If things had gone the way Andrew Abbott had planned, he would have begun his pro career in 2020. He had spent three years -- well, two plus the pandemic-shortened ’20 season -- as one of the best college relievers in the country. Many scouts thought he had the chance to start and, given the right situation, perhaps he would have been given the opportunity to prove that out as he entered pro ball.
But the Draft doesn’t always unfold as planned. The 2020 version was shortened to five rounds and for reasons that still remain somewhat of a mystery, Abbott went undrafted. It wasn’t because he told teams he would go back to school if he didn’t get taken high enough. As Virginia head coach Brian O’Connor said, he had all but said goodbye to the lefty he had come to count on.
“He was 100 percent gone,” O’Connor said. “Crazy stuff happened, he started to fall. It was probably a blessing for him. He comes back to Virginia, he starts. A messed up Draft, I think he was the benefit of it. It turned out to be a great for him. He was more prepared.”
Not that it was all excitement and positivity. O’Connor recalled visiting a visibly dejected Abbott post-Draft in 2020 as they began to make a plan for 2021. No. 1 on that list was to let the southpaw start. Everyone knew he had the ability to do it, but there were a couple of things that had held him back from getting a crack at the rotation earlier.
First was the lack of a third pitch. Abbott was pretty much all fastball and curveball when he came in close out games. The changeup was slowly improving over his time, but it still needed work for him to have success as a starter. The other was his strike-throwing. Abbott walked more than five per nine in 2020 and 2021 combined and that would not allow him to pitch deep into games.
“I drove to his house and talked to him about the next year and what he was going to do,” O’Connor said. “The two things we talked about were: ‘This summer, you need to work on your changeup and master it. And this fall, we’re going to start you, but it has to be more efficient. You can’t try to strike out everybody every time.’
“What he learned was to pitch to contact more. The changeup became a weapon for him. He never asked me to start -- first and foremost, he was a team-first guy and would do anything to help the team be successful -- but that was the right time to do it.”
Instead of having to transition to a starting role in the Minor Leagues, Abbott was able to take a very large step by pitching in Virginia’s weekend rotation in 2021. He topped 100 innings, showing his durability, and cut his walk rate dramatically, down to 2.7 per nine. That landed him in the second round of the 2021 Draft, where the Reds may have ended up with a bargain in signing him for $1.3 million.
When Abbott, MLB Pipeline’s No. 95 prospect, makes his first Major League start on Monday, it’s at a point that’s extremely rare in the player development world, one of the few times when big league need and prospect readiness meet at nearly the exact right time. Abbott has spent a year-plus showing he definitely has the chops to start and had little left to prove in Triple-A, with a 3.05 ERA, 12.7 K/9 and 3.3 BB/9 rates and a .193 batting average against in seven starts with Louisville.
He's become even more confident with that changeup since joining the Reds, a pitch that has missed bats at a 41 percent rate overall this year, according to Synergy. That curve is still a go-to, with hitters managing just a .128 batting average against it this year, but he’s also added an effective slider that misses a ton of bats.
So now the southpaw has a four-pitch mix and he’s followed O’Connor’s advice from that visit in the summer of 2020, continually improving his efficiency and attacking the zone with all of his offerings, a big reason why the Reds felt comfortable calling him up.
He’s transformed into a bona fide starter without giving up the bulldog late-inning reliever mentality. Sure, he manages his energy better, he doesn’t blow it all out for one inning, but if Reds fans want to know what to expect from their latest callup more than anything else, it’s that no one will compete harder than he will.
“In my 20 years here at Virginia, we’ve had a number of really good pitchers,” O’Connor said. “Andrew Abbott, his competitive spirt and his ability to raise his game up to another level, is as good as anyone we’ve had here. His ability to pitch his best at the most important time was as good as it gets.”