In 2005, Bobby Abreu hit a remarkable 41 homers in the Home Run Derby, including a Peter Alonso-esque 24 dingers in the first round. That kind of power was nothing new for Abreu, who total 24 homers that year.
Despite winning that year’s derby, Abreu became a footnote for a curse that bears his name: the myth that participating in the event “breaks” a player. In a strange way, the 2005 Derby is a microcosm for Abreu’s career - sustained brilliance undercut by unreasonable expectations. Fans called him a curse, and argued he was scared of outfield walls. In truth, we didn’t really appreciate the greatness of Bobby Abreu while we were privileged enough to see it.
How good was Bobby Abreu? Plucked by the Tampa Bay Devil Rays from the Astros as part of their expansion draft, the team immediately dealt him to Philadelphia for baseball immortal Kevin Stocker.
Abreu, by the way, would be far and away the Rays’ all time leader in WAR had he stayed with Tampa Bay, but their loss was Philadelphia’s gain. In 1998, Abreu established himself as a bona fide star with a .312/.409/.497 slash line and 135 wRC+ en route to a 6.5 fWAR season. That was the first of seven consecutive 5+ fWAR seasons, a span during which he averaged a .308/.416/.525 batting line and 143 wRC+. To put it another way, Mookie Betts this year hit .295/.391/.524, with a 135 wRC+. Bobby Abreu essentially hit like 2019 Mookie Betts for 7 consecutive years during his peak.
Abreu’s claim to fame was his combination of drawing a ton of walks and having extra-base power. His career walk rate of 14.6% doesn’t do him justice. Since 1980, among all players with at least 5,000 plate appearances, Abreu ranks 18th in BB%, right behind Mike Schmidt. Since 1950, nearly 2,500 players - 2,489, to be exact - have had at least 1,000 plate appearances in the major leagues. Of them, Abreu ranks thirteenth of walks, with 1,476, again just behind Schmidt.
How about that power?
Since 1980, among all players with at least 5,000 plate appearances, Abreu is twelfth in doubles, sandwiched between future Hall of Famer Miguel Cabrera and current Hall of Famer Ivan Rodriguez. Overall, Abreu is 36th in hits during that period, with 2,470, and 25th in stolen bases with an even 400. His 129 wRC+ ranks him 54th, three points behind Wade Boggs.
Let’s look at this a different way.
Of all players in the new millennium (2000-present), Abreu ranks 31st in WAR, sixth in stolen bases, 17th in wSB, tenth in doubles, fourth in walks, 27th in hits, tenth in BB%, 13th in OBP, 16th in wRAA, and 30th in wRC+. In other words, Abreu is one of the best hitters of this century by both counting and rate stats. What’s most amazing about that set of statistics is that Abreu managed to fill up this century’s leaderboards despite the fact that it doesn’t include his brilliant 1998 and 1999 seasons, and the fact that he hasn’t played since 2014.
In some ways, Abreu’s candidacy is a litmus test for how Joey Votto might be considered a decade from now - except that Abreu might arguably have the better case. Abreu was Votto-ing the league before it was fashionable. The original poster child for hitting the ball hard and avoiding pop-ups, Abreu had a miniscule 3.0% IFFB% during his career, the seventh best in baseball during that span. He also was adept at hitting the ball hard to all fields, with a 29.7% OPPO%, 17th best in baseball during his career. What made Abreu so dangerous, however, was his ability to avoid weak contact. For his career, Joey Votto has just an 11% SOFT%, fifth-best since 1980. In sixth is Bobby Abreu, at 11.1%.
What are Abreu’s warts?
Despite his impressive offensive career, his defense was at best a mixed bag and borderline unplayable towards the end of his career. The result was a string of 2-WAR seasons to conclude his career that masked just how brilliant his offense was at the time. By Jay Jaffe’s JAWS metric, he comes up just short, at 50.8 compared to the average of 56.8. That said, Abreu finished with more doubles, triples, stolen bases, walks, and career fWAR than Vladimir Guerrero, who was widely considered a shoo-in and was a worse defender than Abreu (and by not a little, either). Abreu bests Hall of Famer Dave Winfield in walks, BB%, stolen bases, doubles, wRC+, fWAR, and is within four points in ISO; in other words, Abreu was basically Winfield with more speed and walks. Abreu isn’t as good as Al Kaline, but it isn’t a pushover either; Kaline’s 134 wRC+ is just 5 points clear of Abreu, and Abreu has Kaline beat in doubles, triples, walks, and stolen bases.
Still not convinced? Let me compare Abreu to one of his peers who’s already in the Hall of Fame.
The Mystery Outfielder, you probably guessed, is none other than Ken Griffey, Jr. - and Abreu’s offensive game compares to that of the erstwhile Mariners superstar quite favorably. Yes, Griffey had more power, but Abreu drew more walks and stole more bases, and as their career wRC+ and Offensive Runs Above Average figures show, they were roughly equally valuable offensive players.
Now, this is not to say that Abreu was as good a player as Junior Griffey; Abreu didn’t handle a corner spot nearly as well as Griffey handled center field. That said, if you believe that Griffey Jr.’s bat alone was enough to qualify him for a spot in Cooperstown, Abreu belongs too. Offensively, they were, essentially, equally valuable. And that makes Abreu irrefutably one of the best offensive players of all time, worthy of immortality in the Hall of Fame.