Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The Brilliant Bobby Abreu

Abreu is returning to the Phillies, where he starred from 1998 to 2006
Last week the Philadelphia Phillies, who I'm convinced are trying to field baseball's oldest team this year, signed Bobby Abreu to a minor league deal that would pay him $800,000 if he makes the team. I wouldn't bet on the 39 year-old's comeback, but part of me hopes he can get on the field this year just so the baseball world can have one last chance to appreciate the greatness which was so often overlooked throughout his wonderful career.

(Had he spent more than two and a half seasons in Pinstripes, that definitely wouldn't be the case, especially since he signed with the Angels less than nine months before the Bombers won the World Series. The same can be said for his Phillies tenure, which ended half a season before they became a National League powerhouse with Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Shane Victorino, Jayson Werth, Jimmy Rollins, Cole Hamels, etc. and will resume a few seasons too late, after Roy Halladay's retirement).

The thing about Abreu is that he was so steady, so consistent. He was insanely durable, playing no fewer than 151 games every year from 1998 through 2010--his age 36 season. The year after that, he played 142 games at 37. His career is devoid of the peaks and valleys that define so many athletic careers. He never had that one awesome, standout season, but he never had a year in his prime where he got hurt or his performance dropped inexplicably. He aged gracefully, but was clearly not as good in his 30s as he was in his 20s. Consistency and durability are always underrated skills, so I suppose Abreu was doomed to be under-appreciated from the start.

One of the easiest ways to determine if a player is underrated is to simply look at his walks, and Abreu walked a lot: more than 100 times every season from 1999 through 2006, 100 times per 162 games and nearly 1,500 times in his career. Add all those free passes to his 2,437 career hits and 33 times hit by pitch and he's reached base almost 4,000 times in his career. Only 50 men have reached base more than Abreu did, and some of the players who didn't were Mike Schmidt, Eddie Mathews, Harmon Killebrew, Willie McCovey, Tony Perez, Jeff Bagwell, and Fred McGriff.

Abreu's career on-base percentage is a marvelous .396, and he's drawn more free passes than all but 21 players in baseball history. He has more walks than Jimmie Foxx, Hank Aaron, Frank Robinson--three of the most intimidating sluggers the game has ever known--despite coming to bat considerably fewer times than they did. Abreu was so good at walking that he was among his league's ten best at doing so every year from 1998 through 2011 except for one--2008, when he walked "only" 73 times.

Those walks didn't happen by accident, either. Abreu was notorious for his excellent plate discipline, and took a lot of pitches. Since FanGraphs started tracking such data in 2002, Abreu has offered at little more than a third of all pitches thrown to him (35 percent). He's so selective that he rarely swings at a bad pitch, chasing just 15.3 percent of pitches outside the strike zone. In 2004, when Abreu walked a career high 127 times, that number was less than 10 percent.

Abreu did much more than walk, though. He hit tons of doubles--565 of them so far, which ranks 23rd all-time. He also hit a good number of home runs. His career total of 287 isn't a lot*, certainly not by the Steroid Era standards, but he did reach 30 twice and topped 20 on seven other occasions. That power helped him exceed 100 RBI eight times (same as Jim Rice, twice as many as Mickey Mantle) even if he never drove in more than 110.

*(Seeing as how he cleared the fences only 11 times in his most recent 254 major league games dating back to September 2010, it's highly unlikely that he'll stroke the 13 dingers he needs to join the 300 club. If he gets there and steals one more base, he'll be one of two players with at least 300 long balls, 400 steals and 2,000 hits. The other is Barry Bonds).

He was also an excellent baserunner, which no doubt helped him score at least 96 runs every year from 1999 through 2009. Abreu swiped at least 19 bases every year from 1998 through 2011, piling up 399 career thefts at a 75.7 percent success rate. He only needs one more to reach 400. If he plays and gets on base, I'd have to imagine he'll have the green light until he reaches the milestone.

Few players have blended power and speed as well as Abreu. He has a 30/40 season, a 30/30 season, two 20/30 seasons and five 20/20 seasons. His power speed number is the 13th best of all-time, better than Carlos Beltran's. Reggie Jackson's and Dave Winfield's. Combined with his excellent on-base ability, Abreu's well-rounded skill-set made him a very valuable player. He was worth 41.4 bWAR from 1998 through 2004, averaging nearly six wins per season with a .942 OPS over that span. FanGraphs estimates he was the fifth most valuable player in baseball during that time, behind only Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez, Andruw Jones and Scott Rolen.

But because that's when offensive numbers were off the charts, Abreu's all-around skills were overshadowed by his peer's prodigious power numbers. That explains why he was an All-Star only twice--in 2004 and 2005.  2004 was the year in which he won his only Silver Slugger, and in 2005 he netted his only Gold Glove. He has as many top-ten MVP finishes as me and you put together, but did receive votes in seven separate seasons. Always very good but never dominant, Abreu is woefully short on black ink: he led the major leagues in triples in 1999, the National League in doubles in 2002, and the major leagues in walks in 2006.

That's what makes his Hall of Fame case so interesting, and yes, he does have a legitimate Hall of Fame case. He enjoyed a strong seven year peak from 1998 through 2004 and had another five or six seasons that were pretty good. By traditional metrics he falls a bit short, but advanced metrics show him more support. His career bWAR total is above 60, albeit barely, which puts him in the Cooperstown conversation. He ranks in the top-100 for offensive WAR and inside the top-50 for runs created. His 129 OPS+ is the same as Eddie Murray's and is better than Rickey Henderson's, Johnny Bench's, and Ron Santo's.

He exceeds Bill James's Hall of Fame standards despite low gray and black ink scores. JAWS has him as the 19th best right fielder, pretty much dead even with Sammy Sosa, Ichiro Suzuki, Dave Winfield, and Vladimir Guerrero. He's below the established peak and career standard at the position but still rates higher than Gary Sheffield, not to mention multiple Hall of Famers like Enos Slaughter, Sam Rice and Chuck Klein.

Without looking at his list of most similar players, I immediately thought of Bernie Williams who, after falling off the ballot on his second try, was decidedly not a Hall of Famer. Sure enough, Williams ranks first on Abreu's list of most similar batters, ahead of some other good-not-great players such as Luis Gonzalez (second), Dwight Evans (fourth), Dave Parker (fifth), Paul O'Neill (ninth) and John Olerud (tenth). In my opinion, Evans and Carlos Beltran are the only deserving Hall of Famers on that list, so Abreu's bid for the Hall of Fame, whenever that may be, probably won't go well even though he has no ties to PEDs as of yet.

My point is that while Abreu was not quite a Hall of Fame caliber-player, he was very very good and probably only one or two good seasons away from being one. You can certainly make the case that he was one without sounding like a lunatic. You just have to dig a little deeper.

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