© Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
When José Abreu signed with the Astros earlier this offseason, there was a lot to like. He fits their overall team construction, he’s a great hitter, and the contract looks more reasonable every day in the context of the rest of the free agent market. In several corners of the baseball internet, though, there was one worrisome note: Abreu’s performance against fastballs, particularly of the high-velocity variety, declined markedly in 2022.
I’m not crediting one person in particular with this observation, only because I’ve seen it in so many different places. It’s incontrovertibly true. Here are Abreu’s numbers against both all four-seamers and all fastballs thrown 95 mph or harder, per Baseball Savant:
Oh no! The trends seem quite clear; Abreu didn’t hit fastballs very well in 2022, and he’d already started to decline against them somewhat the season before. Is he just cooked? Is this fastball performance the proverbial canary in the coal mine, alerting us that bad times are coming?
I truly had no idea how to think about this, so I decided to dig into the data. The first question I had was a simple one: What does year-one performance against fastballs mean for year-two performance against fastballs, as measured by Statcast’s run values?
I ran a very basic test to look into this. I looked for every player who had seen 100 fastballs of the requisite type in two consecutive years: either four-seamers or fastballs thrown 95 mph or higher. I did this for four year pairs: 2018-19, 2019-20, 2020-21, and 2021-22. The first question I asked was simple: How correlated is year-one run value to year-two run value? In other words, if you produce a ton of runs, as measured by Statcast, against fastballs in one year, should we expect that success to carry over?
This seems like a slam dunk if you stop and think about it. The question isn’t whether someone is relatively better against fastballs or secondary pitches; it’s how much value they rack up against fastballs every year. Just to give you an example, Aaron Judge was an excellent hitter against four-seamers this year, to the tune of 3.2 runs above average per 100 pitches. Last year, he was an excellent hitter against fastballs – two runs above average per 100 pitches. In 2020, you guessed it – 6.1 runs above average per 100 pitches. In 2019 – well, you get the idea.
Bad news, though: even with obvious wins like Judge, year-one production on four-seamers is hardly correlated to year-two production. More specifically, it has a correlation coefficient of 0.17 and thus an r-squared of 0.03. In layman’s terms, you can explain 3% of the variation in next year’s production on four-seamers by looking at this year’s production on four-seamers. That’s not very much! Even if you limit it to batters who saw at least 500 four-seamers in both years to strip out some potential noise, the r-squared only rises to 0.067. In other words, if you’re looking to explain how batters will perform against four-seam fastballs in 2023, how they performed against them in 2022 isn’t a sufficient estimator.
As you might expect, the data isn’t any better for fastballs thrown 95 mph or harder. While Abreu declined in both of these categories in 2022, that by itself isn’t enough to say much about what we should expect from him next year. Performance over the last three years is a much better indicator, but Abreu fares better there. Maybe he’s declining, but if he is, we’ll have to find some other way to show it.
To drill down on fastball performance, I decided to look at whiff rate. The key problem with run value is that it’s noisy, result-driven rather than process-driven. BABIP is rightly considered an unreliable and heavily mean-reverting indicator, and running a high BABIP when you put a given pitch into play will increase your run value, and vice versa. The obvious place to look if you’re focused on process rather than results is whiff rate. How often a hitter makes contact when they swing doesn’t depend on a round ball impacting a round bat, or where the defense is standing, or which way the wind is blowing. It’s easier than that: hit it, or don’t.
I repeated the same exercise from above, looking for batters who swung at 100 four-seamers in consecutive years. The results are much more in the spirit of what we’re looking for. The correlation between one year’s whiff rate on four-seam fastballs and the next year’s rate is quite high; the r-squared checks in at a robust 0.52. If you’re looking to explain the variation in this year’s rate, looking at last year’s rate will get you more than halfway there. That’s an excellent mark compared to the near-pure noise of run value. As you might expect, the data looks similar for high-velocity fastballs.
Another useful metric is how hard a batter hits fastballs when they put them into play. It’s actually even more correlated year-to-year than fastball whiff rate. If you’re looking for a statistic that will tell you how good a hitter is against fastballs, you should look at whiff rate or hard-hit rate, not actual production.
Abreu hasn’t gotten worse when it comes to making contact with four-seamers; he came up empty on 24.7% of his swings against them in 2022. That’s slightly higher than his average over the past five years (23.4%), and also slightly higher than league average (21.8%). That’s been his game for the last five years, more or less: he misses a bit more frequently than average, but makes up for it by hitting the ball hard when he connects.
There’s little evidence that the second part of the equation is changing. He was in the 86th percentile for hard-hit rate on four-seamers this year, right in line with his typical excellence. The same is true for high-velocity fastballs; he swings and misses slightly more than league average, but makes up for it by hitting them hard.
Will Abreu decline next year? I’ll give it a solid “maybe.” I have no idea, to be honest. He’s a baseball player in his 30s, which means he’s always at risk of getting worse. Time wounds all heels, and all of that. But if you’re looking for a way to tell that story, don’t use his fastball data to do it. Despite the downtick in his results in 2022, I’m as impressed by Abreu’s ability to pummel the ball as ever.