The following article is part of Jay Jaffe’s ongoing look at the candidates on the BBWAA 2020 Hall of Fame ballot. For a detailed introduction to this year’s ballot, and other candidates in the series, use the tool above; an introduction to JAWS can be found here. For a tentative schedule and a chance to fill out a Hall of Fame ballot for our crowdsourcing project, see here. All WAR figures refer to the Baseball-Reference version unless otherwise indicated.
Bobby Abreu could do just about everything. A five-tool player with dazzling speed, a sweet left-handed stroke, and enough power to win a Home Run Derby, he was also one of the game’s most patient, disciplined hitters, able to wear down a pitcher and unafraid to hit with two strikes. While routinely reaching traditional seasonal plateaus — a .300 batting average (six times), 20 homers (nine times), 30 steals (six times), 100 runs scored and batted in (eight times apiece) — he was nonetheless a stathead favorite for his ability to take a walk (100 or more eight years in a row) and his high on-base percentages (.400 or better eight times). And he was durable, playing 151 games or more in 13 straight seasons. “To me, Bobby’s Tony Gwynn with power,” said Phillies hitting coach Hal McRae in 1999.
“Bobby was way ahead of his time [with] regards to working pitchers,” said his former manager Larry Bowa when presenting him for induction into the Phillies Wall of Fame earlier this year. “In an era when guys were swinging for the fences, Bobby never strayed from his game. Because of his speed, a walk would turn into a double. He was cool under pressure, and always in control of his at-bats. He was the best combination of power, speed, and patience at the plate.”
The one thing Abreu couldn’t seem to do was gain full appreciation for his broad set of gifts. Despite enough promise to land on Baseball America’s Top 100 Prospects list four times, his first two teams, the Astros and Rays, sold unfathomably low on him. On the advice of Ed Wade, who was about to replace him as the Phillies’ general manager, Lee Thomas scored quite a coup in acquiring him just before he turned 24. Abreu excelled perennially, but the core of players that Wade and the Phillies amassed — some of whom would eventually help the team dominate the NL East — didn’t jell during Abreu’s tenure, and so he toiled in semi-obscurity.
From 1998, his first year as a regular in Philadelphia, to 2004 he was the game’s fifth- or sixth-most valuable player according to the two flavors of WAR, behind only Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez, Todd Helton (via B-Ref), Andruw Jones, and teammate Scott Rolen, yet not until the last of those seasons, his age-30 campaign, did he make his first All-Star team. He made just two during his 18 seasons, and won a Gold Glove, albeit only after his his fielding took a turn for the worse.
Abreu wasn’t perfect. He developed a reputation for moodiness early in his career, and gave his first manager in Philadelphia, Terry Francona, headaches. As early as 1999, he gained a reputation for his aversion to outfield walls. His selectivity at the plate — he swung at just 34.9% of all pitches from 2002 (when our splits start) to ’14, the majors’ third-lowest rate — was sometimes mistaken for passivity. He became a target for criticism because he didn’t fit the blue-collar mold of so many Philadelphia favorites. When he was traded to the Yankees in mid-2006, the year before the Phillies embarked upon their a streak of five straight division titles, one writer referred to Abreu as a “fan punching bag.” Even so, Bowa, then serving as the Yankees’ third base coach, raved about the right fielder’s makeup and recommended the trade to general manager Brian Cashman.
The Phillies Wall of Fame is one thing, but the greater honor of the Baseball Hall of Fame will be another story. While Abreu was roughly a six-win player for that 1998-04 run, he’s a bit short of the JAWS standard for right fielders, and his lack of traditional accolades suggests he won’t get a lot of traction in the voting. Forget 75%, there’s concern he may not get the 5% minimum needed to stay on the ballot. He deserves better than that.
|Player||Career WAR||Peak WAR||JAWS|
|Avg. HOF RF||71.5||42.1||56.8|
Born on March 11, 1974 in Maracay, Venezuela, Abreu was the second of six children of mother Aguenda and father Nelson Abreu, a baseball fanatic whose job was loading crates onto trucks, which in the impoverished village of Turmero made the family comparatively middle class (which meant “no in-house telephones and minimal hot running water,” according to Jeff Pearlman’s 2001 Sports Illustrated profile). Nelson imparted Bob Kelly Abreu with a middle name in honor of Pat Kelly, a former All-Star outfielder who starred in the Venezuelan Winter League. Bob and brothers Nelson (the oldest), Dennys, and Nielsen all played professionally, though only Dennys rose above High-A. The boys played stickball in the streets of Turmero and soaked in the baseball wisdom of their father, who watched any American game that he could.
Abreu graduated to baseball, and age 14, while playing in a national tournament, came to the attention of Andres Reimer, a Hungarian-born scout who was in the process of convincing the Astros to finance a baseball academy in Valencia, about 20 miles away. For two years, Abreu split his time between attending classes and playing baseball at the nascent academy. In August 1990, when Abreu was 16, the Astros signed him to a professional contract. He was among the first of a wave of Venezuela-born players whom the team would sign via Reimer, a list that includes Raul Chavez, Freddy Garcia, Carlos Guillen, Richard Hidalgo, Melvin Mora, Roberto Petagine, and Johan Santana. He began his stateside professional career in 1991, and after hitting .292/.375/.402 with eight homers and 15 steals for the Astros’ Asheville affiliate, cracked the Baseball America Top 100 prospects list at No. 95.
Unfortunately, shortly after Abreu signed with Houston, his father was hit by a car in Turnero, an accident that left him a paraplegic. In 1992, while Bobby was playing in the VWL, he learned that his father had flown to Cuba for surgery in hopes of restoring feeling to his legs, and died in the operating room.
By 1995, Abreu’s age-21 season, he was in Triple-A, hitting .304/.395/.516 with 17 triples (tops in the Pacific Coast League), 16 steals, and 10 homers for the Astros’ Tucson affiliate, a performance that pushed him to 29th on BA’s list. He was slightly less successful while repeating the level, and reportedly sulked after being sent down at the end of spring training, though the Astros still thought highly enough of him to recall him for a September cup of coffee. His debut, on September 1 against the Pirates, was the ultimate in anticlimax, as he was announced as a pinch-hitter but was replaced when the Pirates switched from righty Chris Holt to lefty Dan Plesac. He went 0-for-10 with a walk in his first 10 games before finally collecting his first hit, a pinch single off the Mets’ Bobby Jones on September 24.
Abreu opened the 1997 season as the Astros’ starting right fielder and reeled off a nine-game hitting streak, but he was batting just .245/.335/.361 before fracturing a hamate bone in his right hand. Lost in the outfield shuffle upon returning in early July, he played just five games before being sent back to Triple-A. “He went to Triple A with a poor attitude, and he had a bad year,” Astros general manager Gerry Hunsicker told SI. “He looked like he was going backward.”
Though he made the team’s playoff roster, the Astros soured upon him to the point of leaving him unprotected in the expansion draft; beyond his attitude were concerns about his ability to hit breaking balls and tentative baserunning. Teams could protect only 15 players from the entire organization for the first round of 14 picks by the new Arizona Diamondbacks and Tampa Bay Devil Rays, and the Astros chose to protect Hidalgo over Abreu, who was taken sixth by the Tampa Bay, then immediately flipped to the Phillies in exchange for light-hitting shortstop Kevin Stocker in a prearranged trade.
Stocker produced just 2.7 WAR while batting .250/.329/.347 (75 OPS+) in three seasons for the new club. Abreu began the 1998 season as the Phillies’ right fielder by hitting back-to-back singles off the Mets’ Jones (I realized during writing this that I attended this 14-inning slog, or most of it), and cleared Stocker’s total WAR with the Devil Rays by midseason. Delivering on the promise of his prospect rankings and then some, he hit .312/.409/.497 for a 135 OPS+ with 17 homers, 19 steals, and off-the-charts defense (+28 runs, according to Total Zone); his 6.4 WAR just missed cracking the league’s top 10.
No matter, for Abreu would more or less approximate that level for the next six seasons, delivering 35.2 WAR (5.9 per year) from 1999-2004, with a low of 5.2 in 2001 (the only year in this span in which he didn’t crack the top 10) and a high of 6.6 in ’04. In 1999, he hit .335/.446/.549, leading the league with 11 triples to go with his 27 steals and 20 homers; he placed third in both batting average and on-base percentage (both would stand as career highs) and seventh in OPS+ (147) and WAR (6.1).
Scarcely anybody noticed, for Abreu didn’t make the NL All-Star team, though he did get twice as many points as Barry Bonds in the NL MVP voting — just enough to place 23rd. The story was similar in 2000 (25 homers, 28 steals, 143 OPS+, 6.2 WAR) save for a lack of MVP consideration. He finished a lofty 16th in the voting in 2001, when he set career highs with 31 homers and 36 steals (his first 30-30 season), but still All-Star-dom eluded him.
It didn’t help that the Phillies were busy going nowhere even with a young nucleus that included 1996 second-round pick Jimmy Rollins, ’97 NL Rookie of the Year Scott Rolen, ’97 second-rounder Randy Wolf, and ’98 first overall pick Pat Burrell. After winning just 68 games in 1997, their first year under Francona, they won 75, then 77 games before sinking back to 65 in 2000; in late July of that year, they traded away staff ace Curt Schilling, who in April 1997 had accepted a below-market three-year extension to stay.
Francona got the axe at the end of that season, but not before running out of patience with Abreu, who despite his outstanding performances had rankled the manager with his chronic tardiness. Via Pearlman, veteran teammates questioned Abreu’s commitment, and Francona’s authority was undercut when he attempted to send Abreu home after a late arrival, only to have the discipline vetoed by Wade. “Bobby is a wonderful kid,” said Francona, “but last year he got a little sloppy. A lot of it was him going through the growing pains that come with the responsibility of being a very good player. I’ll tell you this — Bobby Abreu is very, very good.”
Abreu straightened out under Bowa, a notorious hardass who in his opening salvo told his players, “Don’t be late. If you are, check in and then go home. Because if you’re late, it means you don’t give a s—.” The Phillies won 86 games that year, as well as in three out of Bowa’s four seasons, but they couldn’t finish any higher than second in the NL East. Abreu, who signed a five-year, $64 million extension in February 2002, kept chugging along, producing a combined 11.4 WAR in 2002-03 with a pair of 20-homer, 100-walk seasons with batting averages of at least .300 and on-base percentages of at least .400. While he may have found a comfort zone with the more old-school manager, Bowa played a significant part in chasing off Rolen, who was dealt to St. Louis for Placido Polanco and two pitchers, a significant step back for the Phillies’ lineup.
Finally, in 2004, Abreu broke through. In the midst of a .301/.428/.544, 30-homer, 40-steal campaign, the 30-year-old right fielder was finally named to an All-Star team, though his game action was limited to striking out in a pinch-hitting appearance. His 6.6 WAR was a career best, ranking eighth in the league, but even so, in the Phillies’ unhappy clubhouse, teammate Billy Wagner confronted him and charged him with not hustling on defense.
Under new manager Charlie Manuel, Abreu’s 2005 wasn’t nearly as strong (126 OPS+, 3.6 WAR), but he was voted to start in the All-Star Game, the first Phillies outfielder to do so since Lenny Dykstra in 1995. Even before going 1-for-2 with a walk from the leadoff spot for the NL squad, he turned heads by winning the Home Run Derby; he had been selected to represent Venezuela in a format designed to dovetail with the announcement of the 2006 World Baseball Classic. Abreu set records with 24 homers in the first round and 41 overall, besting Puerto Rico’s Ivan Rodriguez in the finals.
Despite the show, Abreu became a poster boy for the Derby hangover effect when he hit just six homers in the second half after 18 in the first. He won his only Gold Glove at season’s end, though it was a dubious selection based more on reputation than metrics (-8 DRS, -7 UZR, his first time in the red via the former).
The power outage carried over somewhat, as Abreu homered just eight times in his first 98 games in 2006. With the team seven games below .500 in late July, the Phillies traded Abreu and pitcher Cory Lidle to the Yankees for a package of four prospects headlined by former first-round pick C.J. Henry; only one prospect dealt (reliever Matt Smith) even got a cup of coffee in Philadelphia.
The Yankees needed a full-time right fielder in the absence of the injured Gary Sheffield, as late-career Bernie Williams simply wasn’t up to the task. Abreu, who had hit a still-useful .277/.427/.434 (118 OPS+) prior to the deal, recaptured his All-Star form, batting .330/.419/.507 (138 OPS+) with seven homers in 58 games in pinstripes. Though he drove in four runs in the Yankees’ Division Series-opening victory against the Tigers, and went 5-for-15 with a walk overall, the Yankees were eliminated in four games.
Abreu spent two more seasons in the Bronx, the latter after the Yankees picked up his $16 million option for 2008. Though no longer playing at an elite level as he moved into his mid-30s — early-season slumps in both years dragged his final numbers down, and he was 11 runs below average defensively each year — he hit a combined .289/.370/.458 (116 OPS+) with 36 homers, 47 steals, and 5.1 WAR over those two seasons, and furthered his streak of 100-RBI seasons to six. The Yankees couldn’t get past the Indians in the former year, Joe Torre’s final one at the helm; Abreu hit .267/.353/.533 with a ninth-inning homer in Game 4, shortly before the team was eliminated. In the latter year, a banged-up Yankees squad missed the postseason for the first time in the Wild Card era. Meanwhile, Abreu’s ex-Phillies teammates won the World Series.
Abreu hit free agency that fall, but met a rather frosty reception as he tried to counter the notion that he was “a serial compiler,” to use Jerry Crasnick’s term. Reportedly seeking either a three-year deal or two years plus a vesting option for $15-16 million annually, he had to settle for a one-year, $5 million deal from the Angels in early February, just before camps opened. He was more than worth it, delivering 3.2 WAR (the best season he would have after 2006) while hitting .293/.390/.435 with 15 homers and 30 steals. The performance helped the Angels win their third straight AL West title, and they swept the Red Sox in the Division Series. Abreu went 5-for-9 in the series and was right in the middle of Game 3’s three-run ninth-inning rally against Boston closer Jonathan Papelbon, smacking an RBI double and scoring what proved to be the series-clinching run. He struggled in the ALCS against the Yankees, however, going just 4-for-25.
Abreu parlayed that strong 2009 season into the two-plus-vesting deal he had previously sought, albeit with just $19 million guaranteed. Though he managed 20 homers, 24 steals, and a 118 OPS+ in 2010, he sank to a 105 OPS+ with eight homers in ’11 while spending most of the season as a DH. His $9 million option vested, but between the arrival of Albert Pujols via free agency and the return of Kendrys Morales from a year-and-a-half absence due to a broken leg, playing time was hard to come by in early 2012. He made just 27 plate appearances before being released on April 27 so that the Angels could call up top prospect Mike Trout.
Quickly resurfacing with the Dodgers, Abreu hit for a 97 OPS+ while spending time in a left field platoon, but the July 31 deadline acquisition of Shane Victorino, Abreu’s former teammate in Philadelphia, consigned him to a pinch-hitting role thereafter. After sitting out the 2013 season while tending to business interests in Venezuela, the 40-year-old Abreu parlayed a strong VWL showing into a minor league deal with the Phillies. Cut in late March, he caught a similar deal with the Mets, whose manager Terry Collins had piloted the Astros when Abreu debuted. Abreu hit just .248/.342/.338 in 155 PA, and near the end of the season, announced his retirement.
Aside from stealing exactly 400 bases, Abreu fell just short of some round-numbered milestones that could have helped his Hall of Fame case. He’s 30 hits short of 2,500, 12 homers short of 300, nine points short of a career .300 batting average (he was above the mark until 2009), five points short of a .400 on-base percentage (he slipped below in ’11), and 25 points short of a .500 slugging percentage. The first three of those account for a potential 26 points in the Hall of Fame Monitor, which dishes out credit for things that have tended to sway Hall of Fame voters — seasons or careers at .300, awards, league leads in key stats, playoff appearances, and so on. That said, for as much of a stathead favorite as Abreu is, he hardly eschewed the more traditional markers of success. Even with just the two All-Star selections and the lone Gold Glove, he scores 94 (short of “a good possibility”) on the Monitor thanks largely to his six seasons hitting .300, eight with at least 100 RBI, and eight with at least 100 runs scored.
Abreu’s biggest selling point isn’t batting average but his elite ability to get on base. From 1998-2011, he ranked in his league’s top 10 in walks 12 times, not counting ’06, when he led the majors despite being dealt between leagues. Seven times, he was among his league’s top five, and for his career, his 1,476 walks rank 20th. From 1998-2005, he was among the NL’s top 10 in on-base percentage seven times, and in the majors’ top 10 in ’06. He didn’t come close to 3,000 hits, but his total of 3,949 times on base (hits plus walks plus hit-by-pitches) is 49th all-time, directly above Hall of Famers Tim Raines, Tony Gwynn, Jesse Burkett, and Harold Baines (all but Burkett had more plate appearances). Among players with at least 7,000 PA, Abreu’s .395 on-base percentage is virtually tied for 41st. His 128 OPS+ is 107th, two points below Carl Yastrzemski, Roberto Clemente, and Dave Winfield, one below Zack Wheat and Eddie Murray, tied with Goose Goslin and Jim Rice, and one point ahead of Rickey Henderson, Willie Keeler, and Bill Dickey. All of those are Hall of Famers.
Abreu’s case via WAR and JAWS isn’t quite as convincing. His 369 batting runs (the primary offensive component of WAR) is 78th all time, but he didn’t add overwhelming value via other aspects of his game. While successful on 75.8% of his stolen base attempts, he was just 16 runs above average as a baserunner, the lowest mark of any post-1950 player with at least 400 attempts and a 75% success rate; that said, he did add another 17 for double play avoidance (10th for the Wild Card era). He was more or less average in the field, a net -8 runs for his career.
Overall, he ranked among the league’s top 10 in WAR five times (and just missed a sixth). His total of 60.0 ranks 19th at the position, 0.5 below Sheffield and 0.4 above Ichiro Suzuki and Vladimir Guerrero; he’s above 13 of the 26 enshrined right fielders but 11.5 WAR below the standard at a very top-heavy position. His 41.6 peak WAR ranks 16th, ahead of 16 of the 26 enshrined and just 0.5 below the standard. He’s 20th in JAWS, six points below the standard, and sandwiched right in the middle of the 26 Hall of Famers.
The rankings from number 14, the first spot below the standard, to number 23 make for an outstanding collection of late 20th- and early 21st-century players: Gwynn, Dwight Evans, Reggie Smith, Ichiro, Sammy Sosa, and Winfield are directly above Abreu, and below the standard as well, while Guerrero is directly below him, followed by Bobby Bonds and Sheffield. Gwynn, Winfield, and Guerrero are in the Hall already, and Ichiro will be as soon as he’s eligible, while Evans, Sosa, and Sheffield are three guys whose inclusion or exclusion on various ballots I’ve agonized over for countless hours. So too with Abreu, who’s admittedly in borderline territory, but if Winfield with his 3,000-plus hits is a first-ballot guy and Guerrero with his style and substance a second-ballot one – both while notably below standard according to JAWS — then we can at least take a closer look to see if there’s room for one more:
Guerrero and Sheffield are the best hitters of the group, no doubt, with the latter doing it for longer. Abreu’s the most well-rounded of the bunch in terms of things besides hitting, and he’s got the best peak score of the quartet. All of which is to say that while I’m far from 100% convinced he’s a Hall of Famer, I’m thoroughly certain he’s somebody who belongs in the discussion, a player who might be worth finding space for on a ballot — particularly in a year when there aren’t 10 obvious must-vote candidates — if only to ward off the Five Percent Blues. I’ll mull his inclusion on my virtual ballot (I don’t get a real one until next year) as the remainder of this series unfolds.
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. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.