José Abreu Fits the Astros Like a Glove by Ben Clemens November 29, 2022 © David Richard-USA TODAY Sports The Astros capped off a dominant postseason run with a World Series title that showed off a well-rounded and star-studded organization. They won with great starting pitching, great relief pitching, powerful hitting, and excellent defense. This wasn’t a case of a few guys getting hot and carrying a moribund offense, or a heroic member of the rotation piling up innings that no one counted on. The team stacked with good players up and down the roster simply deployed them as expected, and got a parade for its trouble. It’s funny, in that context, to note that one of the best offenses in baseball had a clear hole at first base. Yuli Gurriel, the longtime incumbent at the position, had an abysmal year, compiling a .242/.288/.360 batting line that represented his second-worst performance in the majors (and his second poor showing in three years). The Astros scored runs at a gaudy clip despite his decline, but they didn’t bury their heads in the sand about Gurriel; they traded for Trey Mancini at the deadline to shore up their first-base options. Bad news: Mancini wasn’t very good either. He and Gurriel combined to rack up -1.4 WAR with Houston. Yeesh. By the time the playoffs rolled around, the Astros were using unheralded rookie David Hensley as a right-handed DH in lieu of Mancini. It worked well enough to win, but it was a strange look for a team already punting on offense at catcher. It would hardly have been a surprise if the team looked at the data, shrugged, and wrote Gurriel a check to hold the position down next year. He’s a fan and team favorite, and owner Jim Crane has purportedly taken an active role in negotiations since firing GM James Click. Houston’s offense was good enough with Gurriel at his worst, so how much worse could it be next year, even if he didn’t recover? As you probably already know, either by the title of this article or by following the news, that didn’t happen. The Astros signed José Abreu, the top free agent first baseman on my top 50 free agent rankings, to a three-year deal worth $58.5 million, as Bob Nightengale, Chandler Rome and Mark Berman reported. I love this deal. In my opinion, Abreu is one of the most underrated players in the game. All he’s done throughout his major league career is hit, and hit, and hit some more. His wRC+ in 2022 was a robust 137. It’s also 137 over the three years of his just-completed contract, and 133 for his career. His worst single-season mark was a still-solid 114 in 2018. He simply seems immune to variance. He mixes power and contact in a way that only the best hitters in baseball can match. Unless you’re a special talent, you simply can’t swing as hard as he does without accruing a messy pile of strikeouts. There are a few ways to accomplish that trick. The “easiest,” by some definitions of easy, is to simply avoid swinging at bad pitches. You can’t wave over a curveball below the zone if you never swing at it. That’s an obvious good strategy, but it’s easier said than done. Most hitters, by definition, don’t have elite strike zone recognition. Abreu falls into the category of “most hitters” – he chases bad pitches slightly more often than the average major leaguer. Another option: never miss when you swing. That’s another obvious one that’s difficult to do. Everyone attempts it, of course, but the easy ways to make better contact are to swing at better pitches or swing with less ferocity. That’s not Abreu’s plan either. This season was only the second year of his career where he posted a swinging strike rate lower than the major league average, and his career contact rate is ordinary. Abreu’s trick is subtler. Despite that average overall contact rate, he’s excellent with two strikes, which means that his early swings punish him less. He’s also very aggressive overall, which combines with his average contact to result in a ton of balls in play early in the count. Sure, he’s not going to walk very much – 7% for his career – but that’s a fine price to pay when you’re making up for it with a big fat pile of extra-base hits. He’s even developing more patience over time; the two best walk rates of his career have come in the last two years. Despite the best plate discipline of his career, 2022 wasn’t Abreu’s best overall offensive season. That’s because his power ticked down slightly this year; he hit only 15 home runs en route to a .141 isolated power, the lowest of his nine-year career. I’m not worried by that, though. He continued to crush the ball, with his barrel rate declining by much less than his power output. In fact, he underperformed his expected Statcast numbers by a decent amount, and still placed in the 89th percentile or higher for every conceivable hard-hit statistic. I wouldn’t worry about Abreu suddenly losing his power, in other words. And Abreu’s production will fit perfectly into Houston’s lineup. With Michael Brantley reaching free agency along with Gurriel and Mancini, they had an offensive void to fill. That’s not exactly how baseball works – they could simply accept worse offense, or count on improvement from incumbents to make up any shortfall. But in practice, it made sense for them to replace like with like, and in that particular sense, getting a pile of offense out of a single hitter is just what the doctor ordered. It’s even in a great shape for the particulars of their team; Abreu’s high OBP is a nice fit, as is the fact that a ton of it comes from hits, given that the Astros frequently flood the basepaths. As for the particulars of the deal, it makes good sense to me. I had pegged Abreu for two years and $18 million per year in my contract estimates, but early contracts have all come in slightly higher than my projections, which makes this right in line with the rest of the market. I don’t think there’s much risk of Abreu falling off a cliff, so the Astros should have first base locked up for a bit. There’s also not much chance of Houston falling out of contention, another way that deals for veteran hitters can go wrong. As an added bonus, Abreu should be able to rotate to DH if necessary at least some of the time; Yordan Alvarez, the incumbent DH, spent plenty of last year in left field. He’s not great out there, but if Abreu needs the occasional day off of his feet, I think the situation should work out just fine. All in all, this feels like a solid deal for both sides. Houston needed more offense at first base. Abreu probably wanted to continue playing for a contender; he was the one constant in Chicago’s rise to relevance, and it would be strange to leave after that impressive climb and start over at age 36. I expected him to return to Chicago, but this feels like an equally good landing spot, if not a better one: he’ll fit right into the team’s contention window and likely into the clubhouse as well. Houston’s offseason doesn’t go from confusing to great with this one signing. They still have an unsettled front office and a pending Justin Verlander decision. The AL West isn’t getting any easier; the Mariners are here to stay and the Angels are doing their best to maximize the last year before Shohei Ohtani hits free agency. Next year won’t be a cakewalk by any means. By adding Abreu, though, Houston has added some margin for error. We know they can win the division even with no production at first base. Now they’ve added another bat that can help pick up shortcomings elsewhere.