One of the best parts of being a baseball fan is that it comes with a license to argue. Pick a topic–to DH or not to DH, “pitching is watered down” vs. “hitters are better than ever,” “Bud Selig is the best commissioner ever” vs. “Bud is an ignorant cretin and a blight upon the game”–and you can find reams upon reams of historical and statistical evidence to support your position. It is rare to find a weighty baseball question upon which the facts are so overwhelmingly incontrovertible as to squelch any dissenting opinion.
This might be one of the reasons (admittedly down the list) for why Barry Bonds is so disliked by the media. He has rendered one of the greatest of all barstool arguments–“who is the best player in baseball?”–utterly irrelevant for the past half-decade.
The book that welcomed me to the world of sabermetrics, Bill James’ 1988 Baseball Abstract, starts with a three-page imaginary conversation between two friends, arguing over who is the best player in baseball. (Wade Boggs, coming off of a flukish power spike in 1987, reigns.) Today, that conversation would be two lines long:
YOU: "Who's the best player in baseball?" ME: "You're kidding, right?"
That still leaves an endless array of other baseball questions that can be disputed deep into the night. Unfortunately, I’m here to tell you that, much as Bonds has eliminated all pretense of suspense regarding one question, another player has quietly closed the book on an equally rousing one.
The question is, “who is the most underrated player in baseball?”
The answer is “Bobby Abreu.”
I’d like to think I’m a reasonable man, capable of considering both sides of an argument, but I simply will not brook any dissent on this. Abreu is not simply the most underrated player in the game today. He is, at this moment, the most underrated player of my lifetime, wresting that crown away from an in-his-prime Tim Raines.
Consider this line:
G AB H 2B 3B HR R RBI BB SO SB CS SB% AVG OBP SLG 162 575 175 41 6 23 104 94 106 126 29 10 75.3% .305 .412 .517
Not a bad peak, eh? Over a hundred walks, oodles of extra-base power, considerable base-stealing prowess, and the always aesthetically-pleasing .300/.400/.500 rate line.
That’s not Abreu’s peak, though. That his 162-game average for his entire career.
That’s not a good player. That’s a player who is above the league average in essentially every meaningful offensive statistic. The only statistic in which Abreu is not significantly above-average is strikeouts, a finding of dubious significance. The line above is a statistical rendering of the scout’s perfect Five-Tool Ballplayer.
There are more numbers where that line came from. Abreu has drawn 100 walks or more in each of the last six seasons, a feat that only Jim Thome can match. Abreu has hit 222 doubles over the last five years; only an altitude-assisted Todd Helton can top that. Most surprising of all to those of us who don’t play rotisserie, in the last four years Abreu has swiped 129 bags, fifth in the majors, and more than Luis Castillo has nabbed.
Let’s see…average? Check. Power? Check. Speed? Check. Plate discipline? Check. Guitar? Check. Microphone? Check. (Sorry…John Mayer is playing in the background.)
Durability? The man has never been on the DL. Since entering the Phillies’ starting lineup in 1998, Abreu has played in more than 150 games every year.
Defense? Abreu is not particularly distinguished as a right fielder one way or the other. Over his career, our defensive translations put Abreu at 13 runs below average, which is fewer than two runs below average per season.
Ballpark effects? According to baseball-reference.com, Philadelphia’s park factor for hitters has averaged 98.9 over the past seven season, which is to say that it has diminished run scoring by about 1% over that timeframe.
Off-field behavior? I’m not Abreu’s shadow, but as far as we know he’s got a clean record. A check of thesmokinggun.com concurs: “Your search–Abreu–did not match any documents.”
Clubhouse influence? Well, you don’t last seven years in Philadelphia if you’re a complete jerk. Abreu gets bonus points for surviving the Larry Bowa years without snapping.
Recent trend? If anything, Abreu is getting better. Last year, at age 30, he set a career high in walks (128) and finished one homer shy of his career high, with 30. His EqA of .328 was the best of his career. And–relevant because speed is often the first tool to go–Abreu set a career high with 40 steals in just 45 attempts, while grounding into just five double plays, the lowest total of his career.
Abreu has an almost breathtaking array of strengths as a ballplayer and no real weaknesses. He is, without question, one of the greatest players in the game today. According to Clay Davenport’s WARP1, which measures a player’s overall value over a replacement player, Abreu has been worth 58.4 wins over replacement over the last seven years, an average of 8.3 per year. Just eight players have been worth more:
Player WARP1 (1998-2004) 1. Barry Bonds 87.2 2. Alex Rodriguez 70.6 3. Pedro Martinez 68.6 4. Randy Johnson 63.6 5. Todd Helton 62.5 6. Jeff Kent 60.6 7. Scott Rolen 59.8 8. Sammy Sosa 59.7 9. Bobby Abreu 58.4 10. Curt Schilling 58.2
Quick, go ask your friendly neighborhood sportswriter to list the ten best players in the game over the last seven years. See how many of them name Abreu.
Actually, I did ask my friendly neighborhood sportswriter, Joe Posnanski of the Kansas City Star, what his immediate, word-assocation reaction was to hearing the words “Bobby Abreu.” Would you believe his response was, “who?”
If you do, you’ve obviously never read Posnanski’s work. But his actual answer was much more telling:
“I was in one of those ridiculously involved fantasy leagues two or three years ago–the only time I’ve been in one, and the last time I’ll ever be in one–and I needed to over-research (the league was clearly tilted against new teams like mine) and so I came up with a spreadsheet to show the best player in the game. This dumb league valued homers and stolen bases more or less equally, and I believe offered up some OBP points. Bobby Abreu came out No. 1 on my spreadsheet, ahead of Barry Bonds.
I figured this HAD to be wrong, I really didn’t know much of anything about Bobby Abreu other than the few times I had seen him on ‘SportsCenter,’ so I ran the numbers a different way and again Abreu came out No. 1 (with Carlos Beltran No. 2).
So I took Bobby Abreu with my first pick. And even though I don’t recall a single thing he did that year, I know that by the end he put up his surprisingly typical numbers–the .300 average, the .400 OBP, the .500 SLG, the 20-25 homers, the 30-40 stolen bases.
And so I started wondering why nobody ever talks about this guy. It isn’t a question that has kept me up at night or anything. But I would say once or twice a year I have gone to Baseball Reference to look up his numbers (I didn’t before writing this), and have been suitably impressed. I always liked to think of Beltran as baseball’s most underrated player (not anymore). But in my heart, I suspected it was actually Abreu.”
Abreu’s quality is exceeded only by his consistency: not only has he averaged 8.3 WARP per year, but his worst WARP figure in the last seven years is 7.5. More than any other player in the game, Abreu has never had an off year. No other player in baseball has managed at least 7.5 WARP in each of the last seven years. Not Bonds. Not Alex Rodriguez. Not Jim Edmonds or Randy Johnson or Gary Sheffield or…you get the idea.
So, to sum up, we have a player who:
- has unleashed an awesome, broad-based offensive barrage on the National League for the last seven years
- plays in one of the game’s largest single-team markets
- has never had an off-year
- has no “intangible” or off-field issues which may obscure his quality as a ballplayer
And he’s almost completely unknown.
The question is, why? I can throw out a few ideas, none of which are all that convincing:
- A lot of his value is locked up in his walks.
RETORT: Walks have no impact on the fact that he’s a lifetime .305 hitter, and his career slugging average is .517. But yes, this might have something to do with it. Abreu’s lifetime OBP (.412) ranks sixth among active players with 1000 or more plate appearances. His slugging average doesn’t crack the top 25.
- He doesn’t do well on the Black Ink Test.
In his career, Abreu has led the league in just three categories: doubles, with 50 in 2002; triples, with 11 in 1999; and games played, with 162 in 2001.
RETORT: True, but how important is that? The National League has 16 teams, making it the largest league in the history of major league baseball; it’s twice as hard to lead the NL in a category today as it was in 1960. Mike Piazza is the greatest-hitting catcher of all time, with a career line of .315/.385/.562, and the only category he’s ever led the league in is GIDPs (27, in 1999).
- In an era of unprecedented home-run frequency, Abreu simply doesn’t provide the power we’ve come to expect from corner outfielders. He’s averaged barely 23 homers a year in his career, and never hit more than 31.
RETORT: Ichiro Suzuki‘s career high is 13. Of course, his career high in hits is 262, which is to say that while Suzuki doesn’t hit for power, he does have one exceptional, highly-publicized skill. Should we penalize Abreu because he fits neither the prototype of the prodigious power hitter (because he’s too fast) nor that of the speedy slap hitter (because he’s got too much power)? Abreu is a two-time 30/30 man, and his Power/Speed number of 139.8 over the last five years trails only Carlos Beltran (140.5) among all players.
- He’s never played in the postseason.
RETORT: Well, actually he has (he went 1-for-3 as a reserve for the Astros in 1997). To address the bigger point: so what? Is it fair to condemn Abreu for the sins of Larry Bowa? I don’t recall Abreu leading the pitchfork-wielding crowd that ran Scott Rolen out of town. If anything, Abreu deserves credit for the fact that the Phillies have won 86 games three times in the last four years. The Phillies are coming off their first back-to-back winning seasons since 1982-83.
- He’s never had that one monstrous season that gets everyone’s attention.
RETORT: Uh…hmm…you might have hit on something here. Consistency is the natural enemy of the outlier. Abreu has never posted an OPS lower than 877 as a regular…but he’s never cracked 1000 either. His best power year, when he cracked 31 homers and 48 doubles in 2001, was also his worst year for average (.289).
Put it this way: Abreu’s career OPS is 929. Fifty-nine players in baseball history have managed a 900 or higher OPS in a career of 2500 or more plate appearances. Only two of them never broke 1000 in a season of 300 or more plate appearances: Abreu and Charlie Keller, who was a regular for just six seasons and was also a wildly underrated player.
So as I see it, the main reasons why Abreu is so underrated are that rather than having one recognizable skill, he makes his game contributions in a variety of ways; and that rather than having an outlier MVP-caliber season surrounded by a series of lower-quality campaigns, he settles for giving the same MVP-candidate performance, year after year.
So the things that make him so underrated are the same reasons why, if anything, we should appreciate him even more.
Abreu is completely unappreciated. He made the All-Star team for the first time in his career in 2004, which ties him with Ken Harvey and puts him just one appearance behind Scott Cooper. His highest rank in MVP voting was 16th place, in 2001, with all of nine points. (On the other hand, he also ranked 23rd in 1999 and 2004, and 27th in 2003!) He is so unappreciated that, even after digesting everything you’ve just read, no doubt some of you are going to choke on your phlegm when you read the next sentence. Bobby Abreu is on pace for a Hall of Fame career.
To wit: using WARP3 (essentially the same as WARP1, only adjusted for difficulty of era), Abreu has been 58.5 wins above replacement for his career. From 2000 through 2004, his five best consecutive seasons, Abreu’s WARP3 was 43.2.
Jay Jaffe has evaluated the de facto standards of the Hall of Fame previously, and found that the average performance of a Hall of Fame right fielder consists of a five-year peak of 43.3 WARP3, and a career total of 110.2 WARP3. Using this rather lofty standard for Hall of Fame admission–if you meet the standard of the average Hall of Famer at your position, you most certainly exceed the standard of the marginal Hall of Famer–Abreu almost exactly matches the five-year peak standard, and he has already passed the halfway point on the career standard.
(Brief interlude: Abreu’s past five seasons meet the very definition of a Hall of Fame peak. Stew on that for a moment.)
He’s about to begin his age 31 season, and while most players accomplish more before age 31 than after, there are a number of reasons to think that Abreu will be an exception:
- He got a fairly late start to his career, not earning an everyday job in the majors until he was 24. Abreu has accomplished all that he has in essentially seven major-league seasons.
- He is an exceptionally durable player, and durability and longevity are two highly correlated skills.
- Players who combine power and speed age better than players who have either skill in isolation. Abreu is the premier power/speed player in baseball aside from Beltran.
- His performance showed no signs of diminishing at age 30; on the contrary, it was his best year ever according to WARP, and his speed indicators were all at career highs.
I’m not advocating that we waive the rules and start fitting Abreu for a plaque right this moment. There is still plenty of time to evaluate Abreu and see if he continues to excel into his late thirties. But there isn’t much time to start the groundswell of support. Most of us in sabermetrics today arrived too late on the scene to help Tim Raines, whose mid-’80s peak went by with nary a mention of its Hall of Fame quality. Rock will be on the ballot in a few years, and barring a historic influx of BP readers onto the rolls of the BBWAA over the next 15 years, his Hall of Fame candidacy is unlikely to ever garner sufficient support before his eligibility lapses.
So I’m starting early with Abreu, because it’s never too early to get the word out. So jot these talking points down, and repeat them every chance you get: Bob Kelly Abreu is the most underrated player in baseball. He’s one of the greatest players in the game today.
And when you refer to him, call him by his proper name: Future Hall of Famer Bobby Abreu.
Together, we can right the injustice of Abreu’s pedestrian reputation and elevate him to the lofty perch he has carved for himself. Together, we can prevent an even greater injustice: that of a player locked out of the Hall of Fame, not because he didn’t earn a place there, but simply because no one was paying attention.