On the path to closing, Abreu thriving as Astros' setup man

October 15th, 2023

HOUSTON -- There is no shortage of praise within the Astros’ clubhouse for reliever .

His teammates all agree that Abreu has some of the best stuff they’ve ever seen. Catch partner Phil Maton called Abreu’s command of his slider inside and outside of the strike zone special. His coaches and fellow relievers lauded the mental growth that has allowed Abreu to harness and execute his stuff in high-leverage situations.

What do all those attributes describe? Someone with the ability to be an elite closer.

“I think he's one of the best relievers in the game,” Ryan Pressly said on Tuesday. “I don't think people talk about him enough. When he first got to the big leagues, we always knew that he had the physical capability of doing everything, but the mental part was the hardest part that you have to overcome when you get up here.

“Once he started figuring that out, he's turned into the player that he is right now. It's pretty impressive what he's done.”

Pressly, the Astros’ current closer, is under contract for two more years (with a mutual option in 2025). Abreu said he hasn't discussed the possibility of closing for the Astros out of respect for someone he considers a mentor.

After all, Abreu is more than comfortable in his current role as one of the best setup men in the Majors. Since the All-Star break, the right-hander has also been the best reliever in baseball: allowing just one run on July 15 and posting a 27 2/3-inning scoreless streak since, the longest by a reliever in MLB this season.

In a career-high 72 innings pitched this season, Abreu recorded a career-low ERA (1.75) with a strikeout rate (34.8%) in the 98th percentile among all pitchers.

“The setup man is actually a lot of times more important than the closer,” manager Dusty Baker said. “Pressly was the setup man prior to him being the closer. And they told me that he, most of the time, got the toughest duty of the order.”

Abreu’s stuff has always been there. But it took belief from former pitching coach Brent Strom, years of tinkering with mechanics with Minor League pitching instructor Erick Abreu and a maturation from the now-26-year-old to find the consistency he preaches.

Abreu, who had to pick between baseball and basketball while growing up in the Dominican Republic, still remembers a moment where his big league dreams started to become a reality: In Spring Training 2019, he met one of his childhood idols, Justin Verlander.

The veteran, upon seeing the 6-foot-1 youngster and hearing about his basketball past, picked Abreu to be his teammate for a 2-on-2 pickup game.

“My first year here [in 2021, also Abreu’s first full season], he was still a kid,” fellow reliever Ryne Stanek said. “He had all the stuff in the world. Big-time stuff. But he had moments where he shined, and then had moments where he had to figure some things out.”

Abreu embraced routine as a way to figure it out. Maton described him “spraying the ball a bit” when the two first became throwing partners. But Abreu put an emphasis on being mentally ready to go before playing catch every day, and it has paid off not only for Maton during catch but also in high-leverage situations.

“Now, it’s just this really clean, professional game to catch,” Maton said. “It’s all translated to the mound.”

Abreu hasn’t allowed a run in 14 2/3 innings during the last two postseasons. His ability to neutralize left-handed hitters makes him a valuable option for a Houston bullpen without a southpaw reliever.

“It all starts at the beginning of the day with the routine we have,” Abreu said. “So when the moment shows up, we just breathe and trust everything we’ve been doing this whole year.”