The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of: Juan Abreu

Many popular opinions of pitching prospects are formed from general scouting reports. While these reports are invaluable resources, they can’t always be trusted. Hundreds of minor league hurlers are credited with “mid-90′s velocity,” but very few MLB starters actually have that grade of heat, for example. It’s incredibly frustrating to hear about a pitcher with “a mid-90′s heater and plus curve,” only to have him come up to the big leagues and show a fastball that averages 90.5 mph and a slider.

When a pitcher come up to the majors, we can finally get a foolproof reading on what exactly his arsenal is comprised of, thanks to the great Pitch F/X system. In this series, I analyze just that–the “stuff” of recently-promoted MLB pitchers. Now that they’ve achieved their big league dreams and thus factor directly into the MLB picture, it’s high time that we know exactly what these guys are providing.

This time, I’m taking a look at Astros reliever Juan Abreu.

Acquired in the midseason trade that netted the Braves Michael Bourn, Juan Abreu was seen as a stereotypical “live arm with command issues” pitcher. At age 26, he has little left to prove in the minors; in Triple-A this season, he struck out 77 batters in 57 2/3 innings. He did walk 34, but that’s the sort of problem he basically has to fix in the big leagues–he whiffs so many minor league hitters that he doesn’t have a big incentive to throw more strikes.

Abreu was called up to Houston soon after being acquired, and he promptly struck out 12 batters in 6 2/3 innings while walking three. That sounds really great until you realize he also hit five batters. So…yeah…the command’s still a work in progress.

The righthander was often cited as “touching 100 mph” in the minor leagues, but in the big leagues he has yet to show that those reports aren’t hyperbole or the result of overly fast radar guns. Still, he worked at 93-98 mph with his fastball, averaging 95.8, which is plenty. The pitch has some late life up in the zone, although it isn’t good for inducing ground balls. Not surprisingly, Abreu throws the pitch shoulder-high more than most, and also pounds the upper half:

There’s a whole lot of balls there, but Abreu managed to get strikes 64.7% of the time with the fastball. That includes an 11.2% swinging strike rate, which is downright stellar for a heater.

As one might expect, Abreu relies on the fastball very heavily, since hitters have such a difficult time doing anything with it. He threw the pitch about 80% of the time in the big leagues. Impressively, just 11 of the 116 fastballs he threw were put into play.

Abreu’s second pitch is a hard curveball in the 78-82 mph range. He wasn’t afraid to challenge hitters with it in his brief MLB time, getting strikes with 16 of the 23 (69.5%) he threw, although just two were whiffs. The pitch has solid movement and good speed differential from his fastball, and Abreu throws it from the same arm slot–played off the good fastball, it should be effective.

The righthander also throws a changeup, but it’s strictly a show pitch.

With the electric fastball, Abreu’s ready to stay in the big league bullpen in 2012, especially on a rebuilding Astros team. He’ll be 27 right after the 2012 season starts, though, and he’ll need to make some late-career command improvements if he’s going to be more than an erratic middle-innings flamethrower in the Henry Rodriguez mold.

He’ll get plenty of chances with the Astros, and it’s encouraging that he got a fairly high percentage of strikes in his debut; often, the patience of MLB hitters will actually benefit a pitcher like this, as it forces them to pound the zone more. Abreu not only has the stuff to avoid being exposed if he throws more strikes; doing so would actually make him excel. The history of command woes certainly bears watching, and he’s old for a rookie, but there’s a lot to like with this power arm.

For more on the Astros, check out Climbing Tal’s Hill.

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Tags: Houston Astros Juan Abreu

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