José Abreu, 2020 Fantasy Deep Dive

As an attorney, I spend most of my days writing. So what do I want to do when I get home? Write more, of course. That’s why I’ll be writing for Razzball too now. I know what you’re thinking: what a fantastic introduction. My only response is I’d prefer to let my work speak for itself.

I’ve known for quite some time I wanted to write about José Abreu first this offseason. I usually lean toward discussing hitters anyway, but Abreu’s lackluster 2019 has knocked him down draft boards and there’s just too much value to ignore. Indeed, even noted smart person Tristan H. Cockroft has Abreu ranked 126th for 2020.

Abreu had an NFBC ADP of 87.2 entering last season’s drafts, and 44.1 the season before. But his 2019 wasn’t actually all that bad: .284 AVG/ 85 R/ 33 HR/ 123 RBI/ 2 SB. And he’s one of the most consistent players in baseball. Besides an injury-shortened 2018 — in which he nevertheless maintained a nice pace — Abreu had 5 straight seasons of hitting .284+ with at least 25 home runs (four of which were over 30 HR) and 100 RBI. For that reason, even as he enters his age-33 season, I’m not concerned with the floor, which is generally what I look for in the early rounds.

No, my guess is Cockroft and others have discounted Abreu because they’re worried about the ceiling. In fairness to them, with such consistency comes lowered expectations for a breakout, particularly as a player ages. But I think Abreu can outperform expectations. Let me show you why:

That beauty made it to the seats above the second deck. Now, I acknowledge relying on a GIF for fantasy analysis is extraordinarily lazy. Yet, Abreu destroying baseballs is characteristic of his fantasy profile. Sure, his 33 homers are tied for 33rd in the league, and probably not what you were hoping for out of your first baseman in a season where balls flew out at a historic pace. But he’s one of the few talents who crushed balls before it was popular.

Beyond this, there are basically two ways to hit home runs with consistency. The first is to barrel the ball. A barrel is a ball hit between 26 and 30 degrees at least 98 mph. For each additional mph above 98, the launch angle band expands. On average, 59.6% of barrels resulted in home runs in 2019, and barrels accounted for 81.7% of all home runs.

José Abreu Season Plate Appearances HRs on Barrels Barrel Total HR/Brl%
2015 668 25 46 54.3%
2016 695 24 41 58.5%
2017 675 26 48 54.2%
2018 553 20 36 55.6%
2019 693 30 63 47.6%

What’s obvious is Abreu barreled the ball quite a bit more in 2019, but only hit a few more home runs on those barrels than in previous seasons. Not only did his HR/Brl% fall relative to his own prior marks, but Abreu’s 47.6% conversion rate was also far below the 59.6% MLB average. He remarkably ranked sixth in baseball with 63 barrels, which translates to 37 home runs at the MLB average conversion rate. However, he converted only 30 of his barrels into homers.

You could argue that, maybe because he plays in Chicago, his home venue sapped some of his home runs. Recently, I wrote about how different ballparks influenced the barrel to home run conversion rate.  I found that Chicago’s Guaranteed Rate Field was the eighth-most hitter-friendly park in this regard, with 64.5% of barrels resulting in home runs. Notwithstanding this, Abreu’s 31 barrels at home only produced 14 home runs. Give him the 64.5% rate and he gets six more home runs just at home. No matter how you slice it, Abreu experienced unlucky results on barrels last season, which should yield regression going forward.

The other way to hit home runs with consistency is to pull fly balls down the line to reach the shortest fences in the park. In that way, the hitter doesn’t need to barrel the ball to hit a home run. This is how Alex Bregman hit 41 home runs despite only barreling the ball 26 times. He was second in baseball with 59 pulled fly balls. And on those 59 pulled fly balls, he hit 26 home runs.

Unlike Bregman, Abreu had only 23 pulled fly balls in 2019, good for 120th in the league. Considering he is much stronger than Bregman, 16 of those went for home runs, so he was able to capitalize on the few pulled fly balls he did hit. What piques my interest is how Abreu should hit more next season. MLB average pull and fly ball rates according to Statcast are 36.5% and 22.0%, respectively. (I like to use Statcast batted ball classifications, particularly because Statcast’s fly balls exclude infield fly balls and are accordingly a better measure of valuable fly balls.)

José Abreu Season Plate Appearances Fly Ball% Pull% Pulled Fly Balls
2017 675 20.6% 35.0% 28
2018 553 19.6% 35.6% 19
2019 693 21.1% 39.4% 23

Despite lower pull and fly balls rates in prior seasons, Abreu somehow managed more pulled fly balls. In 2017, he had 28 pulled fly balls. If you prorate his 19 pulled fly balls from 2018 to 675 plate appearances, Abreu would have had approximately 23. Yet, with career-high pull and fly ball rates and more plate appearances in 2019, he managed only 23 pulled fly balls. If Abreu maintains this new plate approach, he should pull more than 23 fly balls next season. That means more opportunities for the big righty to reach the 330-feet-deep left-field fence at Guaranteed Rate Field.

Although I’ve identified two reasons Abreu should hit more home runs next season, I recognize there are four more categories in traditional 5×5 leagues. Abreu certainly contributed to the runs and RBI categories last year, with 85 and 123, respectively. My expectation for additional home runs should generate more RBI and runs too. Relatedly, the White Sox lineup is improving. Abreu now has 2019 breakouts Yoan Moncada, Tim Anderson, Eloy Jiménez, and James McCann batting around him. Luis Robert should be up in 2020 too.

Of course, Abreu won’t steal bases for you, but he has posted a .284 batting average or better in five of his six seasons, propped up by at least a .320 BABIP every year. In each of those five seasons, Abreu ran elevated BABIPs by exceeding Statcast’s MLB average 25.5 LD% and hitting fewer pop-ups than the 7.1% MLB average. The lone exception was Abreu’s .264 batting average in 2018. Yet, his average shot right back up to .284 last year with a .320 BABIP to boot. The brief skid appears to have been caused by a career-low .294 BABIP and an uncharacteristically high pop-up rate and a career-low percentage of balls hit to the opposite field.  That returned to normal last season, and I expect similar results going forward.

At bottom, what do I think Abreu will do next season? Assuming good health, something like .285 AVG/ 95 R/ 40 HR/ 130 RBI/ 2 SB. He was hitting the ball harder than ever last season, and he should be rewarded for it with more fortune next year. Ultimately, that is an exceptional player, one that should go closer to the top fifty than outside the top 100.


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