How MLB Pitchers Can Try to Slow Down Jose Abreu's Red-Hot Power Bat

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How MLB Pitchers Can Try to Slow Down Jose Abreu's Red-Hot Power Bat
AP Images

A couple months ago, we could only guess how dangerous Jose Abreu would be in his first major league season after his defection from Cuba. 

Now that we're safely beyond small-sample-size territory, the answer is pretty clear: very.

The Chicago White Sox's $68 million slugger entered Tuesday's action with a .610 slugging percentage and 18 home runs in 51 games, which MLB noted was a historic amount:

Abreu's last three dingers have come since he came off the disabled list on June 2 following a 15-day stint with ankle tendinitis. Thus any such notions of the injury slowing him down died a quick death.

"He's just getting his swing back..." White Sox manager Robin Ventura told reporters Tuesday night. "When he hits it on the barrel, it goes a long way."

So the power game? Yeah, Abreu has that figured out. That's the bad news for pitchers. 

The good news, however, is that Abreu is less than superhuman with a bat in his hands.

This is, after all, a guy who began Tuesday with just a .260 batting average and a .312 on-base percentage. And that's not to mention the AL's eighth-highest strikeout rate, according to FanGraphs.

Abreu can be beat. Especially if you know how to beat him, which is an area of study we can break down into three commandments.

 

Avoid the Strike Zone

Uncredited/Associated Press

One complication of avoiding Abreu's power is that there's no pitch he can't hit hard. There's a ton of power in his 6'3", 255-pound frame, and he has the plate coverage to hit just about anything.

That said, Abreu's power is certainly more easily avoided outside the strike zone than inside the strike zone.

Of Abreu's 33 extra-base hits and 18 homers, BaseballSavant.com tells us that he's racked 'em up like so:

Jose Abreu's Power Production In and Out of Zone
Split Swings Extra-Base Hits Home Runs
Inside Zone 215 24 14
Outside Zone 219 9 4

BaseballSavant.com, current through 6/9/2014

The clear majority of Abreu's power production in 2014 has happened inside the strike zone. Given that the strike zone is where the more hittable pitches go, that's not especially surprising.

To be fair, nine extra-base hits outside the zone is a lot. In fact, a subsequent search on Baseball Savant found only 11 players who have produced more extra-base hits outside the zone this season.

The catch, however, is that Abreu is among their company not because he's especially efficient with his swings outside the zone, but more so because he swings outside the zone a lot.

If we use FanGraphs to compare his chase rate (O-Swing%) to the chase rates of the other 11 guys, we find that Abreu has been the most aggressive at expanding the zone this season:

Chase Rates of Top Outside-the-Zone Power Hitters
Player O-Swing%
Jose Abreu 42.4
Salvador Perez 39.2
Nolan Arenado 38.7
Yoenis Cespedes 38.5
Hunter Pence 35.4
Victor Martinez 34.2
Miguel Cabrera 33.2
Melky Cabrera 31.7
Edwin Encarnacion 27.8
Paul Goldschmidt 27.7
Brian Dozier 26.8
Mike Trout 26.2

FanGraphs

It's not just this list of hitters that Abreu tops, mind you. He's swung at more pitches outside the zone than any other qualified hitter in the American League

So while Abreu can indeed hit for power outside the strike zone, he's not that great at it relative to how often he chases. When he chases, he's more likely to make an out than he is to do damage.

Actually, we better put a number on that too. Baseball Savant tells us that Abreu's batting averages inside the zone and outside the zone look like this:

  • Inside zone: .344 (33 for 96)
  • Outside zone: .185 (19 for 103)

Credit where credit is due, FanGraphs says only four other qualified hitters have seen a smaller percentage of pitches in the zone than Abreu has. Pitchers aren't blind to what's up.

Until Abreu adjusts, the percentage of pitches he sees inside the zone should only get smaller. And since his splits show that his least aggressive month was actually April, that's an adjustment we're still waiting on.

There is an exception to this rule, though, and it calls for pitchers to...

 

Keep the Hard Stuff Low

Let's take a break from words and look at Abreu doing something very mean to Trevor Cahill:

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

The pitch that Abreu obliterated was a fastball that ESPN.com says landed 443 feet from home plate. If that one instance is any indication, yeah, Abreu can hit the hard stuff.

There's been more than one instance of that happening, though. Per Brooks Baseball, Abreu is hitting hard stuff—four-seamers, sinker and cutters—at a .324 clip with a .667 slugging percentage and nine of his 18 home runs. That, clearly, is a man with no regard for good, honest, hard-working fastballs.

Which sucks for pitchers, as it's not like they can't avoid throwing Abreu fastballs forever. What's a pitcher to do?

Well, it actually turns out there's a safe haven for hard stuff within Abreu's strike zone.

Baseball Savant tells us that he isn't so great with hard stuff in the zone around his knees:

Jose Abreu vs. Hard Stuff In the Strike Zone
Strike Zone Area Swings AVG Extra-Base Hits
Top Third 47 .500 5
Middle Third 51 .450 6
Bottom Third 31 .222 3

BaseballSavant.com

That Abreu has three extra-base hits on fastballs at the bottom of the zone says it's not a 100 percent-safe area. But given the relative dearth of swings and smaller batting average, it's certainly safer.

A big reason for that is because he has a hard time elevating hard pitches at the bottom of the strike zone, which we can tell by looking at this ground-ball rate chart from Brooks Baseball:

Image courtesy of BrooksBaseball.net (h/t Baseball Prospectus)

The reddest parts and the biggest numbers are at the bottom of the zone. Throw a fastball down there, and odds are any contact Abreu makes will result in a ground ball.

This is nothing out of the ordinary, of course. Low fastballs do tend to be turned into ground balls. Especially with right-handed hitters, who have long liked high pitches more than low pitches. 

But once again, that's also the point.

There are some righty hitters—i.e. Mike Trout—who have an uncanny ability to elevate low pitches, but most are going to pound them into the ground. That Abreu is one of those guys tells us that we're looking at yet another area in which he's not superhuman.

That's how Abreu can be beaten by hard stuff. When in doubt, though, the thing to remember is that...

 

Softer Is Better

Jason Miller/Getty Images

When we mentioned that Abreu is a .324 hitter with a .667 slugging percentage against hard stuff, you might have found yourself thinking:

"He's only hitting .260 with a .610 slugging percentage overall, so...he must not be very good against slow stuff?"

Precisely, Watson.

First off, Brooks Baseball can show what Abreu is doing against breaking and offspeed stuff:

Jose Abreu vs. Breaking and Offspeed
Split Seen AVG SLUG HR K
Breaking 211 .217 .600 6 24
Offspeed 103 .125 .438 3 15

Brooks Baseball

While Abreu can be beaten by hard stuff thrown in the right location in the strike zone, this tells us that Abreu's real kryptonite is the slow stuff. 

And this becomes even more true if we narrow down what kind of pitches we're talking about.

The "breaking" category consists mainly of sliders and curveballs. The "offspeed" category consists mainly of changeups and splitters. If we take a close look at what Abreu has done against these four types of pitches specifically, we find the following:

Jose Abreu vs. Slow Pitch Types
Category Pitch Seen AVG SLUG HR K
Breaking Slider 137 .233 .674 5 16
Breaking Curve 74 .177 .412 1 8
Offspeed Splitter 24 .200 .800 2 5
Offspeed Changeup 79 .091 .273 1 10

Brooks Baseball

It's the numbers against curveballs and changeups that stand out. Partially because I highlighted them, sure, but also because they're much less threatening than Abreu's numbers against sliders and splitters.

Naturally, curveballs tend to be slower than sliders. And while a splitter can be as slow as a changeup, the ever-useful pitch-type benchmarks that Harry Pavlidis drew up for The Hardball Times tell us that changeups tend to be the slower of the two.

So while the data tells us that Abreu is weak against slow pitches, it also tells us he's even weaker against the slowest of the slow pitches. If pitchers have them, they should use them.

There's no way to avoid Abreu's power entirely. He's going to get his share of hard-hit balls no matter what pitchers do. 

But what we looked at are the ways to minimize the risk of hard-hit balls. The more pitchers exploit those, the more likely we are to see Abreu's historic power pace finally slow down.

 

Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted/linked.

 

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