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Slow Starters, Part II. Jose Abreu

Just how bad is it? Is there any hope, or is this it?

MLB: Philadelphia Phillies at Houston Astros Thomas Shea-USA TODAY Sports

The biggest move the Astros made in the post-season was signing slugging first baseman Jose Abreu for three years, $19.5 million annually.

This move was widely considered a win for the Astros, but judging from the current perspective, it looks like one of the biggest blunders in franchise history.

Sure, there were critics at the time. Some looked at Abreu’s declining home run production, down to 15 in 2022, the lowest number of his career, well below the nearly 30 a year he usually hit in his career with the White Sox.

But hey, his BA and OBP were near record highs, and his wRC+ was above career average as well. It looked like that, at least, we were getting another prime Yuli Gurriel.

But my oh my. The career 131 wRC+ hitter is currently the worst first baseman in baseball, hitting 48 wRC+ and no homers, with a -0.8 fWAR. At this rate, he would cost the Astros 3.2 more games for the whole season than whoever they have in AAA to replace him.

At least Old Yuli has a positive fWAR rating in Miami this year and three home runs while playing part-time. Yuli was considered expendable after last season’s -0.9 fWAR, almost identical to the level of loserness that Abreu has achieved in less than one-quarter of the season this year. It seems they need a new statistic for Abreu: LBR—Losses Below Replacement.

So what happened to Abreu?

He’s just a slow starter, they say. A little, but nothing like this. At no point since 2017 has he started below a 111 wRC+.

Some might say it was bad luck, but so far, that doesn’t explain it very much. His BABIP at .294 is about right. And sure, Statcast says his xwOBA should be .278 instead of a wOBA of just .241, but even that is still pathetic.

In every major Statcast metric Abreu is way down:

Current EV: 87.2.......................Career EV: 91.2

Current maxEV: 111.7.................Career maxEV: 117.9

Current LA: 7.8..........................Career LA: 10.3

Current Barrel%: 4.9%..............Career Barrel%: 9.4%

Current Hard Hit%: 36.3%........Career Hard Hit%: 45.8%

So has Abreu just suddenly aged ten years in one off-season? Will he be the worst first baseman in baseball for the rest of his three years in Houston?

There is reason to hope that he can again be reasonably productive. I believe his issues have more to do with mindset and confidence than physical deterioration. I base that on his plate discipline numbers. When a player is swinging at bad pitches and watching good ones, that has more to do with confidence than physical decline.

Abreu is swinging at pitches outside the zone almost 7% more often than last year and about 4% more than his career average. Meanwhile, he is swinging almost 4% less than his career average at pitches inside the zone. Consequently, Abreu is finding himself down 0-1 in the count almost five percentage points more compared to last year and more than in any previous season. His number of called first strikes is also 2.5 percentage points higher than last year.

So it appears that Abreu is getting behind in counts and then swinging defensively, resulting in strikeouts or weak contact. His K% is 22.4%, 2.6 points above his career average, and 6.2 points above last year’s numbers. His BB% is 5.6%, about two points below his career average and 3.5 points below last season.

In general, these numbers provide evidence for what the eye sees whenever Abreu comes to bat: he looks lost. Is this a terminal condition?

For what it’s worth, the projection services think not. They variously project that Abreu will finish the season with anywhere from a 107 to 117 wRC+. That means he will have to do some pretty good hitting from here on out to get there.

With the current pitching shortage, let’s hope so.

By the way. Will someone with some free time and great research skills try to figure out when was the last time a team had a cleanup hitter who had gone the first 143 PAs of the season without a home run?

*All stats prior to Monday’s game.