It's hard to know exactly what cliche to use when describing Jose Abreu. The term "monster" comes quickly to mind considering his size and power, but you'd be forgiven for calling him a "titan", "terror" or "Terminator" as well. Really, any common descriptor that conveys unholy strength would probably get the point across.
The 27-year-old is quite simply one of the most impressive hitters in baseball. In his first year, Abreu managed a .317/.383/.581 line with a 169 OPS+, the second-best number of any rookie to qualify for the batting title. The only man who beat him? Shoeless Joe Jackson in 1911.
To be fair, Abreu was older than most rookie phenoms and had already been identified as one of the better hitters in the world prior to appearing in the major leagues.Even so, he had arguably the most explosive offensive debut in recent memory, which says a lot considering we live in the Mike Trout era.
One thing that separates the Cuban first baseman from his slugging peers is his unremarkable walk rate. Last season Abreu walked 8.2% of the time, just over the league average (7.6%). For players with his power, that's unusual: Among the 27 hitters with at least 25 home runs in 2014 Abreu's 51 walks ranked 23rd.
Abreu likes to swing the bat. His swing rate of 55.2% ranked 10th among qualified hitters last year, and his outside-the-zone swing rate of 41.6% ranked seventh. A look at his Brooks Baseball Zone Profile shows he has no qualms offering at pitches anywhere and everywhere.
One location that stands out in this picture is the area below the strike zone. Abreu likes to take his cuts on low pitches, regardless of whether they are balls or strikes.
That tendency has led him to be a league leader in a very specific category: swinging and missing on blocked pitches. This category — made available by the magic of Baseball Savant — is a good estimator at which batters swing and miss the most at balls in the dirt. It is inexact, because some balls in the dirt are not actually blocked and become wild pitches, and those are not counted. Nevertheless, it provides a good metric by which to measure a hitter's discipline.
Consider the leaderboard below on batters who swung and missed on blocked pitchers to be a very good guess of which players fished for the most pitches in the dirt, rather than a precise measurement.
|Player||Swinging Strike (Blocked)||Percentage of Total Pitches|
Abreu is head and shoulders above the rest. In fact, prior to his debut in 2014, the highest "Swinging Strike (Blocked)" total of the Baseball Savant era (since 2008) was 42 by Adam Jones the previous season. It's probably fair to say that Abreu is the foremost swinger for pitches in the dirt in the last few years.
It's hard to know whether to attribute this tendency to some kind of pitch recognition error, or simply a hyper-aggressive approach. Either way, whatever Abreu is doing is working. It's just worth noting that with every massive home run there's likely a time where he's made to look foolish.
Not nearly enough of Abreu's career is in the books to know whether fishing for pitches he has no business swinging at will always be part of his game. For now, it appears that this ugly habit is a byproduct of the kind of his attacking style at the plate, a style that may be necessary for him to be successful.
Abreu is an incredible talent, but he's not without his blemishes. Taking bad swings at pitches well below the strike zone is one of his minor flaws. Last year, it resulted in 31 strikeouts so it's not nothing, but it certainly isn't everything either.
It appears that once in a while, Jose Abreu is going to be made to appear downright awful a pitch in the dirt. Considering how often he makes pitchers' vain attempts to get him out look silly, that seems pretty fair.
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Nick Ashbourne is an Editor for Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @Nick_Ashbourne.