GLENDALE, Ariz. — Jose Abreu isn’t walking through the clubhouse doors anymore.
But during Abreu’s ninth and final season with the Sox, Andrew Vaughn subtly developed into a clutch hitter who could help alleviate the loss of the 2020 American League MVP.
“Jose was a phenomenal guy,” Vaughn said Wednesday before the Sox’ game with the Giants at Scottsdale was rained out. “He showed up and posted. He made younger guys want to be like that. It was tough to see him go. But now we got to beat up on him.”
Vaughn and the Sox will get to see how far they must climb when they open the season March 30 against the defending champion Astros and a lineup fortified by the addition of Abreu, 36, who ended a storied career with the Sox by joining Houston after agreeing to a three-year, $58 million contract.
Individually, Vaughn, 24, started to make strides toward becoming a productive hitter on a big stage. He gained notice during his rookie season by hitting a game-tying home run off formidable closer Aroldis Chapman on May 23, 2021, at Yankee Stadium.
But he became more productive and reliable with runners on base after his rookie season when his batting average dipped to .210 in the second half.
In 2022, Vaughn increased his batting average with runners in scoring position from .196 to .339, and his batting average with the bases loaded swelled from .182 to .583 (7-for-12 with 16 RBI).
Vaughn also increased his road batting average from 95 points to 307.
“There’s some adjustments I needed to make from year one to year two,” said Vaughn, the third overall pick in the 2019 draft. “And those are definite downhill things that trended the first year, and I wanted to bring it back up. It was better, but I still want to keep improving.”
Vaughn didn’t deny that he made some adjustments with the placement of his hands but declined to go into details while continuing to work with upbeat first-year hitting coach Jose Castro and assistant hitting coach Chris Johnson.
“I did make some adjustments to give myself a better chance,” Vaughn acknowledged.
Since coming out of Cal as one of the nation’s top hitters in his draft class, Vaughn admitted he might have gotten too wrapped up in situations with runners on base and became too anxious, as evidenced by his 21.5% strikeout rate.
His improved pitch identification helped him lower his strikeout rate to 17.3% (although his walk rate dipped by 3% to 5.6).
“You got to go in there and know the situation,” Vaughn said. “Just got to stay calm, and you can’t overthink it. You can’t try to do too much. You got to be you.
“Everybody wants to be the guy to drive them in. You go up there, stay simple and do what you can.”
Vaughn’s homer off Chapman illustrated his willingness to hit the ball the opposite way, and it snapped Chapman’s streak of 18 appearances without allowing an earned run to start the 2021 season.
The 2023 season should provide more comfort for Vaughn, who sampled the postseason in his rookie season, only to experience a letdown in 2022 with the Sox falling way short of expectations with Tim Anderson, Luis Robert and Eloy Jimenez out of the lineup for extended periods because of injuries.
Vaughn also coped with sore legs while playing the outfield but will have the familiarity of returning to first base, his natural position.
“I think we got some pretty good guys to cover the outfield,” Vaughn said. “I do my job, we all do our jobs, we win games. And the legs are good.”