When he defected for the States in the winter of 2013, the media train went nuts around the man described as a Cuban Barry Bonds. Jose Abreu‘s career numbers were far and away the best ever from a Cuban ballplayer, and despite already being 27 years old, every team was drooling over the possibility of him launching rockets out of their home ballpark. Former Cuban national team teammate Yoenis Cespedes compared him to Miguel Cabrera, saying if he had speed he would be a complete player.
But with great potential comes great risk, and many scouts worried about Abreu’s ability to transfer his video game numbers to something even worthy of a starting job for most teams.
First and foremost, his lack of foot speed and quick instincts in the field limit him to first base, without much run saving upside. On top of that, Cuban pitchers have historically lower velocities than in the majors, which leads to some hitters creating a bigger load and longer swing to sell out for power.
As expected, Abreu’s bat speed was heavily scrutinized, and that placed a bigger need on great pitch recognition to compensate. Even then, reports around the industry said he got beat on low 90s pitches on the inner half, and will look baffled against an average breaking pitch.
Despite the obvious concerns, the Chicago White Sox were more than happy to ink Jose Abreu to a six-year, $68MM deal.
After a few uneventful games to open Abreu’s career, he made his first big splash in Colorado. Chad Bettis threw him an inside curveball that ended up missing the plate, which was right in line with the book on Jose. But instead, Jose Abreu made a statement; throw that book away:
Then later in the game, Abreu sent a fastball that was 12 inches off the outside edge 425 feet for his second career long ball.
A few weeks later against the Indians’ ace Corey Kluber, Jose Abreu got a 92.5 MPH fastball 10 inches inside that he drilled over the high left field wall in Cleveland.
The plate coverage, pitch recognition and bat speed issues seemed to have vanished. Abreu won Rookie and Player of the month for April by putting up a 153 wRC+ and hitting 10 homers. An ankle injury cut his May short, but in June he’s already mashed enough for a 175 wRC+. Abreu’s been able to put up such gaudy numbers because of his excellent plate coverage. He’s hitting homers up, down, inside and outside. He’s also hitting for plus average and power in every part of the zone as displayed in the heatmap below.
Remember when scouts dais you can beat him inside? Yeah, apparently you can’t.
The average slugging percentage in MLB right now is .393, and Jose Abreu does better than that in every part of the strike zone as well as five sections outside of the zone. He also has positive run values on fastballs, sliders, and curveballs pitchers try to spin by him. There’s no game plan on him anymore because Abreu is simply a great hitter. He doesn’t focus on only pulling or going the other way as his home run chart shows an even distribution.
There are still some issues with Abreu’s ability to keep it up. Some point out he has a 28.1% strikeout rate, and his 32.6% fly ball rate could stand to rise more if he wants to be in the truly elite upper echelon power hitter. But Abreu has shown an ability to overcome all controversy he’s faced so far, and his power doesn’t look to stop anytime soon. Advanced projection systems PECOTA, Steamer and ZiPS all buy into the power, expecting him to finish the season with 35+ homers.
If you haven’t caught wind of it by now, it’s time to start watching the Jose Abreu show.