You might not have heard, but Jose Abreu is a pretty good hitter.
Who am I kidding, you’ve heard about that by now. You also probably heard he just wrapped up a 21-game hitting streak. That’s the second-longest streak in the majors this season. You might have heard it was the second time this year he’s had a hitting streak of at least 18 games. He’s a rookie. Rookies don’t really do that. Then you might have heard that those two hitting streaks were separated by just one game. That means you probably heard, or at this point just deduced yourself, that Jose Abreu recorded a hit in 39 of 40 consecutive games. During that second hitting streak, you might have heard he had a stretch of 10 consecutive plate appearances in which a pitcher failed to get him out. These are all really good things to say about a hitter.
Prior to Abreu reaching base in 39 of 40 games, he had reached base in 7 of his last 10. Prior to that, he was on the disabled list with a foot injury. That stint on the DL serves as a pretty convenient place to split Abreu’s season into two halves. What you see looks like two different hitters:
That first version of Jose Abreu made sense. That’s pretty close to what most people thought Abreu would be in his rookie season after defecting from Cuba. He was hitting .269 with a low OBP and a ton of power. ESPN’s Jerry Crasnick talked to a bunch of scouts about Abreu before the season and came up with this:
“One talent evaluator said Abreu could step into a big league lineup tomorrow and hit .260 with 25 home runs,” Crasnick said. “That’s not far from what Cespedes is doing in Oakland this season. Another expressed concern that Abreu looks ‘confused’ against breaking balls and thought he could benefit from a little seasoning in the upper minors. Once Abreu gets the hang of major league pitching, the consensus is that he has the strength to hit 30 homers by accident.”
So, .260’s with a ton of power. Abreu broke into the majors and started doing what he was expected to do right off the bat. Seems about right.
Now he’s Miguel Cabrera.
But how? How did this happen? Rookies – guys that have never before seen major league-caliber pitching – are supposed to go through pretty lengthy adjustment periods. Those adjustment periods are not supposed to last just 44 games. Jose Abreu’s did.
Looking at the numbers of those two different versions of Jose Abreu and several things immediately jump out to me. Plate discipline is kind of like the foundation for a hitter’s profile, so let’s start there.
In that Crasnick quote, he mentions that scouts expressed concern that Abreu might look lost against breaking balls. This was a concern echoed in other publications. When he was striking out in over a quarter of his plate appearances, Abreu swung and missed 26% of the time and hit .179 against breaking and offspeed pitches. This new version of Abreu has cut that whiff rate to just 19% and raised the average to .278. That’s a good way to turn your strikeout and walk rates from negatives to positives. (And it’s still all good).
Besides discipline and the ability to make contact with breaking pitches, the other big red flag raised by scouts prior to Abreu’s arrival focused on the subject of his bat speed. Going back to that Crasnick piece:
“Multiple scouts used the term ‘slider-speed bat’ in reference to Abreu,” Crasnick said. “Translation: He might be challenged against pitchers who can crowd him with fastballs on the inner half of the plate.”
The first version of Abreu hit .275 against fastballs on the inner-third of the strike zone, with a matching .275 ISO. This new version of Abreu is hitting inside fastballs at a .447 clip with a .342 ISO.
Abreu’s average since coming off the disabled list is nearly 100 points higher than it was before he got hurt. One explanation for that could be simple, random BABIP fluctuation. It happens all the time. Another is that he’s just crushing the baseball. Here’s Abreu’s monthly line drive rates since the start of the year, courtesy of BrooksBaseball:
All trending upward. Good sign. Here are plots of his spray charts, thanks to BaseballSavant, before and after his trip to the disabled list:
Line drive rate is bound to a bit of random fluctuation as well, but there appear to be changes in Abreu’s approach that bode well for this second version of himself being at least somewhat sustainable. We know the power is there. That’s a given. But now he’s chasing fewer offspeed pitches, striking out less and keeping himself in counts. That makes pitchers have to throw more fastballs. When those fastballs come inside – where Abreu’s weakness was supposed to be – he’s turning on them and smoking them for line drives. You can see the gradual shift of his balls in play going more towards left field. Notably, a lot more doubles to left and left-center. That all jibes with Abreu turning on more inside heaters and punishing them.
There’s also that big cluster of singles that’s popped up in shallow right field. I have no evidence to prove causation, but we know Abreu is making contact on more breaking balls and we know pitchers like to throw breaking balls low and away, especially to Abreu. Seems like that cluster of singles that wasn’t there before could be a result of his successful adjustments against breaking pitches.
Concerns over Jose Abreu’s plate discipline are gone. Concerns over his bat speed are gone. Concerns over him being able to hit a major league breaking ball are gone. Jose Abreu came into the big leagues touted as a high-power, low-OBP type hitter and that’s exactly what he was for the first two months of his career. Then he went on the disabled list and seemingly fixed every flaw in his game way faster than a rookie should be able to, and turned himself into one of the game’s most complete all-around hitters in the blink of an eye. His batting average and isolated slugging percentage are each over .300. Nobody has done that since Jose Bautista in 2011. His OPS+ is currently 171 and he’s projected to finish the year at 165. Here’s a complete list of players from the last 100 years who posted an OPS+ of 165 or higher in their rookie season:
- Mike Trout, 2012, 168
Lower that bar to 160 and here’s what you get:
- Mark McGwire, 1987, 164
- Fred Lynn, 1975, 162
- Carlton Fisk, 1972, 162
- Dick Allen, 1964, 162
- Rico Carty, 1964, 161
- Ted Williams, 1939, 160
- Johnny Mize, 1936, 162
Sure, Jose Abreu at age 27 isn’t necessarily your typical rookie, but he’s had just as much time to adjust to major league pitching as the rest of those guys. And he’s putting together one of the greatest offensive rookie performances in MLB history.
With all his other concerns already put to rest, the only concern at this point is whether or not Jose Abreu is going to win the Triple Crown. Abreu currently leads the American League in both homers (31) and RBI (86) and is 11th in batting average at .307. He trails Jose Altuve by 32 points in the lattermost category, so it’s probably unlikely that he’ll earn a batting title to complete the Triple Crown. But then again, Abreu has been hitting .350 for nearly two months now and anyone who says they have any idea what Jose Abreu is going to do next is lying.
The big question left is, if Jose Abreu does somehow win the Triple Crown this year – does he win the MVP on the basement-dwelling White Sox, too?
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