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Is That You, José Abreu?

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MLB: Houston Astros at St. Louis Cardinals Joe Puetz-USA TODAY Sports

We’ve all known José Abreu would likely experience a decline in skills at some point during his three-year contract with the Astros. I mean, it wasn’t difficult to understand as the veteran first baseman is already 36 and is under contract through his age-38 season. Warning signs were already present, especially in last season’s second half. Plus, time is undefeated. The decline comes for us all, sooner or later.

The question when Abreu signed the three-year pact wasn’t so much about a decline, but the potential severity of it. With most of his value tied to his bat, any meaningful tail-off at the plate holds ramifications. My initial hope was that any diminishment of skills would be gradual, especially during the first two seasons. If his production cratered in the third year of the contract, then that is simply the cost of doing business to keep open your competitive window. With Jose Altuve and Alex Bregman under contract only through 2024, along with the fresh glow from another championship in 2022, it made sense to address one of the weaker positions on the roster in the offseason.

However, we’ve already seen what could happen if Abreu isn’t hitting, and it wasn’t a tenable situation. A notoriously slow starter throughout his career, Abreu’s early season struggles in 2023 hit differently. For one, it was much more prolonged. Below are his numbers through the first 50 games every season since his debut in 2014.

José Abreu, First 50 Games

2020 219 38 68 13 0 17 0.332 0.374 0.644 1.018
2014 214 31 50 13 1 17 0.255 0.308 0.592 0.900
2019 215 24 52 13 0 12 0.263 0.316 0.510 0.826
2021 210 27 48 7 1 11 0.270 0.357 0.506 0.863
2017 216 32 59 11 1 10 0.295 0.347 0.510 0.857
2018 220 28 61 19 0 9 0.308 0.368 0.540 0.909
2015 215 26 54 9 2 9 0.274 0.335 0.477 0.812
2022 216 25 48 11 0 7 0.255 0.347 0.426 0.773
2016 221 19 49 9 1 6 0.247 0.312 0.394 0.706
2023 208 13 41 7 0 0 0.214 0.269 0.250 0.519

Abreu’s production in 2023 through his first 50 games sticks out like a sore thumb. The precipitous drop in power was particularly alarming. A measly 22.1% hard-hit rate was the seventh lowest among all qualified hitters. He was swinging more at pitches thrown outside of the strike zone. Abreu’s overall approach was difficult to watch and led to more instances than not when he looked all out of sorts.

There was something different about this year’s slow start that was conveyed in the results. It is one thing when results dip across a smaller sample, but the underlying data indicates better days ahead. It is another when the underlying data also looks suboptimal, hence the concern about Abreu.

But Abreu has a history of turning his performance around, usually once the weather warms up. It may have only taken some extra time in 2023 to get him up to speed. Since May 28, when he hit his first home run of the season, Abreu’s numbers are respectable.

Since May 28, prior to July 3: .284/.326/.500, 6 HR, 124 wRC+

While his outside swing rate remains elevated compared to past seasons, Abreu’s stance and swing look less chaotic. As noted here by Chandler Rome of The Athletic in June, the first baseman has adjusted his stance, specifically with his back leg, to clean up how much movement he had in the box and to help his bat speed. I can’t argue that he appears more fluid than before.

Not only does Abreu’s plate appearances look better as of late, but the quality of his contact has also improved. While his overall hard-hit rate remains below what was expected, his recent performance is a positive trend to monitor. Hopefully, it has staying power as the Astros wait for the return of Yordan Alvarez.

For the past five weeks, Abreu has become a competent hitter again. His overall stats for the entire season won’t reflect it, which speaks to how poorly he has hit up to May 28, but his improvement has helped this lineup navigate Yordan Alvarez’s absence a little better than expected. The pressing question is whether this uptick in performance will continue as the Astros attempt to close the gap between themselves and the Rangers.