Brent Strom seemed to be one of the first to see it.
During spring training in 2020, the celebrated ex-Astros pitching coach raved about Bryan Abreu’s potential. There was work to be done, but purely in terms of talent, Strom was all-in on Abreu:
“I will expend all my energy I can to make this guy an eventual starter. That doesn’t mean he won’t break with us as a reliever. I think he’s going to be a 180, 200-inning guy as he grows and gets going.”
“I think this guy can be an exceptional major league starting pitcher.”
The quotes, from a story by the Houston Chronicle’s Chandler Rome, encapsulated Strom’s investment in the young righty, who was coming off a 2019 season where he made his major-league debut out of the Astros bullpen, allowing one run across 8 2⁄3 innings while registering a monstrous 40.6 percent strikeout rate in the process.
2020 would be a lost season for Abreu and 2021 proved more frustrating than productive, but in 2022, the Astros’ flamethrowing 25-year-old has broken out.
He’s not the front-line starter that Strom had envisioned, but halfway through the season, Abreu has been one of the most effective arms out of the Houston bullpen, yielding a 2.01 ERA (2.34 FIP) in 31 1⁄3 innings, complete with a 33.6 percent K rate, just one home run allowed and some elite peripherals.
Several weeks ago, TCB’s Cody Poage wrote about Abreu, noting his marked increase in velocity as well as detailing his altered release point which had become more compact, indicating a tangible development in mechanical consistency — something that had been eluding Abreu.
Throwing significantly harder alone is a big positive, but it seems that tightening up his release point has enabled Abreu to unleash his dynamite upper-80s slider, which has a remarkable whiff rate near 50 percent. Among all relievers’ sliders, Abreu’s is seventh in whiffs.
Aside from generating an abundance of swings and misses, Abreu’s slide piece has induced weak contact as well, as evidenced by a .218 xSLG. In fact, it’s yet to be barreled.
In terms of throwing strikes, Abreu is still struggling to minimize free passes. His double-digit walk rate of 2021 has remained mostly unchanged, but unlike last year, his lackluster control hasn’t impeded his ability to collect punchouts in 2022:
What’s been the difference this year? Getting ahead early and often.
In 2021, Abreu’s True F-Strike rate was an abysmal 34.2 percent, far below the 49.9 percent league average. In 2022, however, his percentage is now on the other side of the line at 51.1 percent.
It’s been additionally beneficial to get considerably more chases out of the zone:
The Astros bullpen enters Tuesday with the lowest ERA in baseball. Understandably, Ryan Pressly, Rafael Montero, Héctor Neris and Ryne Stanek have garnered the most attention, as Dusty Baker’s late-inning quartet has received the lion’s share of high-leverage work.
The success of the relief corps as a whole is largely why Abreu’s breakout 2022 has been somewhat overshadowed, and it hasn’t helped that he’s second-to-last among Astros relievers in terms of FanGraphs’ Average Leverage Index (pLI) metric, meaning he hasn’t appeared in many pivotal situations.
Astros average leverage index (1.00 is average)
But be that as it may, it doesn’t diminish what Abreu has accomplished.
In what is one of the top bullpens in the major leagues, he possesses the highest strikeout rate, the best strikeouts-minus-walks percentage and the lowest SIERA. What’s more, he’s second in ground-ball rate. Though there is an apparent pecking order late in games, it’s possible that Abreu’s ability to both miss bats and keep the ball in the ballpark could compel Baker to use him more in high-leverage spots going forward.
Strom’s ex-pupil won’t materialize into a staff ace as he’d hoped, but based on Abreu’s tremendous first-half results and verifiable progress developmentally, turning into a relief ace could be in the cards.