One of two starting first basemen in next week’s All-Star Game will be the White Sox’s Jose Abreu, which if you’ve been following his season, tells you all you need to know about the state of the position in the American League in 2018.
Abreu is in his fifth season, and his first four have been good ones. He’s hit .300 twice, slugged .500 three times and knocked in 100 runs or more all four seasons. RBIs might be the stat fans of advanced metrics most sneer at, but Abreu averaged 102.5 of them a year for a team that ranked 13th, 28th, 20th and 23rd in MLB in runs scored.
Even the strictest of sabermetricians could appreciate someone doing that for the White Sox.
Abreu played in just one All-Star Game in his first four seasons, which wasn’t fair, but his performance this year doesn’t warrant him being any closer to it than the White Sox are to first place. (That the White Sox are 20 games out is because the Indians, like Abreu, have underperformed and not because Abreu’s team, even at 30-60, has.).
The 2018 Abreu is batting .259 and has a .762 OPS which, for batters with at least 150 plate appearances, ranks ninth among AL first basemen and 139th in MLB, or three spots behind Texas rookie first baseman Ronald Guzman.
You haven’t seen Ronald Guzman and All-Star in the same sentence since he left the Class AA Texas League two years ago.
Since a 4-for-4 with two doubles and a homer vs. the Tigers on May 26 pushed Abreu’s OPS up to .942, he’s 28-for-153 with 12 extra-base hits, and is two-for-his-last-23.
That’s not a slump; that’s a quarter season of futility, and a good reason to vote for someone else.
It’s hard to fully blame voters, because the result was no mandate for Abreu. He received 1.8 million votes, or fewer than any other position player from either league but for Manny Machado, whose competition at shortstop (Francisco Lindor, Carlos Correa, Andrelton Simmons, Didi Gregorius, Xander Bogaerts, Jean Segura) was far stiffer.
Abreu’s was Mitch Moreland, whose career is his opposite. Abreu is an All-Star having his worst season; Moreland a mostly replacement-level player having his best season. Only two other AL first basemen have an OPS better than .800, and one of those, Miguel Cabrera, is out for the year.
Collectively, this is a remarkably poor performance by hitters at a hitters’ position. Last year eight first basemen finished the season with OPSes better than .800, led by Abreu’s .906; two years ago four did, and three years ago ago six did. You have to go back to 2014, Abreu’s rookie season, to a similar performance. Only two players, Abreu one of them, topped .800 — which can in part be explained by the Rays giving James Loney 600 at-bats — but four players almost did, all of them coming within 11 points of .800.
This year’s AL first basemen may do worse. Moreland is at .884, but given that his career OPS is .766 and he’s only once topped .800, regression is as certain as the White Sox not making the playoffs. And Justin Smoak is at .812, 72 points better than his career average, though he is a year removed from his career-best .883.
It’s not impossible that Abreu might yet lead AL first baseman in OPS by season’s end, and could be the only one above .800. Assuming he makes it there.
You can see the dilemma for voters. Vote for Abreu, who’s the name brand and has been an All-Star, but doesn’t merit your vote this year, or vote for any of the other generic candidates, who might be better but you don’t want displayed in your All-Star starting lineup.
Name recognition won out, as it so often does when put to a vote.
We don’t know how many voters were aware of Abreu’s poor 2018 performance, since even White Sox fans are more interested in how many hits top prospect Eloy Jimenez had yesterday (1-for-2) than Abreu (1-for-4 and his single broke an 0-for-10).
Nobody’s paying much attention to the White Sox, who aren’t the worst team in baseball, but only because the Royals and Orioles are worse. And we’ve learned the hard way in this country what an uninformed electorate is capable of.
Still, the voters might have done the AL All-Star team a favor by voting Abreu into the starting lineup. Every team has to be represented, and if not Abreu, then who? No White Sox player has resembled an All-Star since Matt Davidson hit three homers on Opening Day back in March. Since then, Davidson has batted .218, homered 11 more times and fanned 102 times, or enough to put a damper on his All-Star candidacy.
If not Abreu, then who? Yolmer Sanchez, the White Sox’s .257-hitting third baseman, might have just lost the best chance he’ll ever have to make an All-Star team, and he can blame the Abreu voters for that.