Bobby Abreu is a known commodity in fantasy baseball circles. A one-time thirty-thirty man, Abreu is a lock for 20 homers and 20 stolen bases. He's done it for the last five years. Actually, he has only one full major-league season in which he did not do it, his first year as a starter and as a Phillie, 1998.
In 1998, his first as a starter, he was ranked third in the NL in Win Shares among all right fielders behind Sammy Sosa and Vladimir Guerrero. In 1999 he trailed only Guerrero. He was third again in 2000 (behind Sosa and Guerrero) and 2001 (Sosa and Shawn Green). In 2002 he trailed only Green; In 2003, only Gary Sheffield. Indeed, over the period, Abreu is second overall as an NL right fielder, about 20 Win Shares behind Sammy Sosa and a couple ahead of Vlad Guerrero. Larry Walker and Shawn Green fill out the top 5.
And Abreu has zero All-Star appearances to show for it. Sosa has 5 All-Star appearances since 1998. Guerrero has 4, Walker 3, Sheffield and Tony Gwynn 2, and right fielders Moises Alou, Jeromy Burnitz, Shawn Green, Jeffrey Hammonds (really), and Brian Jordan each have one.
Maybe he isn't that well known. He certainly gets no respect in Philly, where the most popular Phils, judging from what one can find in the sporting goods stores and and at the ballpark, are Jim Thome, Kevin Millwood, Jimmy Rollins, and Billy Wagner. You're more likely to see a Scott Rolen uniform, sometimes with his name crossed out, at CB Park than a number 53 one.
And fans will tell you in a heartbeat that Abreu just isn't that good a player. It may be because local sports "personality" Howard Eskin is bemoaning his shortcomings on a regular basis. I don't listen to the bearded wonder on a regular (or even occasional) basis, but a few people have emailed me in the last week describing his tirades.
For those of you unfamiliar with Eskin, he is a sort of Mad Dog without the Mike, or at least I wish he was without a mike. He has all the subtlety of a conservative talk show hosts like Bill O'Reilly and Rush Limbaugh. He calls terms callers with whom he disagrees "genius" and tells female callers to get back to cooking dinner. When I was a kid, Eskin was just a bubbly, colorful sports guy on the local news, just a smiling, talking head. I documented my one run-in with him, that ended in my being attacked by the Phillie Phanatic on the Vet's jumbo screen, in my "About Me" section.
He evidently feels that Abreu is "padding" his numbers with cheap stats, that he strikes out too much, that he is not a "clutch" performer, and that he dogs it in the field, in right field and on the base paths. I tried to catch a bit of his tirades when I was within range of his station, WIP. However, all I got was Eskin barking out who's "cool" and who isn't in sports. Clearly, he's not a big Stuart Scott fan. Eskin then took calls and shouted down those callers who did not agree with his assessments. It made "Pardon the Interruption" seem a regular Algonquin Round Table. I was also treated to a tirade about how fantasy football and/or football video games—he used the two interchangeably—were the "downfall of our society" after someone had the temerity to suggest that the Eagles go to a 3-4 defense.
Really, the only bloviation that even asymptotically approached Abreu was a facile explanation of the Phils' offensive woes being attributable to a) a dearth of productivity at the top of the order and b) a "dysfunctional lineup". If that means too many at-bats to the likes of Doug Glanville and Todd Pratt, then I agree. Of course, in none of his discourses did he reference even rudimental stats.
But back to Abreu. He's a career .305 batter with a .409 on-base percentage, .514 slugging average, and a .923 OPS. He's had between 20 and 31 home runs in each of the last five seasons (or one every 25.4 at-bats). He's also had between 35 and 50 doubles. He's stolen 20 bases five of his six full seasons and has a 74% success rate. He's walked a hundred times in for the last five seasons. And yes, he has struck out over one hundred times for the last six seasons, but his all-time walks-to-strikeouts ratio is .81 about 30 points better than the NL average since 1998 (.52).
OK, those are the counting numbers, now here are the ratios: He has batted over .300 five of six full seasons. He has had an on-base percentage over .400 five times, slugged over .500 four times, and had an OPS over .900 five times. As a matter of fact, coming into this season Abreu is 48th all-time in OPS for all players with at least 1000 at-bats (at .922). Here are the top 30 current players (as of 2003, Abreu is 21st):
Ken Griffey Jr.
His park-adjusted OPS has been at least 30% better than the league average each of the last six seasons. His high was 55% better than average in 2002, and his average is 39% better than average. That's the 18th best among current players and 78th best all-time.
But that's the past: maybe he's sucking wind this season. In 2004, he projects a 30-30 season (36 homers and 32 steals), 123 runs, 110 RBI, 32 doubles, 120 walks, and 120 strikeouts. His OPS is .950 (.407 OBP and .543 slugging), which is 16th in the NL, right behind teammate Pat Burrell. He is 10-for-10 in steals this season. If he does steal 30 bases without being caught, he will be the first player ever to do so (In 1988 Kevin McReynolds stole 21 without being caught and in 1994 Paul Molitor stole 20 withot being caught).
Well, maybe he hasn't been clutch. Here are his ratios split out by situation for 2004:
First and Second
First and Third
Second and Third
None On, 1/2 out
Men On, 2 out
Man on 3rd, <2 out
Lead Off Inning
Scoring Posn, 2 out
Close and Late
Actually, if anything, the reverse of what Eskin is saying is true. Abreu's stats improve with runners on and with runners in scoring position and they also improve as there are more outs. Also, his strikeouts go down and his walks go up.
Actually, the only claim that even a cursory perusal of the stats will support is that his defense is flagging. His career range factor in right is the league average (1.96). However, his range factor fell below average in 2001 and has been below average since. Some of that may be explained by the fact that there were three starters in the rotation in 2001. Consider that he is forth among right fielders in Fielding Win Shares since 1998. And as far as his defense aging poorly, his range factor this season (2.21) is as high as it's been since 2000.
So why isn't Abreu's greatness appreciated? He doesn't speak English well. He is easy going, almost unflappable. He seems to smile even when he strikes out. It's almost a poker face. Some would regard this as an asset and a calming influence on the team. However, the fans and the media seem to regard it as nonchalance or indifference towards the game. Does it hurt him that he is a dark-skinned Dominican? I can't say that it helps, but I would hope that the fans and press have progressed beyond Philly's sordid past. You may remember that Phillies manager Ben Chapman orchestrated many a razzing toward Jackie Robinson. Also, the Phils were the last NL team to integrate, granting John Kennedy two at-bats in 1957. Richie "Don't Call Me Dick" Allen was never very enamored of Philly in either of his stretches in a Phillies uniform. And even Jimmy Rollins, a one-time fan favorite was being booed regularly this spring.
I think it may be something more deeply rooted in the Philly sports fan's psyche. It's the reason that the fans booed Mike Schmidt on his way to hitting 548 home runs and to being the greatest third baseman who ever played the game. I remember in the mid-Seventies, when Schmidt was becoming the best overall player in the NL, Greg Luzinski was far more popular. Schmidt was said to be padding his numbers. He wasn't clutch. He struck out too much. He was too cold and dispassionate. Never mind that Schmidt was one stolen base away from being a 30-30 man, a concept that did not even exist yet, and that Schmidt's offensive and defensive growth was astronomical. Schmidt was not "one of us". Luzinski misplayed balls in left field. The Phils were always threatening to move him to first and had to pull him in the seventh in favor of first Jerry Martin and then Lonnie "Skates" Smith whenever they had a lead—sort of a closer in left field. Luzinski was a Philly guy.
The same seems to be true of how the fans see Abreu and Jim Thome. Thome is limited in what he can do on the basepaths and defensively at first, but he sure can clout 'em out, And he was quickly accepted by the Philly brethren. The things Abreu does in each facet of the game add up to his greatness. They are more difficult to see. Everyone can grasp a Thome monster home run.
And it does not help that dolts like Bill Conlin and Howard Eskin have decided to inculcate in the Philly fans' already limited intellect what greatness is all about. Conlin helped to drive a wedge between Scott Rolen and the fans calling him a cancer. I'm just gratified that Eskin's polemic, though it influences the fanbase, has been too scattershot to hit the mark.