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Jose Abreu is still attacking against Fastballs

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© Jerome Miron-USA Today Sports

when Jose Abreu He signed with the Astros earlier this season, there was a lot to like about him. He fits their general team build, he’s a great hitter, and the contract makes more sense every day in the context of the rest of the free agent market. There was one troubling note in many corners of the baseball internet, though: Abreu’s performance against fastballs, particularly high-speed ones, is down significantly in 2022.

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I’m not giving credit to one person in particular on this note, just because I’ve seen them in many different places. This is indisputably true. Here are Abreu’s numbers against each of the four batters and all fastballs thrown at 95 mph or more, per Baseball Savant:

Jose Abreu vs. fast balls

general 4-RV seam 4-Seam RV/100 High Speed ​​RV High speed RV/100
2015 17.8 2.0 3.9 1.0
2016 9.4 1.0 3.8 0.8
2017 -0.8 -0.1 -0.7 -0.2
2018 4.1 0.6 0.3 0.1
2019 12.7 1.3 11.6 3.9
2020 4.8 1.5 7.9 5.5
2021 9 1.0 -3.6 -0.9
2022 -8.7 -0.9 -4 -0.9

Oh no! The directions seem quite clear. Abreu hasn’t hit fastballs very well in 2022, and he was already starting to fall behind them somewhat the previous season. Was it just cooked? Does this quick performance, like the canary in a coal mine, alert us that bad times are coming?

I really had no idea how to think about this, so I decided to dig into the data. The first question I asked was a simple one: What does year one’s performance against fastballs mean to year two’s performance against fastballs, as measured by Statcast run values?

I ran a very basic test to look at this. I looked for every player who had seen 100 required-type fastballs in two consecutive years: either four or more fastballs thrown at 95 mph or more. I did this for four year pairs: 2018-19, 2019-20, 2020-21, and 2021-22. The first question I asked was simple: How is one year’s operating value related to the second year’s operating value? In other words, if I produce a significant number of runs, as measured by Statcast, against fastballs in one year, can we expect that success to continue?

This seems like a heavy blow if you stop and think about it. The question is not whether someone is relatively better against fastballs or secondary pitches; It’s how much value they find facing fastballs each year. just to give you an example, Aaron Judge He was an excellent hitter against all four batters this year, hitting 3.2 runs above average per 100 pitches. Last year he was an excellent hitter against fastballs – above average runs per 100 runs. In 2020, you guessed it – 6.1 above average assists per 100 pitches. In 2019 — well, you get the idea.

The bad news, though: Even with clear wins like Judge, the first year’s production on four stitches barely correlates with the two-year production. More specifically, her correlation coefficient is 0.17 and therefore her correlation coefficient is 0.03. In layman’s terms, you can explain the 3% variance in next year’s output at four tailors by looking at this year’s output at four tailors. That’s not much! Even if you limit it to the speculators who saw at least 500 four tailers in both years to eliminate some potential noise, the r-square only goes up to 0.067. In other words, if you are looking to explain how batters will perform against four-seam fastballs in 2023, how they will perform against them in 2022 is not underestimated.

As you might expect, the data is no better for fastballs thrown at 95 mph or harder. While Abreu slipped in both categories in 2022, that by itself isn’t enough to say much about what we should expect from it next year. Performance over the last three years is a much better indicator, but Abreu is doing better there. He might be holding back, but if he is, we’ll have to find another way to show it.

To dig into the performance of the Fastball, I decided to look at the whiff rate. The main problem with operating value is that it’s noisy, results-driven rather than process-driven. BABIP is rightly considered to be an unreliable high-value indicator, and running BABIP high when pitch-width mode will increase run-value, and vice versa. The obvious place to look if you’re focused on process rather than results is the whiff rate. The number of times a batter makes contact when he swings does not depend on a round ball hitting a round bat, where the defense stands, or which way the wind is blowing. It’s easier than that: hit or don’t.

I repeated the same exercise from above, looking for putters to swing at 100 from the four tailors in consecutive years. The results are more in the spirit of what we’re looking for. The relationship between one year’s whiff rate on four-seam fastballs and next year’s whiff rate is very high; The r-squared is recorded at a strong 0.52. If you’re looking to explain the difference in this year’s rate, looking at last year’s rate will get you more than half the way. This is an excellent mark compared to the near-pure noise of playback value. As you might expect, the data looks the same for high-speed fastballs.

Another useful metric is how hard the batter hits fastballs when they are on. It’s actually more correlated year to year than the fastball whiff rate. If you’re looking for a statistic that tells you how good a hitter is against fastballs, you should look at the swish rate or hit rate hard, not the actual production.

Abreu didn’t go wrong when it came to calling four tailors; He came up empty on 24.7% of his turnovers against them in 2022. That’s slightly higher than his average over the past five years (23.4%), and also slightly higher than the league average (21.8%). This has been his game for the past five years, more or less: He misses a lot more than average, but he makes up for it by hitting the ball hard when he connects.

There is little evidence that the second part of the equation is changing. He’s been in the 86th percentile for the average hitter of the four tailors this year, perfectly in line with his modeling edge. The same is true for high-velocity fastballs; He swings and misses a little more than the league average, but he makes up for it by hitting them hard.

Will Abru go down next year? I’ll give it a solid “maybe”. I have no idea, to be honest. He’s a baseball player in his 30s, which means he’s always in danger of slipping. Time wounds all heels, and all that. But if you’re looking for a way to tell that story, don’t use his Fastball data to do so. Even though his results are down in 2022, I admire Abreu’s ability to hit the ball more than ever.

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