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White Sox’s Jose Abreu not nearly as lost as he looks

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May 6, 2016; Chicago, IL, USA; Chicago White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu (79) reacts after being hit by a pitch from Minnesota Twins relief pitcher Trevor May (not pictured) during the eighth inning at U.S. Cellular Field. White Sox won 10-4. Mandatory Credit: Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports
May 6, 2016; Chicago, IL, USA; Chicago White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu (79) reacts after being hit by a pitch from Minnesota Twins relief pitcher Trevor May (not pictured) during the eighth inning at U.S. Cellular Field. White Sox won 10-4. Mandatory Credit: Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports /
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.317/.383/.581, 36 home runs, 107 RBI. That’s Jose Abreu‘s 2014 season.

2015 looked like this: .290/.347/.502, 30 home runs, 101 RBI.

This season: .243/.318/.396, 6 home runs in 43 games.

Oh how we yearn for the old Jose Abreu, the one that captivated us and turned meaningless September games into must see T.V.

He’s so different, isn’t he? He’s a shell of his former self.

He strikes out constantly and never walks.

Actually, his strikeout rate is a career low at 20.3% and his walk rate is 7.8%, 2 percent higher than last season, per FanGraphs. 

Maybe he’s not striking out as much, but he’s swinging at terrible pitches right?

Abreu’s swing percentage on pitches outside of the zone is the lowest of his career at 35.9%. In fact, his plate discipline is nearly identical to years past across the board. His contact rate on balls in the zone is actually the highest of his career (88.7%). The swing-and-miss in his game is better than ever.

Is he seeing different pitches, or less pitches in the zone?

Abreu saw 39.6% of pitches in the zone in 2014, 41.5% last season, and an identical 41.5% this year. Abreu is seeing relatively the same amount of fastballs, a few more sliders, slightly less change ups, but really the year-to-year differences aren’t that discernible. 

Is he not hitting the ball to all fields? More ground balls?

Nope and nope. Most of Abreu’s batted ball data is hardly different. He’s distributing the ball all over the field per usual. Slightly less line drives and a few more flyballs, but the ground ball rate is the same. You might as well swap out 2016 for 2014.

Okay, but something has to be different. Where’s the Abreu I know and love?

This might seem surprising, but that Jose Abreu is right there in front of you, with one key caveat.

The missing link, the disappearance of Abreu’s X-factor per se, is that he’s no longer hitting the ball with authority. This fact has seemed to fuel the misconception that Abreu is off kilter in nearly every facet of his game, but really the approach is unchanged. It’s shocking and I was just as surprised to see how much of a carbon copy his profile is in regards to his former glory.

The problem areas are daunting though. The first thing that comes up is the BABIP. Abreu’s BABIP is just .276, significantly below his career mark of .335. You could say he’s been unlucky, but his hard-hit percentage is down by about six percentage points while his soft-contact percentage is up by nearly the same amount.

That’s certainly a formula for generating less hits on balls in play.

His ISO is .154, a mere fraction of his .226 career mark. I already said Abreu was hitting a few more flyballs, but his HR/FB ratio is sitting at 12.5%. That’s still above average but not even close to his superb career rate (21.6%)

It’s this latter stat that’s concerning to me. A similar flyball rate, but a declining HR/FB ratio is a tell-tale sign of a hitter undergoing a career shift in which they experience slower bat speed as they age. Abreu is just 29 years old, but the exit velocity data would seem to support this.

Jeff Sullivan wrote an excellent piece at FanGraphs recently that piqued my interest. He looked at Jose Abreu’s exit velocity on fastballs and made the conclusion that while he generally handled the fastball well, fastballs on the inner third gave him problems.

Sullivan also concluded that pitchers have changed their strategy to exploit this further. Per Sullivan:

"Last year, against Abreu, 46% of fastballs were over the inner third, or more inside. That was one of the highest rates in the game! This year, Abreu is at 59%. That’s easily the highest rate in the game, among righties"

Sullivan looked at Abreu’s exit velocity vs. fastballs. I wanted to see a fuller picture, so I looked up his exit velocity on all pitches this year plotted in various quadrants of the zone. Here’s the zone plot, retrieved from BaseballSavant.com.

Screen Shot 2016-05-21 at 9.30.51 PM
Screen Shot 2016-05-21 at 9.30.51 PM /

I’m hoping you’ve given the Sullivan piece a look, but if not, I’ll reiterate that it’s clear Abreu’s exit velocity has been poor on pitches in the inner third, especially in the upper corner. We’ve always known Abreu can get jammed inside from time to time. This was even a concern coming out of Cuba, especially in regards to inside heat.

I noticed something even more intriguing though when I looked at his exit velocity from 2015 (The first season this type of data started to be collected).

Here’s the 2015 plot:

Screen Shot 2016-05-21 at 9.29.59 PM
Screen Shot 2016-05-21 at 9.29.59 PM /

Notice the inherent difference. Abreu didn’t destroy the ball on the inner third last year either. He was somewhat better in the lower half, but the upper inner third was still his kryptonite. Sure, Abreu has seen more pitches in this region and that has certainly hurt him but something more troubling has happened.

Look at the outer third of the plate, especially the upper region. That has historically been Abreu’s wheelhouse, when he typically crushes a ball the opposite way with authority. 104.1 MPH in that one hotspot has been reduced to 88.1 MPH this year, and in the upper corner 96.6 MPH has been reduced to 89.6 MPH

Abreu has seen slightly less pitches in these hot zones this season than last, but the fact remains that when he has seen them he hasn’t converted on them like he usually does. Any hitter who doesn’t destroy a poorly located pitch based on their own strengths, is going to see a decline in their overall numbers.

Of course, this makes us question the why.

Why isn’t Abreu isn’t making hard contact on these pitches?

There are two schools of thought here as to why the exit velocity is lower. First off all, this is only a quarter of a season sample but it’s not as if it doesn’t jive with what the eyes have seen thus far. Combine this with the lowered HR/FB ratio and BABIP and you could conclude that Abreu doesn’t have the bat speed he used to.

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That’s a plausible scenario and undoubtedly the worst thing you could extrapolate from all this data. Yet, if his bat speed were truly lower, then I don’t think his exit velocity would still be consistent in the heart of the zone from 2015 to 2016. We’d see a drop across the board.

There’s something else that dissuades me from this theory. Abreu’s whiff rate on fastballs this year is the lowest of his career (7.60%). You’d think someone with a drastic decrease in bat speed would be whiffing at a higher rate on heat, not at a career low.

So onto the second school of thought.

Exit velocity is an emerging stat, but bat speed and exit velocity aren’t the same thing. The other factor in the equation is if the ball is squared up in the first place.

I think Abreu’s bat speed and approach are the same, but that his swing isn’t conducive to lining up with the sweet spot as often as he usually does. There are a myriad of reasons for this to be the case. On my own account, I’ve found Abreu’s swing to be less fluid and somewhat longer this year.

This could be the result of pressing, and the established slugger has been dismal with RISP, hitting just .260/.355/.280. What really stands out is how low the slugging percentage is (.280).

With 2 outs and RISP, he’s produced just a .150/.261/.150 line, per Baseball Reference.

The idea of a clutch hitter is often debated as a fallacy, but the truth is that Abreu has been far worse when the pressure is on this year. If that’s not a symptom of pressing, I don’t know what else is.

There are so many nuances when it comes to hitting and getting the swing in the right place to elevate the ball in the ideal barrel location. Mechanics obviously play a big role, and one thing has stood out to me.

Here’s a screenshot I took of Abreu with the pitcher in the same period of his windup. Take a look at where his hands are.

IMG_7421
IMG_7421 /

In the top photo Abreu has his hands up, with the bat at less of an angle and it’s masked, but I believe the elbow is up in both. The key difference is that hands are much lower in the second photo and the bat is a little more upright. 

The results are distinct. In the top image, Abreu is facing Danny Duffy and chops an outside (87 MPH) pitch straight into the ground for a double play. He wraps around it, but his swing is still on a downward trajectory.

In the second photo, we see classic Abreu. This was last week against Dallas Keuchel, when Abreu waited on a 78 MPH change up and drove it to center for a home run. These are undoubtedly different pitches, but the bat is already on an upward trajectory by the time it connects.

I don’t claim to be an expert here but I would think that lowered hands and the upright position of the bat enabled Abreu to close on this ball quicker and in a more ideal trajectory as the bat went through the plane.

I bounced around looking at select home run footage from 2014 and 2015, and his hands are almost always where they are in the second photo rather than the first.

I’m not saying this mechanical disparity is the reason Abreu isn’t squaring up the ball. I’m not savvy enough nor do I pretend to be savvy enough to make this claim. I’m just exhibiting a scenario in which mechanics (higher hands) rather than decreased bat speed may be leading to weaker contact and a longer swing.

In the end, I think the aggregate picture will tell us the better story.

If Abreu’s exit velocity continues to tail off and the BABIP never stabilizes by the end of 2016, then you could raise some questions about the bat speed. However, I think it’s more in the mechanics, although I can’t pinpoint exactly where.

Regardless, I’m not seeing a hitter with a flawed approach. The way Abreu is mentally attacking pitchers, selecting pitches to swing at, and deciding where to place the ball has not changed at all. The results have skewed the perception in that direction but this is merely a byproduct of poor execution, not approach.

I’m confident Jose Abreu will make some adjustments with his mechanics and that Chicago’s middle of the order stud will let his bat clear up any further misconceptions.

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