Quarterly Report: Jose Abreu, Who Mashes

Roughly a quarter of the 2014 season is in the books, and the sample sizes are creeping toward a representative level. Over the next couple of weeks, let’s take a somewhat deeper look at some of this season’s more noteworthy players and performances to date. “Noteworthy” doesn’t always mean “best”, though it does in most cases. Today, we’ll take a look at the first quarter season of Jose Abreu‘s US major league career. Though recently sidelined with left ankle tendinitis, Abreu has already made an indelible mark on the American League. He leads the majors in homers, and has been one of the game’s most productive hitters despite a poor K/BB ratio. Can he keep it up, or is he in over his head a bit, marking himself as a clear regression target?

The White Sox’ signing of Abreu to a six-year, $68M contract this past offseason kind of flew under the radar, with the courtship of Masahiro Tanaka stealing most of the headlines. Abreu is the latest of a steady stream of hitting prospects to arrive from Cuba, following in the considerable footsteps of Yoenis Cespedes and Yasiel Puig. Many scouts weren’t nearly as impressed by Abreu as they were by those two, as Abreu’s skillset was not as well-rounded. His defense and arm were considered just adequate, and his speed negligible.

What Abreu has always done, however, is hit, and hit with power. Even with his hit tool, there was skepticism. Many found fault with his swing, and thought that it might not play as well in the major leagues as Cespedes’ or Puig’s. Performance-wise, Abreu actually has a superior track record to his two countrymen. Cuba’s Serie Nacional statistics are a bit spotty, but based on what is publicly available, Abreu’s career line of .342-.457-.621 is better than Cespedes’ .311-.394-.565, or Puig’s 2010-11 mark of .330-.431-.581.

Like Cespedes, Abreu would be walking into the majors in his prime, as a 27-year-old, relatively polished hitter. No minor league seasoning required, unlike Puig. He would also be playing his home games in one of the most homer-friendly parks in the majors. Based on my own park factors, derived by utilizing granular batted ball data, US Cellular Park had a 132 park factor for homers in 2013, third highest in the major leagues. If Abreu could handle MLB pitching, the White Sox, more so than just about any other club, would be placing him in an environment that would put him in a position to succeed.

And succeed he has. The raw traditional numbers are very impressive – a .260-.312-.595 line with AL-leading totals of 15 HR, 42 RBI, even though he recently hit the DL. He’s destroying same-handed pitching, crushing righties to the tune of .277-.333-.615, with 11 HR in 130 at-bats. Though his home park is cozy, his power certainly transcends it, as nine of his 15 homers have been hit on the road. He’s not just a grip-it-and-rip-it pull-sided bomber, as six of his homers have landed to the right of dead center field.

There are some clear shortcomings to his game, however. Chief among them are his poor strikeout and walk rates. He has the 12th worst K (26.5%) and BB (5.3%) rates among qualifying AL hitters, and the 5th worst K/BB ratio, better than only Alfonso Soriano, Nick Castellanos, Colby Rasmus and Chris Colabello. He has the third highest swing-and-miss rate among AL hitters, better than only Castellanos and Chris Carter. A couple of his homers have been hit in Coors Field, and a couple others were very high, routine fly balls that the wind carried over the wall.

So what do we have in Jose Abreu? Is he simply an all-or-nothing masher whose career could take a Dave Kingman-esque path? Or is he a generational slugger whose power numbers could be boosted into the stratosphere by his home park? Let’s take a look at his 2014 plate appearance outcome frequency and production by BIP type data for some hints. Keep in mind that the sample sizes remain small, so most of the contextual information incorporated below is from the 2013 season. No matter – we’re not searching for exactitude here, just looking for some indicators.

Abreu % REL PCT
K 26.5% 152 95
BB 5.3% 62 16
POP 4.3% 55 8
FLY 29.9% 107 60
LD 25.6% 123 95
GB 40.2% 92 40

FLY 0.571 2.000 607 385
LD 0.633 0.833 89 123
GB 0.085 0.085 12 71
ALL BIP 0.363 0.831 190 200
ALL PA 0.259 0.299 0.592 135 141

First, let’s look at the frequency table. The poor K (95 percentile rank) and BB (16) rates put him in a hole from which only superior batted-ball authority can help him escape. There is quite a bit of good news here, though. It is exceedingly unusual for a power hitter to have such a low popup rate (8 percentile rank). The 2013 version of Chris Davis is one example of a hitter with such a combination. It’s only one quarter of a season in the books, but Abreu’s ability to consistently square up balls hit in the air has been very impressive. Abreu’s line drive rate (95 percentile rank) has also been quite high thus far, and is a prime target for regression moving forward. If he’s stacking the deck against himself by striking out so much and walking so little, he un-stacks it a bit by rarely popping up and hitting a bunch of liners.

The second table lists the production from and hints at the authority of Abreu’s batted balls. The actual production allowed for each BIP type is listed in the “AVG” and “SLG” columns, and is converted into run values, compared to MLB average and scaled to 100 in the “REL PRD” column. Estimates of context, i.e., ballpark, team defense, simple regression and luck are applied in the “ADJ PRD” column in an attempt to isolate his true talent. For the purposes of this exercise, HBP are excluded from the OBP calculation, and SH and SF are counted as outs. Again – this is relatively small sample, with much subjectivity in the contextual adjustments, so let’s not get caught up in absolute precision here.

This is a very eventful table, to put it mildly. Abreu is batting an almost unfathomable .571 AVG-2.000 SLG on fly balls to date. That’s good for 607 REL PRD, which basically breaks the scale. Once you adjust for his ballpark and the handful of relatively cheap homers he’s hit to date, among other contextual factors, his ADJ PRD slides downward to “only” 385. Who or what might that be comparable to, you might ask? Well, Chris Davis – there’s that name again – had a 393 ADJ PRD figure on fly balls in 2013. A couple of guys named Giancarlo Stanton and Miguel Cabrera were next in line at 364 and 358, respectively. That’s the kind of rarefied air we’re messing with here.

Abreu is “only” batting .633-.833 (89 REL PRD) on liners to date, but that is regressed upward for context to an ADJ PRD figure of 123. Then there’s this little issue with his ground ball production to date – he’s batting a measly .085-.085 so far, for a REL PRD of 12. There’s got to be some bad luck and some lack of speed in that number, but Abreu has been rolling over a lot of weak grounders to the pull side, so he bears some responsibility. This should regress somewhat, but even his ADJ PRD of 71 on grounders is anemic – no productive hitter in the majors last year posted a number near that level.

Abreu has batted .363-.831 on all batted balls this season, for REL PRD of 190 and ADJ PRD of 200. Yes, his outlandish 37.5% HR/FB rate will calm down, but he’s got some good fortune coming his way on liners and grounders that will help offset it. This is basically the impact you must place upon the baseball to be a star with such poor K and BB rates. After adding back the K’s and BB’s, his ADJ and REL PRD figures of 135 and 141 qualify him for “star” status, but not by as comfortable a margin as you might think, especially once you take his position into account. A dropoff in his popup or liner rates might drop him from the star category into “nice hitter for a first sacker” territory. Looking at it the other way, if he can just improve his K and BB rates to a somewhat respectable level, he could get even scarier than he already is.

When Abreu had to shut it down due to his ankle injury, his OBP was (0.33) standard deviations below the average of AL regulars, and his SLG was 2.40 STD above. That is a very unique dichotomy of abilities – most hitters with such power have above league average OBP’s, drawing walks at a league average rate at minimum due to the fear factor. Allowing for some regression, I searched for 27-year-old MLB regulars with OBP more than (0.50) STD below the average of league regulars and SLG more than 1.50 STD above. I came up with exactly four.

M.Williams 1993 NL -0.53 1.89 0.294 0.325 0.561 27 80 136
Kingman 1976 NL -1.35 1.80 0.238 0.286 0.506 28 135 128
Sosa 1996 NL -0.61 1.60 0.273 0.323 0.564 34 134 126
Armas 1981 AL -0.77 1.60 0.261 0.294 0.48 19 115 125

Matt Williams never struck out like Abreu, but his walk rates were every bit as bad. Williams’ age 27 season, in Barry Bonds‘ first season as a Giant, represented a long-awaited breakout for the erstwhile power prospect. The Giants won 103 games that year and missed the playoffs in the last wildcard-less postseason. Alas, he had the misfortune of having his two career years at ages 28-29 in 1994-95, the two strike years. He just might have beaten Mark McGwire to Roger Maris‘ record in 1994, when he hit 43 homers in 112 games before the season ground to a halt. Though Williams remained a significant power threat through age 33, he never developed plate discipline, and was never really an offensive “star” relative to league norms after age 30. He still added value to his clubs, however, by offering solid defense at a relatively high-value position through age 33.

Dave Kingman’s age-27 OBP relative to the league was easily the worst of this group at (1.35) STD below league average. His overall defensive contribution is also the lowest of this group, and probably the most comparable to Abreu’s at this early stage in his career. He was a strikeout machine throughout his career, and though he did begin to walk at essentially a league average rate in his thirties, plate discipline never became a strength. Kingman’s athleticism, especially early in his career, has largely been forgotten. He was never a good fielder, but he did come up as a third baseman, and even stole 16 bases in his 1972 rookie season. There are a lot of common threads between Kingman and Abreu – the jaw-dropping raw power, the size, the lack of patience, the swinging and missing, even the home base in Chicago. Abreu certainly appears to be a purer hitter than Kingman, so I’d peg this as a near worst-case scenario quality-wise (.302 career OBP), but a best-case scenario durability-wise (35 HR at age 37) for Abreu.

At age 27, Sammy Sosa had yet to become the Sammy Sosa we came to know and love – and then not love. He had broken through at age 26 with a 36-homer season, but even after hitting 40 at age 27, he had never had an OPS+ above 127 because of his poor plate discipline. Then he “got some help”, his stolen base totals tanked and his power totals mushroomed. As a result of his additional power, fear among the pitcher community kicked in, and his walk rate surged. This is an interesting comp, especially in light of the Chicago connection, but ultimately a meaningless one, as “other circumstances” force us to look elsewhere.

Like Matt Williams, Tony Armas‘ age-27 season occurred in a strike year. He tied for the AL homer lead (22) and also paced the circuit in strikeouts. His walk rate, as usual, was abysmal. On a per at bat basis, Armas never again approached this level offensively, even though he did lead the AL in HR and RBI at age 30 as a member of the Red Sox. He accrued value for his clubs by providing adequate defense at a very important position, center field. He wound up with an abysmal career OBP of .287, and could never truly be considered an offensive “star” despite his prodigious home run power.

Abreu is likely a better all-around offensive player right now than Williams, Kingman or Armas ever was, with the exception of Williams’ age 29 peak season. He’d better be, however, as Armas and Williams provided substantially more defensive value. The early returns on Abreu’s difference, both statistically (8.4 UZR/150, -3 DRS) and via the eye test, are better than expected. He appears to be an average defensive first baseman. A 27-year-old average defensive first baseman, however, has nowhere to go but down. Abreu’s value is, and will always be in his bat. The value in his bat is now and will always be dependent upon continued top-of-the-charts batted-ball authority. As we’ve seen with Chris Davis this season, when such a player isn’t absolutely tearing the cover off of the ball, he can appear ordinary pretty quickly. 27-year-old Albert Pujols and 27-year-old Prince Fielder were pretty special, but their current versions don’t hammer the ball as hard or as often as they did then – and they had K prevention and BB maximization to fall back upon, unlike Abreu.

Batted-ball authority-wise, we are likely currently seeing the best we will ever see from Jose Abreu. He needs every bit of that authority, however, to qualify as a true star. For him to remain one going forward, he is going to have to show some semblance of plate discipline. Pitchers are going to adjust to him, and he is going to have to adjust back. That said, if he continues to do a similar amount of damage, he should at the very least be able to cash in his share of “fear” walks, as the Sox’ lineup isn’t exactly teeming with alternate power sources. The future is always now for a 6’3″, 255, first baseman. Injury risk, as we already see, will be high, as will the offensive bar. Expect him to pay off his contract very quickly, in three or four years, but then potentially be unworthy of a second larger payday come the end of 2019.

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i just don’t understand how almost everyone seemed to be wrong about foreign players. Seems like there is just a negative bias against them, (esp the Cubans). Tanaka “is only a 3 starter”, Abreu is going to “struggle against the best pitchers” (stupidest criticsm of all). Puig is “fat” etc etc


I think it’s because no one knows how these players’ skills are going to translate to the majors.
It’s still too early to know how Abreu will turn out – Tony seems to think the contract will work out, though with little margin for error. Also, I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the characterizations are teams leaking the press to lower the price/lower fans hopes.
The #3 label for Tanaka was Cashman addressing which spot Tanaka would take.
I don’t think that was the league wide expectation, more Cashman trying to keep fan expectations low.
I don’t think the reports have a bias at all, just tempered expectations.

Ruki Motomiya
Ruki Motomiya

Tanaka’s speculation seemed to be that he could be a #1 rather than a #3, the Yankees just said #3 because that was his rotation spot IIRC. In addition opinions are probably off base a decent amount because nobody has any concrete idea on how to translate, say, Japanese baseball numbers to appropriate MLB/Minor League numbers.