Eloy Jimenez sprained his right foot while rounding a base just four days before the start of the White Sox’s wildcard series against the Athletics in 2020, limiting it to two at-bats when his teammates needed it most. The Sox lost the series.
Then, at the end of spring practice the following March, the defensively limited left fielder made an unsuccessful attempt to hit a home run eight days before Opening Day and suffered a left pectoral muscle tear that put him on hold for nearly four full months.
That really hurt.
Jimenez was desperate for a while. What athlete wouldn’t be? Months of off-season training and preparation to build on a Silver Slugger Award-winning 2020 season that followed a rookie campaign in which he hit 31 home runs felt wasted. A surge of support from teammates for the likeable, fun-loving Jimenez carried him through the early days after injury and through the lonely days during his rigorous rehab.
“If it wasn’t for her — well, if it wasn’t for God first and then her after that — I wouldn’t have been able to do what I did and come back,” Jimenez said. “So I’m really thankful for all my teammates. It made me feel special to them, just as they are to me.”
The Sox hung Jimenez’s jersey in the dugout, and Jose Abreu tucked Jimenez’s red Eloy-style batting gloves into his back pocket. The message read: “We will hold the fort and have first place ready for you when you come back.”
Which turned out. Initially fearing he might be lost for the season, Jimenez, 24, returned on July 26 and appeared no worse. In his first 20 games, he hit .304/.325/.608 with five home runs.
“At first it seemed like he didn’t miss anything,” said general manager Rick Hahn. “And he unfortunately fell out of that timing soon after and couldn’t quite get it back.”
“In the beginning I didn’t even know what I was doing because everything was fine,” Jimenez said this week. “But then I lost my composure a bit and 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 hit .232/.294/.341, about 100 points below his batting average capability, according to hitting coach Frank Menechino.
In 55 games, the same number he played in the COVID-cut 60-game season in 2020, Jimenez finished with .740 OPS, 141 points below what he produced in 2020. Outfielder Adam Engel finished with a higher WAR (wins over substitutes) per baseball reference, in part due to superior defensive skills, despite only playing 39 games.
This offseason, Jimenez is trying to find out.
“Right now, being in the off-season, I’m studying myself and seeing what happened, what the problem was,” Jimenez said ahead of the lockout that threatens to limit the spring training at-bats he could use.
Hahn gave Jimenez a mulligan discussing his performance in 2021 at general manager meetings and said Luis Roberts’ exceptional play following his injury was the exception, not the norm.
“You’re rehabilitating yourself, away from pitching in the big league after 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, get your momentum back, get your timing back, get your strength back,” said Hahn. “And we saw it all on the track. The good news is that getting him back to where he was on a more normal schedule really shouldn’t be a problem in the long term.”
Either way, the Sox need Jimenez to get back to that .840 OPS form and be the middle threat that was missing all the way and to some degree in the divisional series against the Astros when he was 5-. for-17 (.291) with all his hits singles.
Jimenez doesn’t apologize for the late start and missed time.
“I have to do better,” he said. “That was my mentality all along.
There are mechanical glitches, probably minor, and timing issues that need adjusting. He can’t overshoot, said Menechino.
“I know there will be ups and downs sometimes, but this time I don’t know what happened,” Jimenez said. “I’ve just got to figure it out now and keep working hard and let’s see how it goes next season.”
His goal for 2022?
“Be Eloy again,” 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.”
That was a Silver Slugger winner in 2020. Staying healthy is of the utmost importance.
“Being injured a second time was tough, especially when the team needs one,” he said. “And for me it was frustrating because there was still a week until the start of the season. I had an injury in October , and then I got injured at the end of spring training. So it was really difficult. But we have to [get] past all of that.”