What Is in a Name? How Abreu’s Conquest of the Bases Was Meant to Be

Bob Abreu's induction is a case about all things sabermetrics, and more

We have read and heard about Bobby Abreu a lot since he was among the eligible players on the ballot for the Hall of Fame last year. A lot has been said and written about his merits (or lack of them) for induction to the Cooperstown Hall, so I won’t bother you too much by going down that path. Instead, I want to tell you a story about Bob.

As happens with most of my fellow Venezuelans, our homes are places of worship for baseball—you will find that practically every member of each household is a fan of any of the teams that take part in the country’s professional winter league, probably Navegantes del Magallanes, simply “El Magallanes”, or Leones del Caracas, “El Caracas”, the two most popular teams.

Nelson Abreu, Bob Abreu’s father, was a fan of a third one: Los Tiburones de La Guaira, or just La Guaira, a city on the coast, close to Caracas, the capital of the country—a team with a smaller but loyal and very active fan base. From 1964 to 1971, La Guaira won four championships, the most for them during any decade, since then they have only managed to win three more, all in the ’80s. So, when Bob was born in 1974, his father’s love for his team was so high that he decided to name his firstborn child Bob Kelly Abreu, adopting North American baseball player—and big star in the Venezuelan Winter League with La Guaira—Pat Kelly’s last name for his own son.

Harold Patrick “Pat” Kelly was an American player that, as many others like Pete Rose, Daryl Strawberry, and Barry Bonds would do, played winter ball in Venezuela. He had a very nice run there and was a very important part of the team that won the 1970-71 championship; probably because of that, Bob’s father decided to immortalize his name through his son.

Kelly had a long MLB career, playing 1,385 games from 1967 to 1981 mostly for the Royals, White Sox, and Orioles. He was an above-average OF with a career wRC+ of 110, good for 27th out of 65 qualified RF in the AL during his career, and—here is where we find more coincidences with Bob than just a name—he was also a left-handed right fielder who did two things better than most: during the years he saw the most action in MLB (1972-1978) he was 12th and 35th in the AL in stolen bases and OBP, respectively, among almost 200 qualified batters.

Those are the qualities that kept him playing for so long: even when he wasn’t the best of all at them (or any other particular stat, for that matter), he was good enough to keep getting playing time. He was not a basher or a high contact batter but kept grinding at every at-bat, making the most out of it, usually finding a way to get on base, which is (as we have learned) the ultimate achievement in our beloved game.

Abreu made that quality of his namesake his trademark by taking it to the extreme: during his playing career, few other players were as successful as him getting on-base and maximizing every plate appearance. In fact, during the 9-year period of time between 1998 and 2006 (his prime), Abreu was ninth in OBP with .416, having only a few players like Barry Bonds, Larry Walker, and Albert Pujols ahead of him and HoFers like Chipper Jones, Frank Thomas, and Vladimir Guerrero, among plenty of others, behind.

Bob was the ultimate OBP machine not named Barry Bonds; he surmounted his apparent lack of power (though he had nearly 20 HRs on average per-162 games during his career) with an extraordinary ability to hit and walk. To be that high on that list during part of the so-called steroids era you had to be doing something extremely right. And Bobby did many things right that helped him rank fifth by fWAR (48.9) in that period. Just to put that in context: only four players, all of them HoF worthy, were better than Abreu when measured by fWAR during almost a decade: Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez, Andruw Jones and Scott Rolen—no more.

I could go to lengths enumerating all the things that made Abreu Hall-worthy, but Bill James, of course, did it better in one paragraph:

Let’s bring attention back to the one thing that he did better than almost everyone during his career, the thing that was also later recognized as part of one of the biggest revolutions in modern baseball and added momentum to the sabermetrics movement: getting on base as much as possible. In that regard, Abreu was ahead of his time and the electors should recognize that greatness.

For some other great arguments for and against Bob’s merits, we had a great article earlier this year, which you can check back here, by our own Andy Patton and Dave Cherman, or this passionate but thoughtful analysis by Antonio Torres from whom I borrowed the idea to use that Bill James’ tweet. But at this point, I’d like to share the words from one of the most respected Venezuelan sports journalists, Ignacio Serrano, who has been chronicling and writing about Venezuelan baseball and players, locally in the country and in MLB, for more than 35 years.

I asked Mr. Serrano two questions about Abreu’s case: How did Abreu impact the game that makes him HoF worthy and how would his eventual induction impact baseball in Venezuela and everywhere else?

His first answer was very clear: “I believe that the biggest impact from Abreu was in the multiple areas he could make a difference, the multiple things he did and did great, although that contribution at the time went unnoticed… He was not a traditional stats darling but the fact that nowadays we can pause and reflect from the optics on what’s important for the game, to produce runs and avoid them, the better we’ve gotten measuring the impact of a ballplayer on his team, the better we’ve gotten to acknowledge what Abreu did.”

But it was his second answer that really got me thinking: “Just imagine, the transcendence and media importance in Venezuela would be extraordinary… Even the most skeptical would celebrate his induction to the Hall… There is an aspect that is fun, exciting, and that is to witness an important change in the way a country (Venezuela) sees the game, there is a tendency towards old school thinking that views analytics, and everything that derives from the sabermetric movement, with antipathy, where many times claiming to be a follower of it is frowned upon by a large part of the fan base… Bob’s induction could lead us to a radical turn because, together with the applause and national and Caribbean pride, it would also serve in a decisive way so that the bulk of the fans begin to understand those who from the other sidewalk see baseball with other eyes and tool set. It would help them a lot to see this exciting movement differently, in the Caribbean and, particularly, in Venezuela.”

I stand 100% behind Mr. Serrano’s words, but I take them further: Abreu’s cause should be the cause for the whole sabermetrics movement everywhere, his triumph by means of a HoF induction would be the ultimate triumph for everyone invested in analytics.

I’ll end by leaving just a few more stats (as it should be, shouldn’t it?) that encompass the all-around greatness of Bobby Abreu; first, in a more traditional manner, this is the list of players with at least 1,000 runs scored, 1,000 RBI, 1,000 walks, 250 home runs, 400 stolen bases, 500 doubles while batting no less than .290:

  1. Barry Bonds.
  2. Bob Abreu.

That’s it.

And second, a couple of charts; here are the wOBA leaders during Abreu’s whole 18 years career (1996-2014), min. 6500 PA:

1996-2014 wOBA Leaders, MLB

I just left some remarkable names on that leaderboard, but I think you get the idea. The last chart I’ll share is the fWAR leaderboard for the same time period, min. 6500 PA:

1996-2014 fWAR Leaders, MLB

You can clearly see Abreu is extremely well-placed, among a plethora of stars, in the 13th slot with an fWAR of 59.8, better than HoF Vladimir Guerrero. You will find very interesting comps between Abreu and the likes of Guerrero, Tony Gwynn, Sammy Sosa, Ichiro, and others in the Torres’ article I mentioned before.

 

Bottom Line

 

For almost two decades, Bob Abreu was among the elite of baseball players in MLB. He was not recognized as one of the best by the media and analysts of his time, an error that should be corrected. And the best way to do that is to back up his candidacy to the Hall of Fame.

 

Photo by Ryan Szepan Wikimedia Commons/flickr | Adapted by Doug Carlin (@Bdougals on Twitter)

Carlos Marcano

Just a Venezuelan, not living in Venezuela. Intrigued by most of the things that can be measured in baseball, football, basketball, soccer, and life. I love to try to estimate performances.

4 responses to “What Is in a Name? How Abreu’s Conquest of the Bases Was Meant to Be”

  1. Avatar Hector R Marcano A says:

    Excelente artículo. Muy objetivo y expone muy bien las virtudes de Abreu.
    Felicitaciones

  2. Carlos Marcano Carlos Marcano says:

    ¡Muchísimas gracias, Héctor!

  3. Avatar Pepe Latorre says:

    Really cool!!

  4. Carlos Marcano Carlos Marcano says:

    Thanks, Pepe!

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