Now healthy, José Abreu has become perfect fit for Astros

October 15th, 2023

For the better part of five months, José Abreu was among the least productive hitters in baseball. But he has quickly turned his once-forgettable season into a possibly unforgettable journey as one of the Astros’ leaders in their charge to a seventh consecutive American League Championship Series.

Abreu and the Astros seemed like a perfect fit when the two sides agreed on a three-year deal last offseason. The reigning World Series champs boasted a top-10 offense last year and finished second in the American League in homers. However, Houston was in dire need of more from their first basemen, who compiled a .235/.285/.371 slash line with an 87 wRC+ last year. Their hard-hit rate was 35.5%, the second lowest in the Majors at that position.

The Astros addressed that void with Abreu -- a former MVP, three-time Silver Slugger, a player who had averaged 34 homers through his first nine years in the big leagues, and someone who had finished in the 88th percentile or higher in hard-hit rate through each of the past six years. Plus, with accomplished veterans such as , , and others alongside him, Abreu didn’t need to be a middle-of-the-order savior like he was often with the White Sox.

What could go wrong?

A lot.

If you’ve followed the Astros’ or Abreu’s season in any capacity, you probably have an idea of how rough the majority of this season has been for the 36-year-old slugger. So let this serve as a refresher before we move on to what’s working well now.

Abreu recorded just four extra-base hits -- all doubles -- through his first 33 games. He produced one barrel out of 67 batted balls in May. One!

He finally hit his first homer of the year on May 28, snapping a career-long 50-game homerless drought, and celebrated with a speed run around the bases and a slide into his own dugout.

Even with a solid June that saw him post a .510 slugging percentage and an .821 OPS, Abreu carried some of the worst numbers of his career into August. Entering Aug. 12, his batting average (.234) and on-base percentage (.291) were each about 60 points below his career norms. His slugging percentage (.343) was 157 points off of his career standard.

In terms of wRC+, Abreu’s 76 was not only a step back from what the Astros got from their first basemen in 2022, it was the 10th worst among qualified hitters this year.

And most notably, that loud contact was gone. Abreu had 10 homers in 423 at-bats. His average exit velocity was down a full 3 mph -- 91.9 to 88.9 -- from his career average. That hard-hit rate, which had been north of 45% every year since 2017, had fallen to 39.9%.

What happened? There could have been unquantifiable factors such as Abreu wilting under the self-applied pressure to perform in his first year with a new club that has high expectations. You could point to his increased chase rate as a sign that he’s trying to do too much by going after bad pitches. But Abreu has never really been the paragon of plate discipline; this is the seventh time in the past nine seasons that his chase rate has registered in the 25th percentile or lower.

An easy answer appeared on Aug. 12, when the Astros placed Abreu on the 10-day injured list due to lumbar spine inflammation. He disclosed then that his back had bothered him at points throughout the season, but he didn’t want to use it as an excuse for his performance.

Still, this was notable since Abreu just does not miss time. He hadn’t been on the IL since 2018 and had sat out only 18 games over the past four seasons. He exceeded 150 games played in six of his first eight full seasons. It takes more than a minor ailment to sideline him for an extended period.

Abreu returned to action on Aug. 23, and it sure seems like the injury is what was holding him back all along because since that date, he has looked like a different hitter. Or really, he has looked like the one we’re very familiar with.

Here are three ways Abreu’s results have changed over the past seven weeks.

The hard contact is back

Two weeks after he came off the IL, Abreu had his best game of the season, launching two homers and racking up seven RBIs to complete a three-game road sweep of Houston’s upcoming ALCS opponent, the Rangers. His second homer was a screaming liner that came off his bat at 113.3 mph, his highest exit velocity this year.

Abreu has been hitting pitches on the nose routinely as his hard-hit percentage since his activation is 46.7%. His expected slugging percentage of .593 is up 231 points from his pre-IL days. It also ranks 11th best among all hitters with at least 100 PAs since Aug. 23, postseason included.

Plus, Abreu’s barrel rate has more than doubled, from 6.8% to 16.8%. He has collected more barrels in September and October than he did through the first three months of the season combined.

Abreu barrels through June 30: 13 in 229 batted ball events
Abreu barrels since Sept. 1: 15 in 89 batted ball events

Overall, Abreu owns a stellar .891 OPS with 11 home runs across his previous 34 games.

He is all over breaking pitches

Abreu was a high-quality hitter against breaking pitches from 2020-22. Fifty-four batters accumulated at least 400 plate appearances ending on such pitches during that span, and he ranked among the top 10 in homers (23) and expected weighted on-base average (.337). His expected slugging during this period was .452; the league average was .343.

Doing damage against those pitches -- sliders, curveballs, sweepers, etc. -- did not come easily for Abreu prior to his time on the injured list. Afterward, however, he began pounding those pitches.

Abreu vs. breaking pitches before Aug. 23:
Slash line: .198/.213/.309 in 169 plate appearances
xwOBA: .224
Home runs: 4
Barrels: 6

Abreu vs. breaking pitches since Aug. 23
Slash line: .276/.323/.603 in 62 plate appearances
xwOBA: .401
Home runs: 6
Barrels: 7

Abreu’s longest career postseason homer came off a breaking pitch in Game 3 of the ALDS as he mashed a sweeper from Twins starter a projected 442 feet. He would hit a 440-foot dinger later in the victory, making Abreu the first player in the Statcast era (since 2015) to record multiple home runs of 440 feet in the same postseason game.

He is in the zone on pitches in the zone

Abreu’s late-season surge does have its warts. For one, he is still expanding his strike zone far too often. Even with his recent success, he posted a .37.7% chase rate in September and an extremely high 48.6% rate through five games this month. That’s doing opposing pitchers a favor because, regardless of pitch type, they aren't finding much success when they land something in the zone.

Abreu is batting .318 with a 1.042 OPS on in-zone pitches since Aug. 23. His expected slugging and xwOBA totals are among the best baseball and, as you might imagine, are a far cry from his earlier numbers.

He's in good company, too. There are only six players with a minimum 75 plate appearances ending on in-zone pitches who have a better xSLG or xwOBA than Abreu since Aug. 23: , , , , and Alvarez.

Abreu has swung at 66.5% of in-zone pitches throughout his career, but he logged in-zone swing rates of 65% or less in all but one of the season's first five full months. That bottomed out at 61.9% in July. Now healthy, Abreu has gotten more aggressive, with 67.5% in-zone swing rates in September and October. And when you're making this kind of contact, why not swing away as often as possible?

It took a long while, but Abreu has turned into that perfect fit for the Astros at the right time. With eight more victories, he will be fitted for his first World Series championship ring.