Bobby Abreu Deserves A Second Look For The Hall of Fame by Tyler Maher (IBWAA)
Bobby Abreu Deserves A Second Look
By Tyler Maher (IBWAA)
This article was printed in the IBWAA Newsletter (Here’s The Pitch) and is shared with permission.
For baseball fans, winter can feel long, dark, and dull while we wait for our beloved pastime to return. We analyze trades and free-agent signings, make predictions about the upcoming season, and count the days until Opening Day. It is an exercise in patience, especially in places where winter brings subzero temperatures and mountains of snow.
One highlight of every offseason is when the BBWAA Hall of Fame ballots are released in November, followed by two months of passionate discourse before the voting results are announced in January. Given the stakes, these typically end up being baseball’s hardest fought and most contentious discussions. We’ve reached a point where numbers can usually tell us who the best teams and players in a given season are, but they are less definitive when determining whether certain candidates are qualified for Cooperstown. Depending on which metrics you use, you can reach vastly different conclusions on the same player, and that’s what makes these debates so compelling.
Take Bobby Abreu, for instance. He’s on the ballot for the second time this year but is already in danger of falling off after appearing on just 5.5 percent of submitted ballots last year. A quick glance at his career numbers – 2,470 hits, 288 home runs, 1,363 RBIs, a .291 batting average, 400 steals – screams good-but-not-great. His resume lacks the black ink that typically accompanies dominance, while the scant awards attention he received (just two All-Star selections and zero top-10 MVP finishes) suggests he wasn’t highly regarded during his playing days. He also didn’t distinguish himself in October, never leading his teams to the World Series in four trips to the postseason.
Those are just some of the criticisms being leveled at Abreu, whose credentials don’t look much different from those of Bernie Williams, Johnny Damon, Dwight Evans, and others who have already been denied entrance into Cooperstown. It’s easy to dismiss him and move on.
But what if Abreu was just underappreciated during his career, and is still underrated now? His top strengths – walks, doubles, baserunning, defense, durability – are often undervalued, and well-rounded players like him have always been criminally overlooked. He did everything well but nothing transcendently well, which made him a great baseball player but not a particularly memorable one. He was consistent, but rarely stood out, and the Hall of Fame was built to reward players who stand out. It was built to honor players like Vladimir Guerrero, Mike Piazza, and Ichiro Suzuki, all of whom were direct contemporaries of Abreu but left a much larger imprint on their era because of their unique playing styles and statistical dominance. They were MVP winners, perennial All-Stars, and nightly presences on SportsCenter. They were superstars.
They were also, according to WAR, less valuable over their careers than Abreu. Go figure.
WAR can be an eye-opening statistic, and that is certainly the case with Abreu. I did not realize, for instance, that Abreu was the fifth-most valuable position player in baseball from 1998-2004 (per FanGraphs), and that the only players with appreciably more WAR during that span were Barry Bonds and Alex Rodriguez (both of whom had chemical help). I also did not realize that from 1998-2011 – the 14 years that Abreu was an everyday player – he was one of the eight most valuable position players in baseball. He had a very high peak and he had longevity, a combination that usually leads to the Hall of Fame.
So why wasn’t Abreu recognized as one of the best players of his era, then, if the numbers say he was? Maybe it’s because he spent the best years of his career on mediocre teams in Philadelphia. Had the Phillies not traded him in 2006, he still would have been with them when they won it all two years later. He might have burnished his legacy with a couple of big October moments along the way and become a hero in Philly. Instead, he was quickly forgotten there.
It also didn’t help that his all-around skills never called much attention to himself. He hit for good average but never won a batting title. He had good power numbers (remember when he won the Home Run Derby?), but those were commonplace during the heart of the steroid era. He ran the bases well, but his speed wasn’t blinding. He played good defense, but only earned one Gold Glove for it. He was steady but rarely flashy, and in an era when PED-enhanced players broke the game, his talents were overshadowed.
And that’s too bad because Abreu really was a special player. Only 86 players have ever made 10,000 plate appearances in the major leagues, and Abreu was one of them. His .395 OBP ranks 16th in that group, and everyone above him (except for Bonds) is in the Hall of Fame. His batting eye and patience at the plate were legendary; just 19 men have worked more walks than Abreu, which is even more impressive considering he wasn’t one of the more feared hitters of his era.
Abreu also blended power and speed better than almost anyone who ever played. Only Bonds has a higher slugging percentage among players with at least 400 steals since integration, and Abreu’s nine 20 HR/20 SB seasons rank third all-time. At his best, there wasn’t anything he couldn’t do on a ballfield. If he played nowadays, he’d be a sabermetrics darling and would certainly be held in higher esteem.
So is Abreu a Hall of Famer? There’s certainly a case to be made – a stronger one than most might think. He’s right on the cusp, a true borderline candidate. Based on the numbers, I lean towards giving him the nod, but if you feel he doesn’t belong because he wasn’t quite good enough at his peak or didn’t stay productive long enough to pad his career totals more, I won’t disagree with you. That’s what makes it a great debate, and an argument worth having.
Tyler Maher is a former fantasy baseball writer and social media editor for MLB.com. He still hasn’t forgiven the Red Sox for trading Mookie Betts.