Raise your hand if you had Bryan Abreu third in innings pitched by an Astros reliever at 19 1⁄3 frames on May 26. Now, put it down, you liar. Or, perhaps, you’re a time traveler. If the latter, could we travel back to Game 7 of the World Series back in 2019? Please and thank you.
Seriously, though, one of the more exciting developments this season is Abreu’s ascent up the bullpen pecking order for the Astros. That ascent was made possible partially by a combination of Ryan Pressly’s recent IL stint, Pedro Báez’s velocity dropping like the NASDAQ, and Phil Maton losing the password to access his 2021 postseason form. In other words, Abreu was tasked with picking up some of that slack. It also helps when the average velocity on his four-seam fastball jumps by roughly 2.5 miles per hour, placing him in the 98th percentile in baseball.
The four-seam velocity jump is arguably the most notable difference in Abreu’s profile when past seasons compared to 2022. If he qualified by innings pitched, his 2.5 miles per hour increase would rank among the highest in baseball in year-to-year change. This increased velocity on his four-seam also pairs well with his slider, arguably the best pitch in his arsenal when reviewing his Statcast numbers.
But this velocity change isn’t the only difference to take note of. First, Abreu has virtually scrapped his curveball altogether, with its usage rate dropping from 17.4 percent in 2021 to 0.9 percent this year. His sinker has become extinct. He has fully embraced a two-pitch approach by throwing his slider more often again as he did in past seasons, but he has paired it now with his four-seam fastball. If you recall, his four-seam wasn’t a key component in his arsenal until last season, when he threw it 43.3 percent of the time compared to 19.7 percent in 2020.
Entering today’s action, the right-hander has thrown both pitches at the same rate — 49.3 percent. But his usage rates depend on the handedness of the hitter as he throws his four-seam 54.7 percent of the time against lefties and his slider at 54.5 percent against right-handers. However, he still maintains a fairly close split between the two offerings, no matter the handedness.
There is also how Abreu is pitching. First, an overlay generally shows the differences between 2021 and 2022. For consistency’s sake, both pitches shown below are four-seam fastballs.
At first glance, we see the right-hander is positioned more towards the center — or third base side — of the pitching rubber in one half of the overlay. That would be his positioning in 2022, with his positioning in 2021 being closer to the first base side of the mound. Also, look at where his glove is located before his windup. Last season, Abreu’s glove stayed at roughly belt level, while in 2022, we’ve seen his glove stay close to the letters and remain there. However, that adjustment from Abreu appears somewhat inconsistent based on the game you watch. There are instances where he maintains the glove at letter height while others are closer to his belt.
More important, however, is the change in Abreu’s release points, specifically how closely aligned the vertical release points on both his four-seam fastball and slider have become.
As I stated earlier, it appears that Abreu’s four-seam fastball and slider complement each other quite well this season. By adjusting his release point, even if isolated to the vertical plane, he made it more difficult for opposing hitters to pick up on the difference between the two pitches coming out of Abreu’s hand. For example, look at how similar both offerings look when he releases them. Hitters, in turn, cannot quickly determine what is coming. For a slider with considerable movement and overall higher velocity, this newfound release point deception has been vital for Abreu.
Overall, Abreu’s improvement cannot likely be attributed to only one noticeable change, such as increased velocity, as we see with some pitchers. There are multitudes to his adjustments, including release points, pitch usage, how he sets up on the mound, and other areas that I am sure I didn’t explore in this piece. I am excited to see how he continues to pitch this season, as his continued development could pay massive dividends by the season’s end.