One of the key revelations for the Astros en route to their second World Series championship was the emergence of Bryan Abreu. Once upon a time, Brent Strom, the beloved former pitching coach, viewed Abreu as a future starter. The allure was easy to understand as the right-hander possesses a pair of devastating breaking pitches — a slider and curveball — with a fastball that could reach the upper nineties or even flirt with triple digits. But maddening command issues with his fastball prevented Abreu from fulfilling Strom’s initial vision for him as a starter. Thankfully for Abreu, it all clicked last season when allowed only 13 earned runs in 60 1⁄3 innings (1.94 ERA) while increasing his strikeout by roughly 13% compared to his 2021 season. He became arguably the club’s most dynamic reliever in the process.
In terms of his arsenal, Abreu adopted more of a two-pitch approach, as I noted here almost a year ago, with his four-seam and slider accounting for 89% of his pitch usage last season compared to his past campaigns. His curveball was utilized a bit more against left-handed than right-handed hitters, but still under 20% of the time in either situation barely topping out slightly over 10% against right-handed hitters. Fastball command remains a bit of an issue; however, as a reliever, he is able to dial up the velocity up to 100 MPH to help overcome this lack of pinpoint command. But the pitch that has made Abreu successful in the past calendar year is without a doubt his slider. I can see why as opposing hitters are only hitting .160/.245/.216 against it since the start of the 2022 season through April 1 of this year.
Abreu’s slider is noteworthy for a couple of different reasons. For one, it is a quality complement to his fastball. Or, honestly, the other way around as his fastball is a quality complement to his slider. While fastballs, or some sort of variant, are nearly universal for all pitchers, they aren’t always a pitcher’s best offering. This has historically been the case for Abreu as his slider is the only one of his pitches with a usage rate higher than 37% per season since his major league debut in 2019.
As it pertains to how his slider operates, the release points differ a bit on the horizontal plane, with Abreu’s four-seam released more towards the third base side of the rubber. The two pitches are more similar on the vertical release points. Makes it a bit more difficult for opposing hitters to pinpoint exactly what Abreu is throwing out of his hand. I had the same thought last year and I am glad to see it had some merit, at least according to my relatively untrained eyes.
Next, Abreu’s slider had one of the highest whiff rates in baseball last season at 51.3% out of all pitchers with at least fifty plate appearances as the qualifier. Only twelve pitchers had a higher whiff rate than Abreu last season with the pitch and quite a few, including teammate Ryan Pressly, are considered the best reliever on their respective staff. And, frankly, I enjoy sliders with high whiff rates. Plus, they’re just extremely fun to watch.
Another item that caught my attention with Abreu’s slider, especially now that we have a full season's worth of data, is how its movement compares to his contemporaries. See this handy graph below from Statcast that illustrates horizontal and vertical movement versus the average in 2022. It basically shows how much break is present on the horizontal plane and how much rise — or drop — on the vertical plane.
The yellow dot with a larger blue circle around it is Abreu’s slider. As one can see, he demonstrates a good amount of horizontal break to the first base side of the plate in addition to a noticeable “drop”. His slider is an outlier in this regard as most illustrated above are usually clustered between five inches in either direction on the vertical plane. There aren’t many sliders with more “drop” in addition to break than Abreu’s version. That kind of movement profile is noteworthy and why opposing hitters can only flail at it when utilized correctly.
With his slider leading the way, even with some regression involved, Abreu gives the Astros a terrific one-two punch in the backend of the bullpen with Pressly. There is All-Star closer material here with Abreu, and if Pressly happens to miss any time, I have little doubt that the former couldn’t step in admirably. Cristian Javier’s ascension as a starter may have kept some of the spotlights away from Abreu’s development, but his development is one more reason why Houston is projected to remain a contender, at least for the short term.