Monday, June 2, 2008

From the Archives: Exclusively Regarding Bobby Abreu's Approach to Hitting

Sorry, non-sports fans, we're taking a left turn back into the ballpark for a bit. This is something I wrote that plays off of my enduring fascination with hidden greatness, those people without whom the world would fall apart. In this case, we deal with the curious case of New York Yankees right fielder Bobby Abreu, the greatest player no one can stand.

Bobby Abreu looms over the plate. He is exactly six feet tall but has mastered the cobra's trick of making himself look larger than he is. Abreu holds his hands high and tilts his stocky body forward, giving the impression that he is a frightening power hitter, but this is fiction. Bobby Abreu averages 22 home runs per season, which is respectable but not exceptional. What he has done, in totality, is eschewed exceptional power and turned himself into baseball's version of a meat grinder--a relentless, terrifyingly effective destroyer of pitching.

He's so good at it that nobody wants to watch him. You'll eat hamburgers, but you don't want to watch them get made.

At some point in his life, I imagine Bobby Abreu read Ted Williams' book, titled "The Science of Hitting". His philosophy (Ted Williams is second only to Babe Ruth, who played in an era without integration or the slider, in most important rate categories, so his philosophy on baseball is more "absolutely right" than a true philosophy) was quite simple. Ted Williams wanted young hitter to get a pitch to hit, and when that pitch came, to hit it.

Simple.

Hard to follow, though. Ted's philosophy required an extreme degree of discipline. If a pitch was an inch off the plate, you were not to swing*. If it was an inch too high, you were not to swing. If it was a strike, and your particular collection of skills and swing mechanics would not allow you to put the ball in play for a hit or foul it off safely, you were not to swing. Anything else was giving in to the pitcher's plan to get you out.

*Some players, through a collection of unique skill and confidence, can ignore this rule, but that list is vanishingly small. Vladimir Guerrero of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (this translates to "The Angels Angels of Anaheim, but whatever) swings at more pitches that are not close to the strike zone than anyone else, by a humongous margin--something like three times as often as the next closest guy. But he can get away with it because he has near bizarre strength and hand-eye coordination. I saw him hit an opposite-field line-drive home run on a pitch outside and eyeball-high off of Brad Penny in an All-Star game, and I swear to God I've seen him clock a double off a pitch that bounced in the dirt. Vlad the Impaler. A marvel in a pine tar-stained red helmet. You may never see his like again.

You could not alter the plan under any circumstances. It didn't matter whether that inch-high pitch came in a spring training game or the seventh game of the World Series. You were not to swing. Trust Ted. It would work itself out. You'd come out ahead more often than not. If you swung at the bad pitch, you would make an out. If not, you could get a pitch to hit. Or walk. Either way, you win.

Not swinging is what Bobby Abreu does best. He looms over the plate, looking ten feet tall and coiled like a viper, and he doesn't swing. Bobby Abreu has broken down the batter-pitcher matchup into its component parts. 106 times a year, the umpire calls ball four and Bobby Abreu walks to first. 128 times a year, the umpire calls strike three and Bobby Abreu walks to the dugout. Approximately a third of the time he comes to bat, Bobby Abreu does not put the ball in play.

This infuriated fans in Philadelphia, where he played for eight and a half years. Why, asked the Phillies faithful, would Bobby Abreu refuse to swing (as an aside; he has 1800 or so career hits, so he is clearly capable of doing so)? With a man on second, Bobby Abreu would prefer to walk, to put another man on base without necessarily affecting the score?

Was he selfish? Foolish? Ignorant?

It was certainly a possibility to the fans in Philadelphia. Their franchise is approaching 10,000 losses, the first professional team ever to do so. They could not afford to wait. Bobby Abreu could. So they blame Bobby Abreu, the best player on their team, for their sorrows.

To wit: Bobby Abreu's career batting average is .300. Nothing to write home about. Lots of people have done that.

His career on-base percentage, which is a measure of the number of times he gets on base without making an out, is .407.

On-base percentage is the statistic most closely correlated with scoring runs, which is one of the two ways you win baseball games (the other is preventing runs, which he's also pretty good at, but we are talking about hitting here). This ranks 32nd on the all-time list.

He's ahead of Jackie Robinson. He's ahead of Rickey Henderson. He's ahead of Joe DiMaggio. He's ahead of Mark McGwire. He's ahead of Willie Mays. He's ahead of Arky Vaughn, Hank Greenberg, Honus Wagner, Ralph Kiner, Johnny Mize, Hack Wilson, and Cap Anson (you don't know who these people are, but they're all Hall of Famers).

Furthermore, when he does hit the ball, he hits it hard. His refusal to swing at bad pitches means that a higher percentage of his swings come against good pitches, which are easier to drive on a straight line, hurtling past the infield and coming to rest far away from any outfielder. Bobby Abreu doesn't hit an overwhelming number of home runs, but he smacks 41 doubles a year, bringing his slugging percentage (total bases/at-bats, essentially a measure of overall power) to an even .500. This puts him in the top 100 all-time, ahead of people like Reggie Jackson, George Brett, and Yogi Berra.*

*Admittedly, some of this is due to the fact that he's a corner outfielder, where it's easier for a hard-hitter to thrive. And more of it is due to his era, and his ballpark, and plain dumb luck, and the fact that he hasn't entered a true decline phase. Still, I think it's clear the man is an elite-level hitter.

A team composed entirely of Bobby Abreus would score a thousand runs. They would eat pitchers alive, destroying the coherence of pitching staffs and causing a new outbreak of horrific arm injuries. Heck, they'd even play decent defense and run the bases well.

They would win a hundred and twenty games per year.

But their games would take five hours. They'd almost never swing. Nothing you could do would change them.

This is the curse of Bobby Abreu's approach to hitting. It's like a meat grinder. It gets the job done in the most efficient and effective way possible.

And no one wants to watch.

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