There’s no debate about who the best hitter is in the current free-agent class. Aaron Judge just won the American League MVP Award after setting an AL record with 62 homers and leading MLB in a long list of categories. The 6-foot-7 slugger is No. 1, case closed.
But second best? A number of stars can make that claim.
The Big Four free-agent shortstops -- Carlos Correa, Trea Turner, Xander Bogaerts and Dansby Swanson -- All-Star catcher Willson Contreras and center fielder Brandon Nimmo are among the free-agent bats garnering the most attention this offseason. Josh Bell, J.D. Martinez, Michael Brantley, Justin Turner and Cody Bellinger are also available.
However, there’s another free agent who arguably has a stronger case than any of those players. That would be first baseman José Abreu, who just finished a three-year, $50 million deal with the White Sox.
Abreu owns a lifetime 134 OPS+ and is only two years removed from being named the AL MVP of the shortened 2020 season, so calling him a great hitter is not some hot take. But the extent to which he can help a lineup might be obscured by his so-so 2022 stats.
Abreu recorded career lows in homers (15) and slugging percentage (.446) over 157 games last season. One hundred fourteen MLB players had more dingers, including Elvis Andrus, Lane Thomas and both Urías brothers (Luis and Ramón). For a soon-to-be 36-year-old who has been a perennial threat for 25-plus homers in his career, those numbers are a bit concerning on the surface. But if you cut through the actual results and look purely at his hitting skills, you get a better sense of the value he offers.
Consider Abreu’s expected wOBA, which is based on quality of contact, plus strikeouts and walks. The Cuba native ranked 10th in MLB with a .373 xwOBA in 2022, and only one current free agent was better: Judge.
Highest 2022 xwOBA among current free agents
- Aaron Judge: .463
- José Abreu: .373
- Willson Contreras: .364
- Carlos Correa: .363
- Josh Bell: .349
- J.D. Martinez: .349
- Brandon Nimmo: .342
- Justin Turner: .339
- Dansby Swanson: .337
- Trea Turner: .335
Let’s unpack each of the key xwOBA components to see why Abreu is still an elite hitter, despite what last year’s diminished slugging numbers might suggest.
Quality of contact
When we talk about quality of contact, we’re referring to exit velocity and launch angle, and how they intertwine to make up a player’s hitting profile.
Hitters don’t have control over what happens after they put the ball in play, but they can put themselves in position for success by consistently making hard contact, which Statcast defines as any batted ball with an exit velocity of 95+ mph. In 2022, hard-hit balls produced a .488 average and .954 slugging percentage across MLB.
On average, few players hit the ball as hard as Abreu. In 2022:
- He had an average exit velocity of 92.2 mph, which ranked in the 93rd percentile. Abreu’s average exit velocity has ranked in the 89th percentile or higher in each of the past six seasons.
- He had a hard-hit rate of 51.8%, which ranked in the 97th percentile. It was the sixth straight year his hard-hit rate placed in the 88th percentile or better.
- He produced a hard-hit ball 19.8% of the time on a per-swing basis, tied for eighth highest in MLB (Judge was seventh at 19.9%). It was the best mark he’s had in a season during the Statcast era (since 2015).
- He finished with 256 hard-hit balls. Blue Jays first baseman Vladimir Guerrero Jr. was the only hitter with more.
Abreu’s average launch angle dropped a bit in 2022, falling from 10.4 degrees to 8.0 degrees year over year, but his batted-ball profile was otherwise very similar to his norms.
That includes his barrel rate, the percentage of batted balls with the optimal combination of exit velocity and launch angle, typically resulting in homers and extra-base hits. Abreu recorded a 9.5% barrel rate in 2022, while his career mark is 10.0%. His 47 barrels tied him for 30th in MLB last season and were three more than he had in 2021, when he went deep 30 times.
Abreu’s 2022 home run decline appears to be tied to a drop in launch angle on hard-hit balls to the pull side more than anything else. His launch angle on such balls last season was just 0.6 degrees, down from 7.9 degrees from 2015-21. Consequently, only 12 of his 47 barrels came to the pull side in 2022, seven of which were homers.
That said, Abreu hasn’t lost his ability to hit the ball hard when he pulls it. In fact, his 59.1% hard-hit rate on pulled batted balls last season was one of the highest single-season figures of his career. He could be a small tweak away from getting back to hitting those balls in the air instead of on the ground, which would obviously be a boon for his home run total.
It's encouraging that he didn't have an issue elevating the ball on hard contact to the other fields -- his launch angle was 9.6 degrees on hard-hit balls hit straightaway and 16.4 degrees to the opposite field.
Ks + BBs
Another reason Abreu offers such a valuable bat is that he’s not an all-or-nothing-type slugger, so even when his home run output plummeted in 2022, he was still 33% above league average as a hitter (133 OPS+).
Consistency has been a hallmark of Abreu's MLB tenure. The veteran first baseman has been in the Majors for nine years and had a qualified season with an OPS+ of 115 or better in all of them. No other player in that span went 9-for-9.
The 2022 season was one of Abreu’s best from a plate-discipline and contact standpoint, as he recorded the lowest chase rate and second-lowest whiff rate of his career. As a result, his strikeout rate dropped to a career-low 16.2% -- more than six points below the MLB average (22.4%). He walked in 9.1% of his plate appearances as well, the second-highest rate he’s had in a season after 2021 (9.3%).
When you also factor in his ability to produce hard contact on the regular, it’s not much of a surprise that Abreu finished 2022 with a .304 average, raising his career mark to .292.
Given Abreu’s age and defensive limitations, he might not have a long list of suitors. But the team that signs him is going to be adding a guy who remains one of the best hitters in the game, and arguably the best free-agent bat not named Judge. You just have to look past his 2022 power numbers to see it.