A Metronome of Power Keeps the White Sox Humming

Jose Abreu is known for picking up checks, crowding the plate and driving in runs — a lot of runs. He is quiet in the news media, but his teammates have plenty to say about him.

CHICAGO — Going out to dinner with Jose Abreu, the reigning winner of the American League Most Valuable Player Award, can be a challenge. At least it is for his teammates on the Chicago White Sox who try to pay their fair share.

“He always tries to pay,” third baseman Yoan Moncada said in Spanish. “You want to pay but you can’t.”

“You have to stop him,” left fielder Eloy Jimenez added. “He likes paying. Just because he is earning more doesn’t mean he has to buy all the food.”

In many ways, on and off the field, the White Sox revolve around Abreu, their everyday first baseman since 2014. When they traded away mainstays like Chris Sale, Adam Eaton and Jose Quintana in 2016 and 2017 to rebuild the roster and snap out of losing, they made Abreu a cornerstone. And as the White Sox have been reborn as one of the most exciting teams in baseball, and will soon claim their first A.L. Central crown since 2008, Abreu, 34, has remained exactly in the same spot — a run-producing slugger in the heart of the lineup and a team leader in the clubhouse.

“Through the early parts of this process, I said a few times that we probably value Jose more than other teams do, simply because we’ve had the benefit of seeing the impact he has in the clubhouse,” White Sox General Manager Rick Hahn said.

“And certainly everyone can see what he does on the field and the value on the offensive and defensive production. But we sort of boost that up a little bit because we know how he essentially role models exactly what we want guys to be when they wear a White Sox uniform.”

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Like many Cuban baseball players fleeing to chase their major league dreams, Abreu endured a harrowing defection to come to the United States. In 2013, he left on a boat to Haiti from Cuba, where he had starred for the Elefantes de Cienfuegos of Serie Nacional and made about $20 a month. On his flight from Haiti to Miami, where his six-year, $68 million contract with the White Sox awaited, Abreu has said, he went to the airplane bathroom, ripped out the first page of the fake Haitian passport that bore his photo and fake name, and washed it down with the help of a beer.

Quickly, the 6-foot-3, 235-pound Abreu became a vital part of Chicago’s lineup. He was an All-Star and a Silver Slugger in his first season, and won the A.L. Rookie of the Year Award for hitting .317 with 36 home runs and 107 runs batted in. He has been as reliable as any player in baseball since.

Through Friday, only one person had more R.B.I. than Abreu (782) since the start of 2014: St. Louis Cardinals third baseman Nolan Arenado (807). Only two people — Carlos Santana and Charlie Blackmon — had played in more games than Abreu’s 1,101 in that span. He once explained that his mother, whom he left behind in Cuba when he defected, is unhappy whenever he is not in the lineup.

Other than in his 2018 season, in which he was injured, and the pandemic-shortened 60-game season in 2020, Abreu has hit at least 25 home runs and driven in at least 100 runs each year while playing every day. In an era of modern baseball where traditional measuring sticks such as R.B.I. have been de-emphasized over more precise advanced metrics, Abreu has excelled at driving in runs.

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“They devalue everything at this point,” White Sox shortstop Tim Anderson, 28, said. “They devalue batting average, R.B.I. They just want homers. But the guy has been consistent since he got here and he just continues to work and get better the older he gets. Behind the scenes it’s totally different from what people see. He actually works and works and works.”

Last year, Abreu was named the A.L.’s M.V.P. for hitting .317 with 19 home runs and 60 R.B.I. as he guided the White Sox, who haven’t won a World Series since 2005, to their first postseason berth in 12 years.Sign up for the Sports Newsletter  Get our most ambitious projects, stories and analysis delivered to your inbox every week. Get it sent to your inbox.

Through Friday, he was hitting .263 with 29 home runs and 111 R.B.I., his third straight season leading the A.L. in run production. He has played in 140 of his team’s 147 games, overcoming nicks and bruises and hit-by-pitches that might send others to the injured list. (Opponents try to neutralize Abreu, who stands close to the plate, by pitching him in, and he had been hit 19 times through Friday, fourth most in baseball.)

“He gets himself ready, no matter how he’s aching or tired or whatever, and takes the assignment,” White Sox Manager Tony La Russa said. “He gets himself ready to play and he plays with great enthusiasm and toughness. That’s a special kind of dig-deep toughness that goes beyond his talent.”

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