Eloy Jimenez sprained his right foot rounding a base just four days before the start of the White Sox’ wild-card series against the Athletics in 2020, limiting him to two at-bats when his teammates needed him the most. The Sox lost the series.
Then, at the end of spring training the following March, the defensively limited left fielder made a fruitless attempt to catch a home run eight days before Opening Day, suffering a left pectoral muscle tear that put him on the shelf for almost four full months.
That one really hurt.
Jimenez was despondent for a while. What athlete wouldn’t be? Months of offseason training and preparation to build on a Silver Slugger award-winning season in 2020, which had followed a rookie campaign that saw him hit 31 home runs, felt wasted. An outpouring of support from teammates for the personable, fun-loving Jimenez carried him through the initial days after the injury and through the lonely days during his rigorous rehab.
“If it wasn’t for them — well, if it wasn’t for God first, and then for them after — I wasn’t able to do what I did and come back,” Jimenez said. “So I’m really grateful for all my teammates. That made me feel like I was special for them, like they are for me.”
The Sox hung Jimenez’s jersey in the dugout, and Jose Abreu back-pocketed Jimenez’s red batting gloves, Eloy style. The message was, “We’ll hold down the fort and have first place waiting for you when you get back.”
Which is what transpired. Initially feared to be lost possibly for the season, Jimenez, 24, returned July 26 and seemed none the worse for wear. He slashed .304/.325/.608 with five homers in his first 20 games.
“It did seem, initially, like he didn’t miss a beat,” general manager Rick Hahn said. “And he unfortunately fell out of that timing soon thereafter and couldn’t quite get it back.”
“At the beginning, I didn’t even know what I was doing because everything was good,” Jimenez said this week. “But then I lost it a little bit, and I didn’t really know what I was doing.
“I feel like I was there but at the same time I wasn’t.”
So which hitter will the Sox get in 2022?
In his last 42 games, Jimenez batted .232/.294/.341, about 100 points below his capability on the batting-average split, according to hitting coach Frank Menechino.
In 55 games, the same number he played in the COVID-abbreviated 60-game season in 2020, Jimenez finished with a .740 OPS, 141 points below what he produced in 2020. Outfielder Adam Engel finished with a higher WAR (wins above replacement) per Baseball Reference, partly because of superior defensive skill, despite playing only 39 games.
This offseason, Jimenez is trying to figure it out.
“Right now, in the offseason, I’m studying myself and seeing what happened, what was the issue,” Jimenez said before the lockout, which threatens to limit spring-training at-bats he could use.
Hahn gave Jimenez a mulligan discussing his 2021 performance at the general managers meetings, saying Luis Robert’s exceptional play after his injury was the exception, not the norm.
“You rehab by yourself away from big-league pitching from a catastrophic injury, it makes all the sense in the world it’s going to take you a little time to get your legs back under you, to get your swing back, get your timing back, get your strength back,” Hahn said. “And we saw all that down the stretch. The good news is, long term, there really should be no problem getting him back to where he was with a more normal schedule.”
In any event, the Sox need Jimenez to return to that .840 OPS form and be the middle-of-the-order threat that was absent down the stretch and to a degree in the division series against the Astros, when he was 5-for-17 (.291) with all of his hits singles.
Jimenez isn’t excusing himself because of the late start and missed time.
“I need to do better,” he said. “That was my mentality the whole time.
There are mechanical glitches, probably minor, and timing issues to tune up. He can’t overswing, Menechino said.
“I know there’s going to be ups and downs at times, but this time I don’t know what happened,” Jimenez said. “I just have to figure it out right now and keep working hard and let’s see next season.”
His goal for 2022?
“Go back to being Eloy,” he said. “Last year, I didn’t know who I was. I’m working really hard to get back to where I used to be.”
Which was a Silver Slugger-winning left fielder in 2020. Staying healthy is paramount.
“To get injured a second time, it was hard, especially when the team needs you,” he said. “And for me, it was frustrating because it was one week away from the start of the season. I had an injury in October , and then I got an injury at the end of spring training. So it’s been really hard. But we’ve got to [get] past all that.”