After a Rough Season, José Abreu Came Up Huge in the Division Series

Jose Abreu
Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

José Abreu did not have a good season. Signed to a three-year deal by the Astros last November, the 36-year-old first baseman turned in the worst campaign of his 10-year major league career, and even after digging out of a deep early-season slump, he ended up as the least valuable regular at his position. Even so, Abreu has been able to turn the page since the start of the playoffs, and his three home runs against the Twins were a major reason the Astros won the Division Series.

Abreu went just 1-for-7 in the first two games against Minnesota, though his lone hit, a fifth-inning single off Kenta Maeda in Game 1, drove in Houston’s fourth run in what ended up as a 6–4 victory. His three-run first-inning homer to left field off Sonny Gray — a monster shot estimated at 442 feet — broke Game 3 open, turning a 1–0 lead into a 4–0 lead before Astros starter Cristian Javier even threw a pitch; it was probably the turning point of the series. For good measure, Abreu capped the scoring in the 9–1 rout with a two-run homer into the upper deck in left center off Bailey Ober in the ninth inning, this one estimated at 440 feet. On Wednesday night, he struck again, clubbing a 424-foot opposite-field two-run homer off Caleb Thielbar in the fourth inning of a 1–1 game. The Astros didn’t score again but hung on for a series-clinching 3–2 victory.

Abreu hit .313/.353/.875 in 16 plate appearances agains the Twins. By Win Probability Added, his homers off Gray and Theilbar rated as the two biggest plays of the whole series:

Top Plays by Win Probability Added in Astros-Twins Division Series
Game Inning Outs Runners Batter Pitcher Play WPA
4 T4 1 1– José Abreu Caleb Thielbar HR 0.212
3 T1 1 1-3 José Abreu Sonny Gray HR 0.164
1 B3 1 1– Yordan Alvarez Bailey Ober HR 0.158
2 T2 0 1– Kyle Farmer Framber Valdez HR 0.143
4 B6 1 Edouard Julien José Urquidy HR 0.133

By Baseball Reference’s championship WPA (cwPA), the Game 4 homer had the edge over the first one in Game 3, 2.44% to 2.03%, but either way, those were the two biggest plays of the series.

Moments like those are what the Astros no doubt envisioned when they signed Abreu to a $58.5 million deal. He was coming off a very good but somewhat uneven season with the White Sox, during which he overcame a cold April and traded power for contact en route to a .304/.378/.446 (137 wRC+) showing with 18 homers and 3.8 WAR. Even with a bit of regression, he figured to provide a substantial upgrade on departing free agent Yuli Gurriel’s sub-replacement level production (.242/.288/.360, 85 wRC+, -0.9 WAR). Instead, he more or less replicated it.

For as good as Abreu’s 2022 season was, it ended on a curious note. After he homered in back-to-back games on August 2 and 3 against the Royals, he added just one more over the final two months of the season, hitting .310/.372/.386 in 234 PA from August 4 onward. That performance carried over into 2023… sort of. He began his Astros career with a 10-game hitting streak, though just one of those went for extra bases; to that point, he was hitting .317/.364/.341.

Then the bottom dropped out. By the end of May, Abreu was hitting .211/.276/.260 (50 wRC+), though he had finally gotten on the board with a homer on May 28 against Oakland’s Sam Long, that on a day where the Astros homered seven times. That ended a 67-game streak without a homer, dating back to September 14 of last year — not only the longest of his career but also nearly as long as his second- and third-longest streaks combined.

Once the calendar flipped to June, the work that Abreu was putting in with hitting coach Alex Cintrón began to pay off. He collected hits in eight of his first nine games that month, including homers against the Guardians on June 9 and 10, and added three more by the end of the month. His 11 extra-base hits in June outdid his eight through the end of May.

The mechanical tweaks Abreu made with Cintrón’s help did not instantaneously improve his production. The Athletic‘s Chandler Rome wrote about them in mid-June, when he first got hot, and the Houston Chronicle’s Matt Kawahara did so a couple weeks later, after Abreu cooled off and then sat for a couple games to reset. Here’s Kawahara describing the changes:

An emphasis was Abreu being more “behind the ball” to drive it better. Abreu tweaked his stance to keep more weight on his back leg. Abreu incorporates a toe-tap when he loads, and Cintrón said he noted a difference early this season compared to Abreu’s time in Chicago.

“His upper body was too forward to start,” Cintrón said. “Which caused him, when he’d do his toe-tap, to be late. He was going forward, then back, then forward. Three movements instead of two. We talked about being more in the middle with his body, taller. So when he does his toe-tap, it’s one move to the ball. It’s shorter.”

They also looked at Abreu’s hands. Cintrón said Abreu was “cutting off” some swings with his top hand and worked on keeping a flatter bat path through the zone. Cintrón said the two adjustments in theory would leave Abreu staying back better and being “on time and direct to the ball.”

Abreu hit .253/.309/.458 (109 wRC+) with 17 homers from June 1 to the end of the season, finishing at .237/.296/.383 (86 wRC+), and even within his improved performance, he slipped to a 57 wRC+ in August amid months of 119 (June), 110 (July), and 123 (September). That 86 wRC+ was the lowest mark of any player who took at least 400 PA as a first baseman, and likewise for his cringeworthy -0.6 WAR. Among the first basemen who had lower marks in either or both categories in less playing time was Gurriel, who hit for a 77 wRC+ with -0.5 WAR in just 329 PA for the Marlins. While the Astros dodged that mess, his replacement was pretty much the definition of a Replacement Level Killer; had he turned in a more productive season, Houston would have easily won the AL West instead of doing so via a head-to-head tiebreaker.

As you might expect, evidence of Abreu’s decline can be found throughout his stats. Relative to 2022, he chased more pitches outside the strike zone and had worse strikeout and walk numbers and a much lower quality of contact. All of those areas are worth a peek, though what I’m most interested in is whether he’s trending in the right direction.

Abreu’s 21.9% strikeout rate and 7.1% walk rate were both steps in the wrong direction from 2022 (a career-low 16.2% and a near-high 9.1%) but well within the range of his career fluctuations. His 12.1% swinging-strike rate matched his 2021 rate; he dipped to a career-low 9.8% last year, but that was his only time in single digits. His overall chase rate rose from 33.6% last year to 38.9% in this one; the former was his lowest mark since 2017, the latter his highest since ’16, though closer to his career mark of 37%. Late last year and early in this one, he was chasing more than 40% of pitches outside the zone according to his rolling rates, something Dan Szymborski spotted during his April struggles:

You can see that the chase rate doesn’t line up perfectly, but it does pretty well. Statcast’s chase numbers differ by a bit from those via Sports Info Solutions driving the graph above, with a 29.8% rate last year, 36.3% this year, and a career mark of 33.7%, but they offer us a direct comparison to his postseason numbers, which show that — yikes, small-sample edition — he’s swung at 46.4% of pitches outside the zone; he’s 0-for-6 with two strikeouts, three popups and a grounder on PAs that end with him chasing. If we aggregate those with his September numbers to beef up the sample size and generalize about the trend, he’s chased 39.1% of pitches outside the zone since September 1, but with slightly improved strikeout and walk rates (20.2% and 7.3%) and lopsided but robust production (.248/.306/.584 with 10 homers in 124 PA).

In terms of his quality of contact, here’s a look at his last three seasons overall, along with his stats since September 1, including the postseason:

José Abreu Statcast Profile
Season Events EV LA Barrel% HardHit% AVG xBA SLG xSLG wOBA xwOBA
2021 433 92.0 10.4 10.2% 49.0% .261 .252 .481 .457 .354 .349
2022 495 92.2 8.0 9.5% 51.7% .304 .296 .446 .486 .361 .373
2023 416 89.0 10.8 8.7% 41.6% .237 .243 .383 .400 .295 .310
2023 Sept/Oct 89 90.3 15.9 16.9% 46.1% .248 .249 .584 .581 .369 .373
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

Abreu set a career low in average exit velocity, with his barrel and hard-hit rates his lowest since 2017 and ’16, respectively; by exit velocity, he plummeted from the 93rd percentile to the 42nd, though by barrel rate it was only from the 88th to the 67th. He rebounded from last year’s career-high groundball rate (49.7%, reflected in the single-digit launch angle) but also pulled the ball a career-low 33.9%, down from a representative 38% in 2022. Lately he’s been pulling and barreling the ball with much greater frequency, fueling an xwOBA that matches his 2022, albeit via a different route, with much lower batting average and higher slugging percentage.

A look at Abreu’s performance against various pitch types suggests what you might suspect given an aging hitter: increased struggles against fastballs this year, with the mechanical adjustments helping to improve his recent results. Instead of using Statcast’s default aggregations, I’ve eliminated cutters — which he feasts upon while seeing about 6% of the time — from the fastball group. This grouping still accounts for just over half of the pitches he sees, with breaking balls accounting for about a third:

José Abreu by Pitch Type
Season Type PA HR AVG xBA SLG xSLG wOBA xwOBA EV Whiff%
2021 Fastballs 334 11 .271 .266 .454 .477 .357 .368 93.8 24.4%
2022 Fastballs 333 5 .296 .310 .408 .500 .347 .387 94.1 20.6%
2023 Fastballs 277 5 .250 .258 .371 .408 .318 .340 91.1 20.7%
2023 Sept/Oct Fastballs 54 3 .245 .198 .551 .460 .363 .314 90.4 19.0%
2021 Breaking 206 11 .200 .219 .433 .419 .308 .318 90.9 35.5%
2022 Breaking 244 5 .290 .271 .415 .443 .342 .345 89.0 28.3%
2023 Breaking 223 9 .207 .211 .366 .355 .253 .258 86.5 34.3%
2023 Sept/Oct Breaking 50 5 .255 .283 .574 .602 .366 .389 90.1 33.0%
SOURCE: Baseball Savant
Fastballs include four-seamers and sinkers (but not cutters).

Again, we’re seeing substantial falloffs from last year with both groups of pitches but also a recent rebound. He’s handling breaking pitches better than at any time in the recent past (moreso with sliders than curves, eyeballing the granular data), and he’s getting good results against fastballs, albeit ones that don’t align with his expected stats — not surprising given that we’re dealing with samples below the point of stabilization. For what it’s worth from among the Division Series homers, the Gray shot was off a sweeper, the other two via four-seamers.

All told, I think it’s fair to say that Abreu isn’t all the way back to form, whatever form we’re talking about in his mid-30s evolution. Given his age and wild in-season fluctuations, I’m not at all optimistic about the remainder of his contract, but his adjustments at least have him thumping the ball lately. For the Astros’ chances this October, that’s probably enough.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky

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7 months ago

So you recommend Rangers feed him high fastballs, and not much else?