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Jose Abreu is a stud, but expect his production to drop in 2015

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Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

Jose Abreu came to MLB with a lot of question marks. Scouts were concerned about his bat speed, his ability to handle MLB quality stuff, and his poor athleticism. Ben Badler of Baseball America summed up these questions nicely here:

When Jose Abreu came out of Cuba—and even before then—one highly respected scout after another came back with the same report on the slugger who had decimated Serie Nacional pitching.

His bat is too slow. He’s a restricted athlete with a bad body. He can’t lay off hard sliders away. Sure, he has huge raw power, but there are too many holes in his swing. He’d make a great softball player.

"He’s turning 27 years old and has a career full of 85 to 87 mile an hour fastballs," one international scout said. "He’s not an athlete and he doesn’t have bat speed. You’re asking a 27-year-old non-athlete to go to the big leagues and make an adjustment. Against 97 (mph), this guy has no chance. All of us who know him are all saying the same thing."

Abreu proved his critics wrong by dominating MLB in 2014. Abreu’s 165 wRC+ was 4th best in baseball, his .317 avg. was sixth best, and his 36 home runs were fifth best. Abreu put to rest any concerns about his bat speed or ability to handle hard fastballs. Badler wrote,

For all the concerns about Abreu’s ability to get beat by good velocity, he turned out to be one of the best fastball hitters in the majors. Against pitches of 95 mph or better, Abreu hit .325, according to Baseballsavant.com.

Abreu is obviously very good, but there are some components of his 2014 season that don't look sustainable for next year. There's a strong chance you'll see a significant drop in production from 2014 to 2015. Below is a profile of Abreu's 2014 season with some projections for 2015.

Abreu in 2014: Big differences between first and second halves

Mike Petriello noted on MLB Now on the MLB Network that Abreu had a strong shift in results between his first and second halves as the league began to adjust to him.

In the first half (March-June), Abreu ran a below average walk rate and strikeout rate, but he hit for incredible power. In 296 PA, Abreu hit 25 HR with a .625 slugging%.

In the second half (July-September), Abreu’s OBP skyrocketed, fueled by a strong walk rate, a cutting down of strikeouts and a very high BABIP. Abreu’s power also dropped significantly from the first half.

Half

PA

AVG

OBP

SLG

HR

BABIP

wRC+

BB%

K%

1st

296

.279

.328

.625

25

.285

159

5.7%

24.0%

2nd

326

.352

.433

.539

11

.416

170

10.4%

18.4%

Abreu had similar elite results by wRC+ in both halves, but the means to get to that result was far different.

Abreu’s batted ball profile also shifted in the second half. Abreu began hitting significantly less fly balls:

Half

LD%

GB%

FB%

IFFB%

HR/FB%

1st

21.1%

43.6%

35.3%

6.9%

34.7%

2nd

25.3%

47.1%

27.6%

9.7%

17.7%

Hitting less fly balls partially explains the significant drop in home runs in the second half. We also notice a stark drop off in Abreu’s HR/FB ratio in the second half. Some of this is normalization, but it is also partly due to a drop in hard hit%:

Half

Hard hit%

Med. hit%

Soft hit%

1st

20.6%

14.3%

39.7%

2nd

18.7%

22.5%

38.0%

Approximately 100% of home runs are categorized as hard hit, so a drop in hard hit balls makes it more likely that a batter will see a drop in home runs.

You will notice that Abreu’s medium hit% (the amount of at bats that end in a medium hit ball) rose significantly in the second half. Medium hit balls result in a batting average of about .400, so Abreu’s huge rise in BABIP between halves can partially be explained by that. However, MLB average medium hit% in 2014 was 21.7%; Abreu’s medium hit% is only slightly higher than average in the second half. His .414 second half BABIP doesn't add up. The signs point towards fortunate batted ball placement.

Results against pitch types

Scouts were concerned that Abreu didn’t have the bat speed to hit MLB fastballs or the ability to hit a sharp breaking pitch. That wasn't the case in 2014; Abreu hit both fastball and offspeed pitches in the zone harder than MLB average:

Pitch type

Hard hit%

MLB average

Fastball strike

7.9%

7.1%

Offspeed strike

6.4%

5.2%

Here were Abreu’s batting averages by pitch type (both in and out of the zone):

Pitch type

Overall

vs. RHP

vs. LHP

Fastball

.381

.366

.420

Curve

.200

.217

.143

Slider

.248

.216

.409

Change up

.250

.282

.176

Splitter

.385

NA

NA

Abreu had great plate coverage

One way to see how well a hitter covers the plate is by looking at a batting average heat map of the strike zone. Abreu had amazing results against pitches in the strike zone:

Abreu also had strong results hitting the ball to all fields. Hitting the ball to all fields productively indicates an ability to hit all pitches in different areas of the strike zone well. If a hitter struggles hitting the ball well to a specific location, such as the opposite field, pitchers can attack the outside part of the strike zone in an effort to reduce the hitter’s production.

Side

wRC+

Pull

193

Center

288

Opposite

214

Scouting potential weaknesses by location performance

A better way than a results oriented heat map in figuring out what weaknesses a hitter may have is by evaluating how well he squares pitches up in different locations of the zone. If he struggles to square pitches up in a particular area, pitchers can attack that area in an attempt to generate weaker contact. Here’s a chart of Abreu’s hard hit% on swings in different pitch locations:

Pitch location

Hard hit%

MLB avg.

Inside

7.4%

7.5%

Middle (vertical)

10.1%

12.6%

Outside

8.9%

7.3%

Middle (horizontal)

13.2%

11.7%

Up

9.0%

8.0%

Down

6.1%

7.0%

The heat map above showed a strong batting average on pitches down in the zone, but this chart shows that Abreu had below average results on squaring up pitches down in the zone. That might be a potential area of weakness for pitchers to attack next season.

Negatives: Plate discipline

One negative about Jose Abreu is that he chases pitches out of the strike zone. We’ve seen some hitters, like Vlad Guerrero, crush pitches that are out of the strike zone, but hitters generally want to swing at pitches in the strike zone because they’re easier to square up and hit well.

Chase rate is pitches out of the strike zone that were swung on. Abreu’s chase rate is below average in all three of these categories:

Type of chase

Chase %

MLB avg.

Early in count (before 2 strikes)

32%

21%

With 2 strikes

53%

40%

Non competitive pitches (not near strike zone)

28%

18%

Abreu’s swinging strike% was also 7th worst in baseball at 14.4%.

If Abreu can improve his plate discipline in 2015, he can mitigate some of the BABIP regression.

What can we expect from Abreu in 2015?

Both Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS and Steamer’s projection systems project a strong drop in BABIP for Abreu in 2015, and I completely agree. ZiPS and Steamer have Abreu’s 2015 BABIP at .310 and .311, respectively, down from .356 in 2014. I don’t see Abreu’s quality of contact matching up with a .356 BABIP player.

2014

Hard hit%

Medium hit%

Soft hit%

MLB avg.

17.2%

21.7%

41.9%

Abreu

19.8%

18.5%

38.8%

Hard hit balls result in a batting average of over .700, medium hit balls result in a batting average of around .400, and soft hit balls result in a batting average of about .150. Hitters who generate high hard hit and medium hit rates can run a higher BABIP than a player who generates a greater degree of soft contact.

Abreu’s below average medium hit% and very good but not elite hard hit% (37th best in baseball) doesn’t quite line up with an elite BABIP of .356 (4th best in baseball).

Abreu is still going to be really good in 2015, especially if he can iron out some of his plate discipline issues, but I would expect his production to drop from where it was last year. ZiPS and Steamer project the following:

System

AVG

OBP

SLG

HR

RBI

R

wRC+

OPS+

ZiPS

.292

.371

.544

33

88

83

----

147

Steamer

.285

.358

.537

35

100

86

146

----

That's a drop in wRC+ of 165 to 146. It's significant, but it still leaves Abreu towards the top of the league in production.

I'm a little more hesitant on Abreu for next year than the projection systems; I wouldn't be surprised to see a wRC+ in the 130s. That's still really good, but not the same elite level of performance. A lot of this will depend on how Abreu adjusts in his second full season. A good start is cutting down on his chase rate against pitches that aren't close to the strike zone. By becoming more selective, Abreu can swing at pitches that are easier to square up.