keyboard_arrow_uptop

Immediate stardom was hardly assumed for Jose Abreu. Upon his signing with the White Sox last winter, scouting critics of the Cuban import were numerous. The most common worry was that he would have significant issues with hard stuff on the inner half of the plate, and the message got to opposing pitchers. Throughout the season, and especially early, they showed a clear plan: To hammer him with inside heat.

Sure enough, Abreu slugged better on fastballs to the outer half:

But it’s not as if he fell apart when facing heat on the inner half, as many expected. It wasn't the hole that the opposition, and the scouting consensus, had believed it would be.

What actually turned out to be his hole was low in the zone, particularly breaking balls (as noted here). As the season progressed, pitchers shifted their target to the lower half, and he struggled to make contact against both off-speed and breaking pitches below the knees:

But if that turned out to be a hole, it never reached kryptonite levels. Despite swinging at 41.6 percent of pitches outside of the zone, making contact with only 59.3 percent of those pitches, and whiffing at 14.4 percent of the pitches he saw (league averages were 31.3, 65.9, and 9.4, respectively), Abreu’s strikeout rate was just a tick above 21 percent on the season, and it never really jumped as pitchers changed their mode of attack.

However, it proved difficult for him to continue to elevate the ball. In the second half, Abreu’s groundball percentage jumped over four percentage points, while his fly ball percentage dropped nearly seven percentage points. He hit only five homers in the season's final two months, though he still managed to slug a solid .470 in that same time.

The Abreu we saw down the stretch wasn’t the same version who slugged his way onto the national scene, but he managed to find success in different ways. In the final 69 games of the season, Abreu saw his batting average jump 42 points, from .275 to a very strong .317. Abreu walked at just a 1.6 percent rate in May—a month in which he only played 15 games due to an ankle injury—then steadily made that number climb, leading to a rate above 11 percent in the final two months of the season.

A quick snapshot of Abreu’s two halves in 2014:

BA

OBP

SLG

BABIP*

wRC+

First Half

.292

.342

.630

.304

164

Second Half

.350

.435

.513

.419

166

Those are two terrifically productive halves; however, they look like two completely different players. You could explain the change in various ways. Perhaps it was the difference in how Abreu was attacked by pitchers, leading to a drop in power. If that’s the case, Abreu deserves significant credit for adjusting back—apparently significantly altering his approach—and still producing at a high level. One could also suggest that the ankle injury sapped Abreu’s power, or perhaps it was playing such a long season for the first time and not being in the proper shape to handle the rigors of 162 games. In either case, one should remain optimistic for 2015, as Abreu is both 100 percent healthy and coming into this season with a different mindset. As he told CSN Chicago’s Dan Hayes:

“I came more fresh,” Abreu said through an interpreter. “I know that I have to save my bullets or save my energy for the long season and not just to throw out in the first weeks. I’m trying to save my energies for a long season.”

It’ll be fascinating to see if Abreu can somehow combine what he did last year into one consistent six-month stretch. Sure, a .350 batting average and .435 OBP would be pushing it (we can all spot the symptom "unsustainable BABIP"), but that 11 percent walk rate would be nice for a whole season, especially if combined with 30-plus home runs and a batting average pushing .300. Even with just one season in the books, PECOTA is bullish on Abreu, projecting a .323 TAv, 32 home runs, and 4.5 WARP. It’s a slight drop from last season, but getting PECOTA on your side with so little on your resume is an impressive feat.

Of course, there is a chance things go south and we see pitchers take more advantage of Abreu’s tendencies to chase. Maybe that leads to a jump in strikeout rate. Maybe that drop in HR/FB rate in the second half was a sign of things to come. Maybe the elevated groundball rate lasts all season, and maybe far fewer find holes.

However, Abreu made ‘adjustments’ a theme in his inaugural season, leading to a more optimistic outlook for 2015. Abreu adjusted after a 1-for-26 slump in mid-April. He adjusted as pitchers went from pounding him in with heat, to pounding him low with softer stuff. Perhaps most importantly, he’s adjusted to a new country, lifestyle, and work environment, and with that, new expectations of how he needs to prepare for a season. If he can somehow take all that he learned last summer and into this offseason and become a more complete player for all of 2015, the league might never find his hole.

Thank you for reading

This is a free article. If you enjoyed it, consider subscribing to Baseball Prospectus. Subscriptions support ongoing public baseball research and analysis in an increasingly proprietary environment.

Subscribe now
You need to be logged in to comment. Login or Subscribe
jfranco77
3/20
I would love to know how PECOTA figures out guys like these. It's got Abreu compared to a 5th year Mark Teixeira 2008 and a 9th year Miguel Cabrera 2011.

PECOTA probably sees a guy destroy the league at age 27 and just says "huh?"