk: "I'm sure they're [the Sox coaching staff] asking you the same thing they're asking me, 'What's wrong with Abreu?' I wish we knew."

Stone: "If anybody had that answer, especially [hitting coach] Todd Steverson, they'd be the first to say, 'Here it is, this is what's wrong exactly, and here's how you cure it.'"

Hawk: "You see a guy that's had two sensational seasons like Abreu with no protection - none, zero - all of a sudden come into his third season with plenty of protection, and he's just not getting it done. It looks to me like he's looking in more than he has the first two years. If you're looking in, you've got a problem."

Stone: "If you're looking in, you can't cover the outside part of the plate."

Hawk: "You've got a big problem. The plate, instead of 17 inches, goes to about 24 or 25 inches."

Whatever Abreu's problems have been this season, in the past week the Sox first baseman has looked like the guy who hit 66 homer uns, drove in 208 and hit .303 over the first two years of his career on the South Side.

In six games last week, Abreu had an eye-popping slash line of .391/.481/1.351. After failing to homer in his previous 32 games, Jose added two more homers at The Cell over the weekend against Baltimore. He also doubled and drove in four runs.

Sadly, Abreu's awakening didn't make much difference as he and his mates dropped two-of-three contests both to the Tigers and Orioles to slip to a season-low five games under .500.

Of course, this club has a long ledger of weaknesses, and the lack of run production from Abreu and Todd Frazier - the protection that Harrelson mentioned - in the middle of the lineup ranks close to the top.

Batting behind Adam Eaton and Melky Cabrera, who have on-base percentages of .356 and .347, respectively, one would think that Frazier would have more than his team-leading 69 RBI. Abreu has 60 after hitting a solo homer Sunday in a lopsided 10-2 loss to the Orioles.

Frazier is hitting an anemic .134 (13-for-97) with runners in scoring position, while Abreu checks in with a modest .246. As a rookie, Jose was a .317 hitter with runners in scoring position, providing a partial explanation why this team ranks 25th in runs scored.

Going back to Harrelson's original observation that Abreu is swinging at more bad pitches this season, a closer look indicates that Jose hasn't changed much in that respect.

According to Fangraphs, Abreu doesn't rank last in plate discipline. Of the 157 players listed, Abreu was 151st through Saturday. Of all the pitches Jose has seen outside the strike zone, he's swung the bat at slightly more than 40 percent of them.

But established players like All-Star catcher Salvador Perez of Kansas City and Oriole center fielder Adam Jones swing more often at bad pitches than Abreu.

Furthermore, in his first season in 2014 when Jose was Rookie of the Year, he also took a swing at 40.9 percent of the pitches he saw that were wide of the plate.

The difference this season is that Jose has looked miserable swinging at pitches nowhere near the strike zone, not balls slightly outside which heretofore had been line shots to right field.

For at least half the season, he was being pitched inside to get ahead in the count followed by 57-foot breaking balls that found Abreu lunging and missing for strike three.

Home plate is that arbitrary 17 inches wide with a strike zone from arm pits to knees. It also varies from umpire to umpire. So it's not surprising that the list of league leaders always has been filled with so-called "bad ball" hitters like Yogi Berra who was fond of taking an ankle-high pitch and depositing it into the right field bleachers.

The key is to hit the ball no matter where it's pitched. The location of the pitches that tantalize Abreu is inconsequential. What he does with those pitches is tantamount to his or any ballplayer's success.

The Fangraphs statistics go back only to 2002, but the hitter who swung most often at balls out of the strike zone was Vladimir Guerrero, a potential Hall of Famer who played 16 years, hit .318 with 449 home runs and 1,496 RBI. Obviously Vlad was quite adept at hitting pitches that wouldn't have been called strikes.

In the '70s, the White Sox had an exciting bad-ball hitter in Ralph Garr, who, by the way, apparently wasn't bothered by those uniforms like those that Chris Sale destroyed recently. A member of the South Side Hit Men, the man known as the Road Runner hit an even .300 two years in a row (1976-77) and was loads of fun to watch because you never knew what pitches looked good to him.

Before being traded to the White Sox, Garr led the National League in hitting in 1974 with a .353 average, and some of the greatest pitchers of his era couldn't figure out how to get him out. Garr touched Hall of Famer Juan Marichal for a .440 mark. And Don Sutton (.426), Bert Blyleven (.346), Steve Carlton (.375), and Bob Gibson (.387) never experienced much success when facing the Road Runner.

So swinging at bad pitches isn't so terrible. Swinging and missing them is.

As far as Hawk and Stoney's exchange from last Thursday is concerned, Abreu seems to have found his stroke, even though the sample size is small. On Sunday, using the whole field, he dumped a double down the left field line, hit a sharp single to right on a pitch off the outside corner, and homered to right center.

The only problem was, aside from Abreu's three hits, his teammates accounted for just one additional hit, a single off the bat of Tim Anderson. Couple that with James Shields giving up eight runs in an inning-and-a-third, and the Sox were down 10-0 less than an hour after the first pitch.

In two losses last week, Shields reverted back to the disastrous form he exhibited in his first three starts for the White Sox after coming over from the Padres in early June. James gave up 14 earned runs in 6 1/3 innings last week, facing 14 hitters on Sunday, retiring only four while issuing a like number of home runs. That's not good.

Matt Albers relieved Shields, and he was touched for Manny Machado's third homer in as many innings. Remember when Albers had 33 consecutive appearances going back to last season without giving up an earned run? Since that string ended in early May, Albers has pitched 26-plus innings (including two as Sale's replacement starter in the Scissors Game) and given up 26 earned runs. Sunday's home run was the ninth he's yielded in that stretch. According to the statheads, we shouldn't be surprised:

Let's hear Hawk and Stoney explain that.

Meanwhile, with eight weeks to go, there's not much drama remaining. It would have been nice to see the potential of Wilmette rookie outfielder Charlie Tilson, but he lasted just five innings last Tuesday before tearing a hamstring in a season-ending spill in center field in Detroit.

At least the kid got a hit in his first big league at-bat - and it was a hit.

So we must be satisfied to see if Sale can get enough support to surpass his personal best of 17 wins and challenge for the Cy Young Award. Maybe Abreu can keep up his recent surge and end with respectable numbers. Will Carson Fulmer get to start a game or two in lieu of Shields? Can Eaton continue to lead all outfielders in assists and all batters in infield hits?

For Sox fans, it's not much. But it's all we have.


Former Bill Veeck bar buddy Roger Wallenstein is our White Sox correspondent. He welcomes your comments.

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