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José Abreu and the case of a misunderstood decline

José Abreu spent the past two seasons in a seeming decline, only now it appears obvious he wasn’t declining at all but rather tinkering with his approach at the plate

Chicago White Sox v Chicago Cubs Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

To your common outsider, this past offseason represented a shift for the Chicago White Sox. They appeared to finally be all-in on their youth movement as well as making the moves and spending the money necessary to put a winning structure in place around their young potential stars. Most of the focus turned to the young Cuban, Luis Robert. Thus far he has been deserving of that focus and then some. Robert has all the makings not just of a star, but of someone who will be a legitimately great baseball player for many years to come.

To the surprise of some the White Sox made one other big move involving a Cuban player after the 2019 season. They could have let José Abreu walk away in free agency or even given him the same one-year deal they had done the past three seasons. Instead, the Sox inked their first baseman to a three-year deal that left a good portion of the baseball world scratching their collective heads. Most of the baseball world decided the Abreu signing was one thing and one thing only, team owner Jerry Reinsdorf rewarding a team favorite and well-respected veteran with a contract that would not in any way stop the team from continuing to improve in other areas.

Those who questioned the move were right to do so. Since the end of 2016 the former Elefantes de Cienfuegos star had been on a downward trajectory. Most of that could be chalked up to age, Abreu ended the 2019 season at the age of 32, having played 16 seasons of professional baseball already. That’s 16 years of spring training action, regular-season games, the occasional playoff appearance, and then some sort of off-season regimen. Being a professional baseball player takes a toll on the human body, some start to wilt sooner than others. That’s why it was so easy to look at the Sox signing an aging first baseman who was both a fielding and baserunning detriment to the team and think of it as nothing more than a reward for his years of service to Reinsdorf.

Such a take would be valid, but it also overlooks the changes that Abreu has been making to his swing the past couple of seasons. He’s always hit the ball hard, his career Hard Hit% stands at 44.4. Throughout 2018-19 and into 2020 he has put even more emphasis on hitting the ball hard. He’s seen his Exit Velocity climb from 90.6 in 2017 to 91.3, 92.1, and now 93.7. His Hard Hit% has also climbed in accordance with the added miles per hour on the balls coming off of his baseball bat. In 2017 and 2018 he posted an identical rate of 45.2. Last year that number jumped to 48.2, and in 2020 it has jumped again to 56.5. The Cuban slugger’s Hard Hit% and Exit Velocity both rank in the top 3% of the league.

Is it possible that while most of us spent the past couple of years pondering the decline of the Cuban import the reality was that he was tinkering with his swing to produce more power? A surefire way to keep yourself on the diamond as your fielding skills drop off is to hit among the best in the league. If you can’t run the basepaths all that well then you make sure that you are hitting the ball hard enough so that your lack of speed isn’t going to be an issue. We have the evidence that shows Abreu has hit the ball harder every year for the past three seasons. At the same time has improved his Barrel% from 9.5 in 2017 to 15.2 in 2020. It is clear that Abreu hasn’t just figured something things out, he spent the last few seasons actively working to figure out how to improve his bat speed, where he makes contact, and how hard that contact ends up being.

Abreu finished 2019 with a slash line of .284/.330/.503 and a 108 DRC+ that was good enough for 0.2 BWARP. He was a slightly above-average hitter, but so deficient on defense and the basepaths that he was almost a net negative for the South Siders. While Baseball Prospectus has yet to release their BWARP for 2020, we do know that Abreu has improved his DRC+ to 152 and his slash line to .322/.365/.669. Abreu sure as heck isn’t walking more than usual, 5.6% is right around his career average, and that means he’s adding all that extra beef to his DRC+ number simply by virtue of how hard he is hitting the baseball and how many of those hard-hit baseballs deserve to have a positive outcome. Abreu currently sits in the Top 10 of the league in DRC+, and though his defense and baserunning are still an issue I wouldn’t be surprised if he ends up near the top of the league in BWARP as well.

The start of Luis Robert’s season has been fantastic and something to behold. As someone who loves watching Serie Nacional de Béisbol, it has been an absolute pleasure to watch Robert succeed. All the same, it’s been even more enjoyable to watch the veteran Abreu prove every single one of us wrong and show that he never was declining, he was just working on changing his game. His new game is finally here, and once again José Abreu should be among the most feared hitters in all of baseball.