The Unusual Career of Bobby Abreu

Only 21 players in big league history have more than 250 home runs and 250 stolen bases. These include some of the best players ever such as Barry Bonds, Willie Mays, Joe Morgan and Rickey Henderson, some other merely great or very good players like Bobby Bonds, Robin Yount and Craig Biggio and a few players like Alfonso Soriano who were only briefly great. A more select subset of these players are the eight who also had 1,000 or more career walks. These are the players who not only had impressive tools, but were genuinely great hitters as well. This group includes three Hall of Famers, Henderson, Morgan and Mays and four others who will either get in or be kept out due to steroids, Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez, Biggio and Gary Sheffield. The last player in this group is unlikely to get much Hall of Fame consideration and appears to be rapidly winding down his career.

Bobby Abreu, with 284 career home runs, 393 stolen bases and 1,421 walks easily meets this standard. He was just released by the Angels thus likely ending the career of a player who will probably receive little support from Hall of Fame voterrs, but who will also take his place among the most underrated players in baseball history. Abreu not only managed to leave the Phillies and Yankees shortly before they won the World Series, but despite playing in big media markets for most of his career never was really perceived as a big star. This is not uncommon for players who rely heavily on walks for their offensive value. However, Abreu had a career 129 OPS+ in over 9,500 plate appearances, giving him a higher OPS+ than fifteen Hall of Fame corner outfielders, including recent inductees Jim Rice and Andre Dawson. On the other hand, Abreu was usually very good but never among the best in the game. He never led the league in a major hitting category other than doubles in 2002 and triples in 1999, never finished in the top ten in MVP voting, and, somewhat amazingly, only played in two All-Star games.

Abreu’s development as a hitter is also unusual enough to influence how he was perceived as a player. He was one of the few players who evolved from a player best suited to the middle of the order to one best suited to leading off. From his first full season, 1998, to 2005, Abreu slugged .519 and averaged 23 home runs a year. From 2006-2011, he never reached either of those numbers, but became a player with a skill set that would have made him a great leadoff hitter had he been used that way. Between 2006 and 2011, Abreu posted an OBP of .377 while stealing 152 bases; only one player, Hanley Ramirez, exceeded both those numbers during those years. Despite not showing much power and averaging only 16 home runs a year, Abreu almost never batted leadoff during this period, largely because the narrative of his career made it hard to see him as leadoff type hitter. Instead of being viewed as a player who changed, Abreu was seen as a player who lost his power.

Had Abreu’s power years come in the second, rather than first, half of his career, he would have been seen as a player who improved and expanded his skills, but the overall numbers would have been the same. Because of this, Abreu is hard to classify and spent the second half of his career as a punchless number three hitter rather than the top tier leadoff hitter he could have been. Abreu’s career arc was reinforced by the general trends in offense over the last fifteen years or so. As the power heavy period of the late 1990s and early 2000s faded, so did Abreu’s power, but unlike some others, Abreu was able to adapt and become a different, but still valuable, player.

Abreu is the kind of player who will be easily forgotten by most fans. His post-season footprint was not large for a player in the wild card era who amassed well over 9,000 regular season plate appearances. He underperformed in black ink and awards voting; and had a personality that rarely drew a great deal of attention. However, he was also a player with both an unusual skill set and career path who managed to put up numbers that would not look out of place in Cooperstown.