In 2022, CJ Abrams had an eventful year, surprising many as he secured a spot on the Padres’ Opening Day roster at just 21 years old. He then became part of the Juan Soto trade, moving across the country, and played more games in a single season than he had throughout his entire professional career until then. Despite the flurry of activity, his performance was inconsistent, especially with the bat. Apart from a 30-game stint in the minor league with the Padres, he struggled to maintain an above-average performance during 2022.
Following the trade, the Nationals called up Abrams two weeks later, and he has since been a regular shortstop for the rebuilding team. However, during the first half of 2023, Abrams continued to face challenges at the big-league level, with an 85 wRC+ indicating his difficulties. A slump in June raised concerns about his development potentially stagnating. Nevertheless, being one of the youngest players in baseball, Abrams possesses a high ceiling and the potential to thrive.
In July, Abrams experienced a significant improvement in his hitting. His wRC+ of 141 and impressive .327/.391/.500 slash line showcased the potential that scouts had anticipated. While it’s uncertain if he can sustain such a high wRC+, his recent growth indicates promising success in the future.
In the last month, Abrams has shown significant improvement in his plate discipline. He has reduced his Swing% but still ranks in the 93rd percentile. This change has allowed him to be more selective in attacking the right pitches and indicates a shift toward being less of a free-swinging hitter.
Moreover, his strikeout rate has been halved, while his walk rate has surged to levels not seen since his time in Double-A. These changes are noteworthy outliers from a results perspective, but the PLV-based hitter metrics support the validity of Abrams’ progress. Despite his swing aggression remaining relatively high, it is gradually decreasing, and he is displaying better judgment of the strike zone, especially against right-handed pitchers.
Notably, the most significant improvements have come in his ability to handle breaking balls within the strike zone. Throughout his career, Abrams has struggled with breaking balls, but last month, he began capitalizing on them, marking a notable turning point.
Abrams has maintained a similar approach when swinging at breaking balls, resembling his performance at the beginning of the season. However, there is a noticeable improvement in his ability to connect with breaking balls within the strike zone. This positive development is clear in two separate at-bats against Anthony DeSclafani.
During the first at-bat in May, Abrams swung through a curveball right down the middle. In July, he showed remarkable improvement by aggressively attacking a similar pitch and driving it toward the right-center gap (although a nice play was made).
Another July example is one of Abrams’ best at-bats of the year, where he punishes a Steven Matz curveball for a HR:
These are signs that his overall swing decisions are improving, which is essential for a 22-year-old who still has the runway to develop. Among other young players, his season-long 20.5% strikeout rate actually holds up well. For players under 24 (min. 50 PA), Abrams ranks 26th out of 80 players.
These instances demonstrate clear signs of progress in his overall swing decisions, which are crucial for a 22-year-old player with ample room for further development. When compared to other young players, Abrams’ seasonlong 20.5% strikeout rate holds up quite well. Among players under 24 years old (min. 50 PA), Abrams ranks 26th out of 80 players.
Batted Ball Quality
Abrams’ success is also attributed to the improvement in his batted ball quality, although it may not be particularly remarkable on a league-wide scale. One bright spot is that he managed to up his max EV from 110mph in 2022 to 113mph in 2023, making a significant leap from the 57th to the 81st percentile. Abrams still barrels the ball at a below-league-average rate.
However, a challenge that Abrams faces, much like other players known for their high max EV, is his struggle to elevate the ball effectively (similar to players such as Jordan Walker, Ke’Bryan Hayes, and Vladimir Guerrero Jr.). It’s worth noting that the batted ball event with the max EV recorded was a groundball.
In July, however, Abrams began elevating the ball more, which is integral to seeing actual hitting success, in addition to better swing decisions.
(Ignore August in the chart, it only has two games’ worth of data)
July yielded a massive spike in launch angle which can be tied to batted ball success throughout the month. Even though the barrel rate was identical in June and July (his worst and best month), elevating the ball did wonders for Abrams.
An Improved Role
Lastly, Abrams is now fulfilling the role that many, including himself (probably), had envisioned for him: that of a leadoff hitter and avid base stealer. Previously, he had been rushed to the majors and fell short of expectations, while other top prospects around him flourished. Perhaps hitting at the bottom of the order in both 2022 and 2023 had led to some pressure as a young player, but now he appears to have found comfort in his current role. The shift to the leadoff spot in the batting order occurred on July 7th, and since then, he has remained in that position.
During this period, Abrams has excelled, hitting an impressive .345 with a 148 wRC+, and he is finally putting his best tool to use: his speed. Scouts had labelled his speed as “game-changing” and awarded it an 80 scouting grade while he was still a prospect. In the minor leagues before being traded, he stole 27 bases, a solid number even before the new rules came into play in 2023. However, his speed did not make much impact at the big league level initially. In 2022, Abrams only stole seven bases in 90 MLB games. Heading into July this year, he had stolen nine bases in 73 games.
But in July, everything changed when Abrams became the leadoff man. He ran wild on the bases, stealing an impressive 16 bases in just 25 games, making him the leader in stolen bases across all of baseball for that month. Moreover, his base-stealing prowess translated into real-world success for the Nationals, who ranked eighth in baseball in first-inning runs in July.
Abrams is now demonstrating the true potential of his abilities as an MLB regular. His improvements have been sudden but consistent, proving that he can perform at this level throughout a prolonged stretch of the season. Despite some struggles in June, Abrams has steadily progressed throughout the year.
At just 22, Abrams has a lot of time to showcase his potential, with the necessary consistency being the key. Despite an exciting group of other young shortstops, Abrams should not be overlooked and deserves to be part of the conversation due to his evident skills and promising improvements.
Photo by Keith Gillett/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Justin Redler (@reldernitsuj on Twitter)