Like most people who have followed the sabermetric
revolution over the years, I am a fan of Rob Neyer’s columns. But, his ESPN.com
entry today is a curious piece of writing. It’s ostensibly about Bobby Abreu,
but it’s really a plaint about New
York, and as such, a poor piece of analysis. The
strawman arguments it sets up are, well, made of straw.
The article’s title is: “Abreu Consistently Excellent, But Not Spectacular.”
That headline begs the question: who in the world regards Bobby Abreu as “spectacular?” Neyer himself acknowledges that Abreu’s been under-rated throughout his career. But, Neyer contends, he’s become overrated in the past year or two and, more importantly: “Of course, if Abreu plays well for the Yankees, he'll be more overrated still; for the first time, he'll be discussed as a serious Hall of Fame candidate. This will only intensify if he returns to the Yankees in 2007 and tops 100 walks -- and probably 100 runs scored -- yet again.”
What makes Neyer think that we're on the cusp of a New York-inspired puffed up Hall of Fame candidacy for Bobby Abreu? Well, there’s no direct evidence, but Neyer does begin the article by reporting that on Tuesday night’s Yankee telecast, the YES network noted that Abreu would, by season’s end, become one of only three players who had accumulated 100 walks in eight straight seasons, joining Max Bishop and Frank Thomas. YES is apparently wrong about Bishop, but Neyer observes:
“What does that mean, though? Is eight straight 100-walk seasons more impressive than 11 100-walk seasons in 13 seasons (Lou Gehrig) or 12 in 14 (Babe Ruth) or even eight in nine (Mickey Mantle)? No, not really. "Eight straight" is sort of a freak stat, employed to suggest distinction -- or rather, separation -- where it doesn't really exist.”
I didn’t hear the broadcast, but it’s hard for me to believe that Michael Kay and company were trying to suggest that Abreu’s accomplishments belonged alongside those of Gehrig, Ruth or Mantle or that, by extension YES is preparing the ground for an Abreu-for-the-Hall campaign. Abreu’s accomplishment simply means that he is extremely proficient at drawing walks.
Neyer is imagining a hyperbolic characterization of Abreu’s skills which, as far as I can tell, none of his peers in the baseball commentary community actually holds.
I read perhaps two dozen articles from national newspapers from the two days following the Abreu trade. Not a single one called Abreu “spectacular.” In fact, not a single one called him “excellent.” (one referred to his “reputation” as a "great" player, but juxtaposed that to his apparent attitude problems.) Not a single one, in fact, mentioned his on-base percentage, which would place him third among all National League players as of tonight. Several, in addition to the one just mentioned, referenced his widely discussed (if unsubstantiated) attitude issues. Several also noted his declining homerun totals since the 2005 All-Star break.
Here’s some of what’s been said.
Roger Rubin, in the New York Daily News:
“Abreu went into last night's game hitting more than 20 points below his career average and with only eight home runs in 98 games.”
Murray Chass, in the New York Times:
“The Yankees will rationalize their Abreu expenditure by
pointing out that his $15 million salary next season will replace Sheffield's $13 million. Sheffield
has an option for next season, but the early betting is that the Yankees will
not exercise it. The Yankees, though, say that is a decision for November.
If the Yankees substitute Abreu for Sheffield, they may make a mistake. Abreu is nearly six years younger than Sheffield, but in his first two years with the Yankees, Sheffield established himself as their most valuable player and a player who is willing to play through injuries.”
As an aside, the insinuation here that Abreu doesn’t play through pain is a bit puzzling, since he’s not been on the DL since 1997 (as Neyer notes), but this is what happens when you have an “attitude problem.” In any event, certainly not a ringing endorsement of Abreu.
Jim Salisbury, of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:
“Whether you're a fan of his or not, Abreu is a very good major-league player and, despite a loss of power over the last year, he has plenty of offensive gifts.”
Salisbury does credit Abreu’s ability to draw walks, though he also highlights Abreu’s power shortage and the fact that Abreu’s teams never made the postseason (as Mad DogRusso did on the FAN on Monday).
Ian O’Connor, of USA Today, had this to say about the Yankees’ acquisition of Abreu and Corey Lidle:
“No, Bobby Abreu
and Cory Lidle shouldn't be confused with Reggie Jackson and Catfish Hunter. Abreu hasn't homered since the Carter
administration, and Lidle is what baseball people call an innings guy -- slang
for a pitcher who isn't very good.
But Abreu and Lidle will give the Yankees a slightly better chance of winning their 27th World Series title, and their seventh under Steinbrenner, which is the point of all this. ”
The upshot is clear: baseball commentators have a quite sober understanding of Abreu, with a tendency, it seems, to continue to somewhat undervalue him as an offensive player because a very high on-base percentage still doesn’t merit the attention it deserves from mainstream baseball commentary. In any event, no one thinks Abreu is spectacular or even remotely so. He’s slumped some as a player in the past year, though his core skill is still intact, and it’s hard to know by what standard Neyer regards him as now overrated.
But, this is a set-up. Neyer’s real quarry is to discuss Abreu’s chances as a Hall of Famer which, as noted above, has allegedly (and presumably unfairly) increased dramatically because he’s now a Yankee.
“Does he have a legitimate shot? Right now, he's on the borderline between legitimate and not so much. The walks and the on-base percentage are certainly impressive, as is Abreu's durability (he hasn't hit the DL since 1997, his rookie season). But Abreu rarely has been among the best hitters in the National League, and he never has finished better than 14th in MVP balloting. Entering this season, his career "adjusted OPS" -- his on-base percentage plus slugging percentage, adjusted for league and ballparks -- was 138 (100 is the league average).
That's an impressive figure, but really not any better than Bernie Williams' OPS+ at the same age. Williams is not generally considered a top Hall of Fame candidate, and of course Abreu doesn't have Williams' postseason résumé or defensive value.”
It’s puzzling that Neyer would compare Abreu to Bernie Williams, to make the point that Abreu’s got an inflated chance to be considered a Hall of Famer now that he’s a Yankee. After all, Bernie’s a Yankee, too, and a lifelong one at that. If it’s so obvious that Abreu is an instant candidate for being overrated, what explains, as Baseball Prospectus noted in 2003, how a player as great as Bernie had been, playing centerfield for a Yankee dynasty, could get as little credit as he did for his accomplishments. If Bernie’s not in the running for Cooperstown after all he’s done in the Bronx, why would one good season in pinstripes vault Abreu ahead of Bernie for Hall of Fame consideration?
<>Furthermore, while Neyer notes that Abreu never finished
higher than 14th in MVP voting,
he could also have acknowledged that this was a consequence of extreme
negligence on the part of MVP voters. Since Neyer’s preferred stat here is
adjusted OPS, it’s worth noting that, in 2002, Abreu’s was 155, and he’s also had
an adjusted OPS of 149 in 1999 and 2004. What’s significant about these
numbers? They are equal to or better than Juan Gonzalez, when Juan Gone was
winning AL MVP awards in 1996 (150) and 1998 (149). Ditto for Alex Rodriguez,
who won the AL MVP in 2003 with a 148 and Kirk Gibson, NL MVP in 1988 with a
149. Vlad Guerrero won the 2004 MVP with a 154. Aside from Arod, everyone of
these players is a corner outfielder like Abreu and even if you don’t like
Abreu’s defense, please don’t tell me that Gonzalez or Gibson won an MVP for
their glove. Does this mean Abreu deserved an MVP? No. But, it does show that
he has had several seasons in line with guys who actually won the award and, therefore, that the
fact that he’s never managed better than a 14th place finish in the
voting reflects the ongoing undervaluing of OBP, Abreu’s number one skill, and
the ongoing overvaluing of homeruns, RBIs and playing for a winner. If Neyer
weren’t whining about how unfair our New York-centric world is, this would be
his cause, too, as it has so often been in his writing.
By the way, as for the comment that Abreu’s never really been one of the best offensive players in the league, his adjusted OPS was in the top ten in the NL in the three seasons mentioned above. That sounds like a pretty good definition of “one of the best” to me.</>
A final point here. Neyer well knows, because his mentor Bill James has written about it numerous times, New York players have long tended to be, if anything, undervalued in MVP voting, likely the result of an anti-New York backlash by the non New York writers. Playing in the Big Apple certainly increases one’s notoriety and if the Yankees make the postseason this year, Abreu’s Q-factor will undoubtedly increase. But, no one is calling Abreu spectacular, and no one is likely to any time soon. Unless he reverses his power decline, he’ll continue to be undervalued because the thing he does best, get on base, continues to be undervalued. Playing in New York does not, contra Neyer, automatically enhance the public’s perception of your value as a ball player. The only thing that Abreu’s arrival in New York guarantees is that he will be subject to more scrutiny.
Ask Alex Rodriguez whether that’s been good for his reputation as a baseball player.