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Why White Sox slugger Jose Abreu is struggling in 2016

Opposing pitchers found Abreu's weakness, and he's struggling to adapt.

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

DETROIT -- Opposing pitchers have adjusted to Jose Abreu. The signs emerged last year, but he was still one of the better hitters in the league. That is not the case in 2016: Abreu's struggles at the plate are twofold, and if he is going to be an offensive juggernaut again, he needs to make a counter-adjustment. But that's proven difficult to accomplish so far this year.

Abreu's strength hasn't gone anywhere, but pitchers are crowding him in at the plate and that's led to a loss of offensive power. This was somewhat true last year, too, but the drop in his production was nowhere near as drastic as this year. Coupled with that pitching countermeasure, Abreu's timing at the plate is off and that's hurt how he's seeing the ball for good contact.

"It hasn't been as smooth, as far as numbers-wise -- homers and things like that," White Sox manager Robin Ventura said. "He's had to struggle to get through it and I don't think he's felt quite as comfortable as he has in the past. But that's a part of playing baseball, you go through those."

"Anytime, mechanically, you don't feel good, everything becomes a bit of a struggle. I think that's where he's at right now. He hasn't been as comfortable at the plate as he's been in the past. I think the numbers will kind of show that out."

Abreu hasn't changed his approach since his rookie season, but the whispers have gone from "Aw shucks, he's a bit off," to wondering "Is this the new Jose Abreu?" Answer: yes and no. For now, yes it is. He'll have some games where he's red hot, but then he will go through stretches of inconsistency because his timing is all wrong.

"This is who you are when things go bad, this is who you are, this is how you treat yourself." -Todd Steverson, hitting coach

The first nine games of the year, Abreu looked like his old self (.290/.410/.516 with two homers), but then he went through an 11-game slump (.093/.149/.186). Then, he was hot for 20 games and hit .321/.383/.500 with three homers, four doubles, and a triple for good measure.

But he was quiet again for 13 games (.208/.232/.264 with no home runs), extending until the series against the Detroit Tigers when he had five hits and a homer in three games. Essentially, he's trying too hard, and that's caused Abreu to chase pitches out of the zone more often than he should.

"I know we tried to get him out the past couple years (when I was on the Tigers)," former Tiger and current White Sox catcher Alex Avila said of Abreu. "We wanted to make him pull the ball inside, swing at balls inside. We wanted to keep him away from extending his hands, and that's what teams are doing right now.

"When he expands (the strike zone), he's kind of playing into what the other team's trying to do. If he's able to lay off a few of those (crowding pitches) and get back over the plate, take some of his walks and get them back over the plate, he'll start hitting again."

So far it's worked quite well for teams. Abreu is batting just .251 with a meek .148 isolated power (ISO), though he has improved his walk percentage a bit after it dropped off in 2014 (6.5 as opposed to 5.8 last year). His 88 wRC+ is disturbingly low, too, and his exit velocity on contact made is down because he can't get the bat on the ball well.

Don't take that to mean he can't hit a ball out of the park for power, though, because he's still got the ability to make pitchers pay -- as he did against Justin Verlander on Sunday. But even that pitch was more of a pitcher's pitch than it was Abreu's, and that goes back to chasing pitches he normally wouldn't have in the past. The result has been what the team and fans see now: a hitter with plenty of power who swings at everything for little results.

Abreu should figure things out at some point, but what hitting coach Todd Steverson needs to guard against right now is letting the struggles go to Abreu's head. A hitter's mindset can change with the lack of success Abreu is having, especially if it's a battle they've never faced before.

Abreu

(credit: MLB.com)

Sometimes it can make or break them, but it's a necessary evil. Abreu is dealing with his first legitimate struggle in baseball, possibly ever, and until he gets past that, those struggles are going to continue.

"In some ways it's a good thing," Steverson said. "And I say that just because everybody needs to learn about themselves. This is who you are when things go bad, this is who you are, this is how you treat yourself. This is what you do to help yourself get out of it. This is what you're doing to help yourself stay (in the game). You gotta learn from these situations more than anything else and remember what it was like to be there when you finally do get out of (a slump)."

Steverson acknowledged he's had to pull Abreu aside and remind him of what he's capable of. Not because he doesn't know, but to remind Abreu that he already has the tools, it's just a matter of finding that consistency again. Whether he can do that, only he knows.

Currently, opposing pitchers have the advantage over Abreu, and the White Sox are battling several other issues on their team. If they're to bounce back, they'll need more than Abreu to fix his issues, but his bat is a good place to start. The league has done its part in adjusting to Abreu. Now it's his turn to do the same.