MLB Player Breakdown: How Jose Abreu’s Struggles Affects the Astros’ AL West Pursuit

MLB Player Breakdown: How Jose Abreu’s Struggles Affects the Astros’ AL West Pursuit article feature image

Patrick McDermott/Getty Images. Pictured: Jose Abreu

Once a week, I’ll be diving deep into some of MLB’s best, worst and most interesting characters. I’ll break down their past, current and projected performance to see if there’s any betting value surrounding that player or his team. 

This week, let’s look into the struggles of Astros first baseman Jose Abreu.

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After seven years of holding down first base for the two-time World Series-winning Astros, Yuli Gurriel got his bag from Miami and now has a 104 wRC+ for the Fish. 

No biggie for the Astros, as they’ve been dealing with roster turnover for years. Carlos Correa, George Springer, Gerrit Cole, Justin Verlander, et cetera. 

The Astros are a well-run organization, so you could safely assume they’d find a suitable replacement for Gurriel. 

I will admit that I raised my eyebrows when Houston inked Jose Abreu to a three-year, $58.5-million contract. It didn’t seem like the kind of thing the Astros do – i.e., sign a 36-year-old to a fat contract. 

Of course, where was the downside? While he was aging, Abreu was just two years removed from an MVP and posted a wRC+ above 115 every year of his storied White Sox career. He was a smart, capable veteran hitter with a high floor and the ability to replicate Gurriel’s production. 

How quickly things change. 

What is going on with Abreu? 

All my deep-dive MLB articles have been about up-and-coming studs, and I wanted to change the pace by covering a struggling or underwhelming player. 

Surprisingly, I’ve seen very little coverage regarding Abreu’s collapse. Instead, it’s all about Trea Turner, Jeremy Pena or some underperforming Guardian (boy, that team really can’t hit). 

Yet, nobody in the majors has a lower fWAR than Abreu’s -1.2. Likewise, no qualified hitter outside of Jean Segura has a lower wRC+ than Abreu’s 50 (Segura is at 36, so he might be the subject of another column). 

The year-over-year numbers are staggering. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a drop-off this severe. 

  • Abreu has never had a WRC+ under 115, yet he’s a 50 this season. 
  • He’s only posted an ISO under .200 twice and is at .051 this year. 
  • His soft contact rate is up over 10%. 
  • The last time he posted a Barrel rate under 9% was 2016, yet he’s at 4.2% this year. 

Abreu hit his first home run of the season last week

Sure, there was some writing on the wall (his 15 home runs last season were the fewest of his career), but this level of ineptitude was previously unthinkable. 

Abreu’s Statcast percentiles help drive this point home. 

Image via Baseball Savant

There’s no point in harping on his stats any further. But, let’s harp on his stats a bit further anyway, because I don’t think I’ve drilled in how bad this drop-off is. 

  • Abreu slashed .292/.354/.506 in nine years with the White Sox. He’s slashing .213/.273/.264 this year. 
  • He’s never had a wOBA under .350, but he’s at .243 this year. 
  • He’s never had an xwOBA under .350, yet he’s at .279 this year. 
  • He’s never had an xwOBACON under .400 but is at .322 this year. 

It’s almost impossible to describe how bad Abreu has been, and I don’t think there’s one singular explanation that can account for this severe drop-off. It’s already June, this should be fixed by now!

Still, I’ve ignored myself again and devised three theories about Abreu’s poor play (outside of the general injury or psychological ones). 

Let’s try to explain Abreu’s inexplicable collapse. 

Abreu Theory #1: He’s lost his power, but more importantly, his eye

Max Exit Velocities are sticky. Generally, there’s little variance in a player’s max EV, so you can even consider that statistic predictive. 

Abreu’s max EV dropped significantly last year (113 mph) and is again declining this season (111.7 mph). It’s clear he’s clocking out at a lower rate than ever, but raw power is expected to diminish with age. 

So, yeah, Abreu’s lost his power swing. Of course, that’s part of a standard mid-30s downturn. 

However, that alone cannot explain a nearly 70-point drop in his wRC+. 

Baseball Prospectus made an adept comparison for 2022 Abreu – Mark Grace. The long-time Cubbies first baseman never had a power swing, never hitting more than 17 home runs in a season. Instead, Grace got by on a keen eye and impressive bat-to-ball skills (career 11.9% walk rate and 6.9% strikeout rate). 

Abreu saw an impressive increase in his walk rate and a decrease in his strikeout rate last season – his 62 walks were the most ever in a season, and his 16.2% strikeout rate was a career-low. He posted the highest contact rate and OBP of his career, so he managed to curb his power decline by racking up 183 hits and a 137 wRC+. 

Unfortunately, those numbers have severely rebounded in Houston. 

Image via FanGraphs

Abreu’s chase rate is up 4% from his momentarily disciplined 2022, and his BB/K ratio is down from .56 to .30. 

So, Abreu’s continued to lose his power swing, but he’s also lost the adjustments he made to curb his lack of power. It’s resulted in a drastic decrease in production. 

However, I still don’t think that accounts for the nearly 100-point wOBA drop. 

So, I have one more plate-discipline-related point to make about Abreu. 

He’s not swinging at meatballs anymore. Well, not necessarily meatballs, but pitches in the heart of the plate.

Historically, Abreu has swung at about 70% of pitches in the heart of the zone, racking up +148 Swing Runs on pitches in that area between 2014 and 2022. This season, he’s swinging at only 66% of those pitches and boasts negative Swing Runs mark for the first time. 

Here's his Swing-Take profile from 2022:

Image via Baseball Savant

Here's his Swing-Take profile from 2023:

Image via Baseball Savant

Abreu’s -12 Swing-Take Runs on pitches in the heart of the zone ranks fifth-to-last among qualified hitters, sandwiched between Brice Turang and Jeff McNeil.  

Moreover, his first-pitch swing rate is down 3% (from 23% to 20%) despite his overall swing rate being up 3% (from 47% to 50%). Meanwhile, Abreu’s two-strike chase rate is up 8% from last season (24% to 32%). 

Abreu is attacking the wrong pitches more and the right pitches less, and that’s a huge problem when you’re becoming more power-limited by the day. He had an identical two-strike chase rate during his 2020 MVP campaign, but that’s fine when you smack 34 extra-base hits in less than 250 at-bats. 

He’s also pulling the ball less, as his pull rate is down about 5% from his career average (38% to 33%). And the balls he does pull, he can’t get out of the infield. 

Image via Baseball Savant

So, instead, he’s weakly tapping balls on the corner of the zone back up the middle. 

Joey Gallo is a strikeout-heavy, power-heavy hitter. Luis Arraez is a contact guru with zero power. 

Currently, Abreu is the worst of both worlds. He’s lost his power, his keen eye and his disciplined decision-making, so it's no wonder that he’s the second-worst hitter in the sport.  

Abreu Theory #2: He’s not getting any off-speed stuff

Abreu used to smash off-speed pitches. He slugged .800 against changeups in 2021 and 2022 and peaked with a .442 xwOBA against off-speed stuff during his 2020 MVP run. 

Well, Abreu’s seeing fewer of those pitches this season. Just 6.5% of pitches against have been off-speed, the lowest of his career. 

Image via Baseball Savant

Historically, Abreu hasn’t been bad against fastballs. That is, until last season, when he posted a -9 Run Value against four-seam fastballs. 

We know Abreu has lost his power tool, but he could still crank slowballs if he sat on them and timed them correctly. And I think pitchers are adjusting to that and exposing him with fastballs, where all he can do is weakly tap them back up the middle (or not swing at them at all). 

Admittedly, this is a half-baked theory, given he’s been equally horrendous against off-speed pitches. But I’d wager it’s better than the current public discourse!

Abreu Theory #3: He’s been unlucky, and this is just a new-organization slump

I was surprised to see that Abreu’s career BABIP is .325. He recorded a .350 BABIP in two of the past three seasons. I assumed he would profile as a low-BABIP player, but on second thought, I’m not sure why. 

Anyway, Abreu’s BABIP is .276 this year. His xwOBA is 36 points higher than his wOBA. His xSLG is 65 points higher than his SLG. 

Yeah, Abreu has been brutal. But he’s also in a new situation for the first time in his career and hasn’t been able to buy a good bounce. 

Perhaps his struggles are slightly overblown, and it’s just a slump. A two-month slump is crazy, but it happens.

It is worth noting that even in his heyday in Chicago, Abreu was a notoriously slow starter — just not to the level we've seen this year in Houston. For his career, his OPS in March/April is .765. It jumps to .804 in May, but as the temperatures rise so too does Abreu: .830 in June, .843 in July, and a scorching .971 in August. 

Positive regression is coming Abreu’s way. It’s just a matter of how much, and whether he builds off it. 

Abreu has a home run, a double and five RBIs in his last 24 at-bats, so maybe the positive regression train has already pulled into Abreu station. 

Conclusion: Actionable Astro Advice 

In case you haven’t noticed, these Astros aren’t hitting well. 

The defending world champions have the 10th-lowest xwOBA in baseball, and their batted-ball profile is worse than that. 

You’d think, at the minimum, Abreu would be a solid platoon bat. But, surprisingly, he’s hitting worse against southpaws (45 wRC+) than righties (52 wRC+). 

Meanwhile, the first-place Rangers are top-five in almost every offensive category, from wRC+ to Hard-Hit rate.

It’s not hard to see where the problem is. 

The difference between Nathaniel Lowe and Abreu is 2.5 fWAR, and the Rangers currently have a 3.5-game lead in the AL West. Houston has scored 100 fewer runs than Texas, wherein Lowe has 35 RBIs and 41 runs compared to Abreu’s 23 RBIs and 15 runs. 

I hate to oversimplify the situation, as there are three other Astros in the regular nine-man lineup with a well-below-average OPS. The problem is that Houston expects a 67 OPS+ from Martin Maldonado, and they decided to compensate for that by giving Abreu $60 million. Being a light-hitting catcher is fine when you're competently manning a defense-first position. Being a light-hitting first baseman is an issue.

It’s genuinely difficult to see the Astros competing in the AL West with Abreu underperforming this vastly. Houston doesn’t have another first baseman and can’t cover up a fourth hitter in the lineup. 

Houston is still (-180) to win the division at FanDuel. I find it hard to recommend a wager on Texas (at +195), given the Rangers have their own RISP regression coming, but the pricing tells me one thing: The Astros are overvalued. 

These Astros are underperforming with a black hole in the middle of their lineup, and they’re worth fading until Abreu becomes a hitter of substance. 

Ultimately, handicapping Houston is still a game-to-game endeavor, but their offense is worth a significant downgrade with this version of Abreu in the lineup.

However, conversely, this lineup is worth a significant upgrade if Abreu ever turns it around. If the Astros are treading water now (100 wRC+), imagine what they could become without this burden. 

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