Jose Abreu claims that he does not want to participate in next month's Home Run Derby at Target Field. He is afraid that the contest would cause him to alter his swing and affect his approach at the plate.
If you’re like me (and I know I am), you want to see Abreu in that competition. On the other hand, if you’ve been paying attention, you will have noticed Abreu is conducting his own little in-season home run derby on pitchers all around the league, and it has been fun to watch.
Friday night’s victim of the Jose Abreu Traveling Home Run Derby was Toronto Blue Jays knuckleballer R.A. Dickey. Abreu connected twice off Dickey, leading the last-place Chicago White Sox to a 5-4 victory over the American League East-leading Blue Jays. The two homers improved Abreu’s season total to 25, lifting him into a tie for the major league lead with Edwin Encarnacion (who hit one in Friday night’s game and has a pretty good story in his own right) and Nelson Cruz (hey, another surprising name at the top of the home run list, as Dave Schoenfield noted earlier this week).
You already know Abreu’s story, I’m sure. He spent several years as a slugging first baseman in Cuba (in 2011, he hit .453/.597/.986 with 33 homers in only 212 at-bats!) and was a teammate of Aroldis Chapman and Yoenis Cespedes on the national team. Last August, Abreu defected from Cuba and signed a six-year deal worth $68 million to ply his trade on the South Side of Chicago.
Through the first half of the season, he’s been the most productive bat in the White Sox's lineup, by far, hitting .280/.330/.633. We’ve already noted he is tied for the big league lead in long balls; that .633 slugging percentage also leads the majors. Abreu’s .405 weighted on-base average (wOBA) and 156 weighted runs created plus (wRC+) place him solidly within the top 5-10 hitters in the American League, and his numbers across the board compare favorably to Miguel Cabrera's among AL first basemen.
Oh, and did we mention Abreu is a rookie? Sure, he’s a 27-year-old rookie who could have been in the big leagues years ago, were it not for the unfortunate circumstance that he happened to be born within the borders of Cuba. Nonetheless, he’s a rookie under the rules of Major League Baseball and, as a result of that classification, he is in the process of assaulting some rookie home run records.
Earlier this week, Abreu hit his 23rd homer, becoming the first player in baseball history to hit 23 home runs in his first 65 games. (Mark McGwire and Wally Berger were able to muster the paltry total of only 22 homers in their first 65 games). Further, Abreu is on pace to break McGwire’s rookie home run record (49, set in 1987).
Yes, lots could happen between now and the end of the season, so we won’t bet the ranch that McGwire is destined to be relegated to second on the rookie home run list. Keep in mind, however, that Abreu has played in only 67 games, thanks to a stint on the disabled list earlier in the season. He has 25 homers in those 67 games. I’m not going to bet the ranch against him, either.
Abreu doesn’t walk very often (his 5.6 walk percentage is the lowest among the most productive offensive players in the league), and you have to wonder if pitchers will begin to figure out how to pitch to him at some point. Then again, he’s hit in 12 consecutive games and shows little sign of slowing down. Whatever happens, Abreu is certainly one of the most fascinating storylines to watch over the second half of the season.
In the meantime, if you happen to run into Abreu after one of his Traveling Home Run Derby performances, please whisper in his ear that he should really consider competing in the Home Run Derby. For America. Or for Cuba. Or just for me.