CJ Abrams Is Taking Over At the Plate

Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports

CJ Abrams has that look this year. After showing a glimpse of his offensive potential in 2023, his skills are on full display to start the season. Abrams’ projectable frame always seemed like it could facilitate him adding power. Whether he ever got to that power was dependent on his swing mechanics.

Up until this year, the lefty had a steep, pushy entry into the hitting zone. That resulted in a suboptimal launch angle distribution. In 2023, he had a 32.6% sweet-spot rate, which was in the 30th percentile. (A player’s sweet spot percentage is defined as the percentage of their batted balls hit between eight and 32 degrees.) So instead of hitting balls at launch angles that would result in line drives and hard-hit fly balls, Abrams hit a ton of popups and groundballs. His swing had a limited range of quality contact points.

He may have swatted 18 home runs, but those long balls were mixed in with consistent mishits. When you swing down into the hitting zone like Abrams did last year, it can lead you to be what a lot of hitting coaches call a collision hitter. If your bat path doesn’t have much room for error, you might still run into some homers from time to time, but there is only a tight window for you to do so. Rather than your barrel moving up through the entire hitting zone, it only does so at one point in space. That might be hard to conceptualize, so let’s check out some video of Abrams last year, focusing primarily on how his hands descend when he starts his swing.

2023

All of these swings are against four-seamers of various velocities. Most of them are somewhere near the middle plate or on the inner third. I decided to show these zones because when a batter swings down like Abrams did here, they miss hittable pitches. Or if you want to think of it from a different perspective, your swing slices through the ball instead of contacting it head on.

A swing against a 98 mph heater from Grayson Rodriguez might be a little unfair to show — that’s an extremely difficult location to barrel at high velocity — but I did so for a reason. If you’re getting on plane at a deeper depth, you can be late on this pitch and foul it back, or even get jammed. If you’re swinging down, late timing is going to result in a chopper or a whiff (as it did here). Even when you scale it back a few ticks and move the pitch into the middle of the plate, like what Abrams saw against Joe Jiménez, you still cut under the ball. It might not happen on every pitch, but swings like this were pretty common for Abrams last season. In the middle-middle zone, he had just a .362 xwOBACON. That is significantly below league average.

It’s a concerning profile. The best big league hitters have swings geared towards crushing mistakes. That means getting on plane for middle-middle pitches and adjusting accordingly depending on the situation. Abrams’ setup and load weren’t allowing him to do that, so he made a change. Before getting into the specifics, let’s look at some video from this season so you can see for yourself.

2024

Pitchers haven’t had any luck against Abrams this year when they make mistakes. He’s parking those pitches over the wall or in the gap. This season, his xwOBACON on pitches in the middle-middle zone is .661. Sheesh! Talk about a turnaround. And if you leave the pitch middle-in, you’re even more doomed. His xwOBACON in that zone sits at 1.225. Dude has been a walking barrel. Instead of the 32.6% sweet-spot rate he posted last year, he’s sporting a 48.2% mark. That sits in the 97th percentile. Abrams might not have light-tower power, but he hits the ball hard enough that he is going to make pitchers pay for their mistakes.

As you can see in the video, he’s done that by raising his hands and changing the angle of his barrel during his setup. I say this in just about every piece I write, but to change the angle of your barrel when it enters the zone, you have to change how you set up. Creating a smooth, reciprocal movement is repeatable, and preferable to forcing your hands to do something your body isn’t naturally expecting. The change is best seen through a slowed-down zoom.

2023

2024

There is something about the 2024 GIF that looks so rhythmic. You can watch it over and over, and it looks so smooth. In this closer look, you can see how the change has resulted in his bottom hand getting involved during his swing. Last year, it just stayed in place and wasn’t doing much to guide the barrel. The pieces are all connected now, with the bottom hand contributing. As his front elbow descends, you can see how nicely it connects with his leg lift. I love to compare how hitters and pitchers connect their upper and lower bodies. In hitting, it can be done with a smooth load and leg lift (like what Abrams has created); in pitching, an overhead movement in the windup serves the same purpose.

The leap in Abrams’ contact quality as a result of this change is pretty shocking. His .494 overall xwOBACON is in the top decile of the league. He has now tailored his swing towards crushing mistakes. Even if he has an overly aggressive approach with too much chase, he is still going to get to middle-middle pitches. That’s a valuable trait to have. When the inevitable slump comes, the power will still be there to carry him through.

It’s always difficult to say what an early season progression like this will mean in the long-term. Like I said, Abrams is still very chase prone. His chase rate was 35.1% last year and is 41.0% this year. He is uber aggressive and is bound to get a steady dose of breaking balls in the coming weeks. But if this adjustment continues to propel above-average contact quality for the first time in his career, our priors are forced to change. For now, he has shown a big improvement in one important area of hitting — and that’s great for Washington’s future.

All stats are as of April 23rd





Esteban is a contributing writer at FanGraphs. You can also find his work at Pinstripe Alley if you so dare to read about the Yankees. Find him on Twitter @esteerivera42 for endless talk about swing mechanics.

21 Comments
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screamin_jay
1 month ago

just another way nats fans get everything. just look at some of the guys picked ahead of him and giolito

perfect franchise in every way except the POS undeserving fans

TKDCmember
1 month ago
Reply to  screamin_jay

There is a lot of nonsense packed into this fairly short comment. The Nats “lucked” (or “sucked”) their way into the #1 overall pick two years with can’t miss generational talents. But that was over 10 years ago and those guys are gone.

The Nats were actually the unluckiest team in regards to the pandemic. And of course baseball is low on the list of the aggrieved compared to people dying and lives being upended, but they lost out on all of the benefits of being defending World Series champions, and by the time fans were able to return in a meaningful way, in summer of 2021, they were already bad.

willl
1 month ago
Reply to  TKDC

Don’t feed the troll. Find any article about the Nats and you’ll find screaming_jay in the comments posting nonsense about his hatred of the franchise.

sadtrombonemember
1 month ago
Reply to  screamin_jay

what on earth are you talking about? Giolito was terrible when he was traded for Adam Eaton. CJ Abrams was picked by the Padres, and even then I don’t see how anyone would pick Abrams over Bobby Witt Jr or Adley Rutschman today, and I’d probably pick Riley Greene over him too.

bs3330amember
1 month ago
Reply to  screamin_jay

Mark Lerner? Is that you?

majopa
1 month ago
Reply to  screamin_jay

come back jay, we miss you

Last edited 1 month ago by majopa