Jose Abreu: Greatest Rookie Power Hitter Ever?
At some point, pitchers should consider not giving White Sox rookie slugger Jose Abreu anything to hit.
On Friday, Abreu slugged his Major League-leading 27th home run of the season, tying the young Cuban first baseman with Zeke Bonura for the most homers ever by a White Sox player in their first Major League season. And yeah, people are still driving home from their Independence Day weekends.
In this, his rookie year, Abreu has been unstoppable, with a nERD of 2.92, 16th best in all of baseball (meaning a lineup full of Abreu's would score 2.92 more runs per game than a lineup full of league average players). His fWAR of 2.7 is pretty darn good when you consider he's played 59 games at first, and 13 as a designated hitter. His slugging percentage of .621 is tops in all of baseball, as is his isolated power (ISO) of .345, which is just slugging percentage minus batting average. And his weighted on-base average (wOBA) of .399 is 5th in the American League.
Oh, and he did all this while spending two weeks in May on the disabled list.
Barring the collapse of western civilization as we know it, Abreu is going to be the American League Rookie of the Year. But in his first season in the Majors, he's also on pace to become the most prolific rookie home run hitter of all time.
As of July 5th, Abreu is 22 homers away from tying Mark McGwire's rookie home run record, set back in 1987 (see chart below). Given that Abreu is on pace to hit 50 home runs this season (27 through the team's first 87 games), there's definitely a solid chance he can do it.
|Mark McGwire||49||1987||Oakland A's|
|Frank Robinson||38||1956||Cincinnati Reds|
|Wally Berger||38||1980||Boston Braves|
|Albert Pujols||37||2001||St. Louis Cardinals|
|Al Rosen||37||1950||Cleveland Indians|
|Ron Kittle||35||1983||Chicago White Sox|
|Mike Piazza||35||1993||Los Angeles Dodgers|
|Rudy York||35||1937||Detroit Tigers|
|Hal Trosky||35||1934||Cleveland Indians|
So what is it that makes Abreu so good? One of the biggest reason is that, when he hits a fly ball, it tends to leave the yard.
The average HR/FB ratio in Major League Baseball this year is 10.0, meaning 10.0% of all fly balls hit end up being home runs. Jose Abreu's HR/FB ratio is an insane 34.6%, far and away higher than the next closest player, Houston's George Springer, at 25.0%. And it's not like he's hitting more line drives or fly balls than the average Major Leaguer, as both those percentages are in line with the league average.
What's odd about Abreu are his reverse platoon splits this year. A right-handed hitter, he's hitting .237/.301/.553 with just 7 of his 27 homers against left-handed pitching. Against right-handers, he's hitting .290/.335/.645, with 20 of his homers against righties. He's also striking out more against lefties (27.7%) than he is against righties (22.7%). There are no detailed statistics kept on platoon splits from his playing days in Cuba, so we'll just have to watch over the next few years to see if this is an aberration, or if for some reason he happens to hit right-handed pitching better than left-handed pitching.
So, how should pitchers approach Abreu? By avoiding the strike zone.
The man loves to swing the bat, hacking at 42.2% of all pitches he sees that are out of the strike zone (league average is 29.6%). He also makes less contact with those pitches outside the strike zone (57.5%) than the league average (66.6%). And, Abreu has walked in just 6.0% of his plate appearances so far this year, below the league average of 8.1%. So, if a pitcher can avoid mistakes early in the count and get him to expand the zone a bit, they've got a fighting chance.
Still, that's easier said than done against the best power hitter in Major League Baseball right now. Passing McGwire's rookie home run record of 49 is going to be a tough task for Abreu, as it's likely pitchers will make adjustments their second, third and fourth times seeing him this year. It'll then be up to Abreu to adjust back.
Of course, there is the question of whether Abreu should even really be considered a rookie at all, given that he's 27 and has played multiple seasons in a very competitive league in Cuba. However, we had the same argument in 2001 when Ichiro Suzuki was named AL Rookie of the Year (and AL MVP) for Seattle at 27, after playing multiple seasons as Japan's biggest star.
Regardless of their international league, the Major Leagues is far different, and far more difficult, than any international league out there. Any player worthy of Rookie of the Year consideration, even if they have played as a professional in other international leagues, should absolutely be considered a "rookie."
Whatever happens over the next few months, Abreu is having one of the greatest power seasons ever by a rookie. And, when the season is over, it just may end up being the best of all time.