Reviewing José Abreu’s Record-Book Rookie Big League Season

José D. Abreu

An apparent shoo-in to walk off with 2014 American League Rookie of the Year honors, José Dariel Abreu has now completed a summer-long debut performance in Chicago that surprised even the most ardent advocates who had watched him tear up Cuban League pitching for much of the past half-dozen winter seasons. Abreu hardly flashed on to the big league scene as a lightning bolt shot out of nowhere; he was hardly an “unknown quantity” for those who had followed the Cuban domestic national pastime across recent winter seasons. A full year before his Cuban departure he was touted by one writer – Jonah Keri of Grantland.com – as “the best hitter you never heard of” and big league scouts following Team Cuba in international venues had long raved of Abreu’s  raw power and superior plate discipline. This author had already waxed prophetic about Abreu’s potential high-impact rookie presence in a mid-year article penned for The Baseball Digest. By the mid-season All-Star Break it was apparent that the bulky and super talented refugee slugger was already launched on a torrid pace that might possibly re-write almost every line in the MLB rookie-year record books.

There were some sceptics, of course, but their numbers were quite limited and their stale refrains about overrated Cuban Leaguers were quickly muted. After all, two near misses at an unprecedented Cuban League offensive Triple Crown and a trio of consecutive island 90-game seasons with soaring numbers for homers (30, 33, 35), RBI (76, 93, 99) and BA (.399, .453, .394) were evidence enough of sure-fire and even quite remarkable big league potential. The rap among the naysayers, of course, has long been that Cuba’s top slugging stars feed off inferior pitching back home and thus always own inflated and thus unreliable numbers. Few insiders doubted that the “power game” (lots of homers and lots of run production) would be a prime asset for the muscular 6-3, 255 pound first sacker. But what surprised even some of his strongest early supporters as the season progressed was Abreu’s consistently mature display of plate discipline, his skill at stroking pitches with relentless consistency to the opposite field, and an unanticipated batting acumen that quickly established the prize rookie as far more than a mere free-swinging long-ball-oriented prototype slugger.

José D. Abreu

The power numbers would inevitably drop as the season extended into the dog days of late summer. At mid-year Abreu seemed a lock to obliterate Mark McGwire’s rookie home run standard of 49, with 30 already in the books at the season’s half-way point. It appeared for a while that he might even have a shot at the more difficult target of a seemingly unassailable 1939 rookie RBI mark (145) owed by Hall-of-Famer Ted Williams. The nagging question was how well could Abreu stand up over a season that was almost 40% longer than any he had ever played back home in Cuba? And what would happen the third and fourth times around the circuit when savvy big league hurlers began to figure out how to pitch to the untested Cuban rookie?

Abreu’s power production did indeed sag as the year wore on; there would be only six homers after the All-Star break. But pure hitting skills actually spiked after the Mid-Summer Classic and Abreu’s second half was by all other measures (outside of the long-ball) even better down the season’s final wilting stretch. With an initial 18-game hitting string broken on the very day of the traditional July 4 midpoint, Abreu immediately launched a second skein that lasted 21 more days. The lengthy hitting onslaught (there would be a third 14-game string in late August) lifted his average by nearly 30 percentage points between mid-July and mid-August, and by early September there were only two American League rivals outpacing him in the batting race. (In my July Baseball Digest article I had prophetically warned that Abreu was after all – like all Cubans – a hot-weather hitter seasoned by a tropical island environment.) In the end his .317 BA stood sixth overall, topped only by José Altuve, Victor Martínez, Mickey Brantley, Adrian Beltre, and NL pacesetter Justin Morneau.

With his eye-catching early season power numbers and his “second-half” surge in hitting proficiency, José Abreu would eventually end up in truly rare company among hordes rookies preceding across the game’s long annals. Of course it might well be debated that Abreu (like Japanese ROY winners Ichiro Suzuki, Kazuhiro Sasaki and Hideo Nomo) was not a legitimate “rookie” after all. He came to the big leagues with plenty of seasoning in a foreign professional league of admittedly high standards (a league that features 40 or 50 big leaguers alongside uneven talent ranging from Class AA to university-level performers). But there is another side to that coin, since if one considers performances by players breaking into “the Show” without any previous MLB playing time (true rookies, and not those who qualify by the technicality of fewer than 130 previous at-bats), then Abreu’s numbers look even that much better. Only 26 big league “official” rookies have ever reached the 30-home-run plateau and Abreu with 36 would end up in the number six slot (edging out four others with 35 on the season’s penultimate day). But it has to be noted that of the five previous “rookies” claiming more than 36 round trippers, only three (Wally Berger, Frank Robinson, and Albert Pujols) did so without at least a modicum of previous big league playing time.

List of 26 MLB Rookies Hitting 30-Plus Homers
1. 1987, Mark McGwire, Athletics, 49* (AL and MLB Leader in 1987) (118 RBI)
2. 1930, Wally Berger, Braves, 38 (119 RBI)
2. 1956, Frank Robinson, Reds, 38 (83 RBI)
4. 1950, Al Rosen, Indians, 37* (AL Leader in 1950) (116 RBI)
4. 2001, Albert Pujols, Cardinals, 37 (130 RBI)
6. 2014, José Abreu, White Sox, 36 (107 RBI)
7. 1993, Mike Piazza, Dodgers, 35* (112 RBI)
7. 1983, Ron Kittle, White Sox, 35* (100 RBI)
7. 1937, Rudy York, Tigers, 35* (103 RBI)
7. 1934, Hal Trosky, Indians, 35* (142 RBI)
11. 2007, Ryan Braun, Brewers, 34 (97 RBI)
11. 1950, Walt Dropo, Red Sox, 34* (144 RBI)
13. 1986, José Canseco, Athletics, 33* (117 RBI)
13. 1971, Earl Williams, Braves, 33* (87 RBI)
13. 1963, Jimmie Hall, Twins, 33 (80 RBI)
16. 2007, Chris Young, D-Backs, 32* (68 RBI)
16. 1987, Matt Nokes, Tigers, 32* (87 RBI)
16. 1964, Tony Oliva, Twins, 32* (94 RBI)
19. 1993, Tim Salmon, Angels, 31* (95 RBI)
19. 1964, Jim Ray Hart, Giants, 31* (81 RBI)
19. 1939, Ted Williams, Red Sox, 31 (145 RBI)
22. 2012, Mike Trout, Angles, 30* (83 RBI)
22. 1997, Nomar Garciaparra, Red Sox, 30* (98 RBI)
22. 1986, Pete Incaviglia, Rangers, 30 (88 RBI)
22. 1971, Willie Montanez, Phillies, 30* (99 RBI)
22. 1959, Bob Allison, Senators, 30* (85 RBI)

Boldface = League Leader in Home Runs
Red Typeface = 30+ homers and 100+ RBI
*= Had previous big league experience (but less than 130 ABs in any one year) before “official” rookie year

The list of MLB rookies claiming in excess of 100 RBI is ironically identical in length (although only a dozen individuals are repeaters from the above 30-plus home run list), numbering again 26 once Abreu joined the club in early September. And here “El Hombre” (a moniker coined by longtime White Sox broadcaster Ken Harrelson, who also earlier dubbed Hall-of-Famer Frank Thomas “The Big Hurt”) ranks considerably further down the list – at number 19, edging out now-long-forgotten Del Bissonette and recently retired Hideki Matsui during his final appearance on the season’s penultimate day). Once again, however, the Cuban moves somewhat farther up the inventory list once only true “first-time” big leaguers are considered – this time climbing into the number 13 position.

List of MLB Rookies Posting 100-RBI
1. 1939, Ted Williams, Red Sox 145 (AL Leader and MLB Leader in 1939)
2. 1950, Walt Dropo, Red Sox, 144* (AL Leader and MLB Leader in 1950)
3.1934, Hal Trosky, Indians, 142*
4. 1929, Dale Alexander, Tigers, 137
5. 2001, Albert Pujols, Cardinals, 130
6. 1936, Joe DiMaggio, Yankees, 125
7. 1930, Wally Berger, Braves, 119
8. 1987, Mark McGwire, Athletics, 118*
9. 1986, José Canseco, Athletics, 117*
10. 1984, Alvin Davis, Mariners, 116
10. 1950, Al Rosen, Indians, 116*
12. 1926, Tony Lazzeri, Yankees, 114
12. 1930, Smead Jolley, White Sox, 114
14. 1993, Mike Piazza, Dodgers, 112*
14. 1953, Ray Jablonski, Cardinals, 112
16. 1924, Glenn Wright, Pirates, 111
16. 1938, Johnny Rizzo, Pirates, 111
18. 1934, Zeke Bonura, White Sox, 110
19. 2014, José Abreu, White Sox, 107
20. 1928, Del Bissonette, Dodgers, 106
20. 2003, Hideki Matsui, Yankees, 106
22. 1975, Fred Lynn, Red Sox, 105*
22. 1937, Rudy York, Tigers, 103*
24. 1924, Al Simmons, Athletics, 102
25. 1986, Wally Joyner, Angels, 100
25. 1983, Ron Kittle, White Sox, 100*

Boldface = League Leader in RBI
* = Had previous big league experience before “official” rookie year

But to get a much better look at the historical impact of Abreu’s debut campaign it serves us better to combine the two traditional power categories and consider only that smaller inventory of players appearing on both lists. Only a dozen rookies have compiled a total of 30-plus homers and 100-plus RBI and with that more “selective” group Abreu also makes the cut. Again here it might be mentioned that only Berger, Pujols, Abreu, and Ted Williams were able to join this club in their true “first summer” of big league action (all the others having appeared earlier but still qualifying as rookies by the technical standards long in place). If we elevate the standard a notch farther and consider only those players with 35-plus dingers alongside the century mark in RBI, now the select group drops to only a mere nine. And once we throw hitting for average into the mix – and rank hitters in an order based on batting average – José Abreu climbs all the way to number four in the peck order. And he trails only Pujols among players setting foot on a big league diamond for the very first time. And of these mere five freshman stars that comprise the exclusive 35-100-.310 club, Abreu actually played in the fewest number of ball games. This final listing might alone be reason enough to suggest that the Cuban star logged one of the top overall rookie performances to be found anywhere in the big league game’s rich century and a quarter history.

List of Rookies with 35 Homers and 100 RBI (Ranked by Batting Average)

1. 1934, Hal Trosky, Indians, 35* (142 RBI) (.330 BA) (154 Games)
2. 2001, Albert Pujols, Cardinals, 37 (130 RBI) (.329 BA) (161 Games)
3. 1993, Mike Piazza, Dodgers, 35* (112 RBI) (.318 BA) (149 Games)
4. 2014, José Abreu, White Sox, 36 (107 RBI) (.317 BA) (145 Games)
5. 1930, Wally Berger, Braves, 38 (119 RBI) (.310 BA) (151 Games)

* = Had previous big league experience before “official” rookie year

Of course these comparisons like most such statistical measures in the diamond sport are subject to all the usual caveats. It is always a highly risky business to compare players from one era to any earlier or later time span. A number of the men on these lists enjoyed the indisputable advantages off playing in the hitter-friendly decade of the 1930s, an era acknowledged to feature weak pitching and tiny ballparks. Wally Berger and Hal Trosky are most especially subject to that particular caveat. Abreu’s numbers have by contrast come in a season that seems to be one where pitching has returned to the forefront, a year in which overall batting has sagged. There was but a single 40-plus home run hitter this year (Nelson Cruz in Baltimore with exactly 40); and the RBI totals (only Adrian González in the NL and Mike Trout in the AL topped 110) are hardly impressive compared to other epochs. The National League boasted the smallest number of .300 hitters (only seven) in quite some time, and the Junior Circuit saw only ten batsmen reach the charmed .300 circle. Justin Morneau’s NL-leading .316 was the lowest in 23 full seasons (since Terry Pendleton also reigned with an identical figure back in 1991).

José D. Abreu

Comparing Abreu to his own Cuban countrymen is yet another measure of his debut accomplishments. Perhaps only Tony Oliva ever enjoyed a better rookie performance among the Cubans, especially since Oliva became the first big league rookie ever to walk off with a batting title, and he also paced the Junior Circuit in four other major offensive categories that year (hits, runs, doubles and total bases). Puig last year seemed to set a new standard with his debut-month top rookie and top player trophies; but by season’s end Puig’s power numbers (19 homers and only 42 RBI despite a comparable .319 BA) were nothing like those Abreu would ring up a year later. José Fernández was a Cuban ROY with the Miami Marlins only a year ago, but Fernández is a pitcher, not an everyday performer. And he is also arguably a “technicality” – a Cuban who grew up stateside while developing his baseball skills in Florida and on not on the island of his birth. And the same must be said for José Canseco, an “American” Cuban player who boasts Cuban bloodlines but not a single iota of Cuban baseball experience. And Canseco for the record outdistanced Abreu in only a single notable statistical department (with ten more RBI), even if we overlook the pressing fact that the “poster boy for the steroid generation” never set foot on a single Cuban baseball diamond.

By still another measure, Abreu’s numbers place him in a unique category among his big league countrymen even when entire careers are considered. Only five previous Cubans have ever slugged 30-plus homers during a big league season (Palmeiro did it twice), and a nearly identical number have knocked home 100-plus runs. A half dozen Cubanos have previously crossed the 100 RBI plateau, although several have achieved that distinction on multiple occasions: Palmeiro (ten times overall, including nine straight years), Perez (seven), Canseco (six), Miñoso (four), Oliva (twice) and Kendry Morales (once).

Six Cubans with 30-Homer Seasons in the Big Leagues

Rafael Palmeiro 47 (1999 and 2001)
José Canseco 46 (1998)
Tony Pérez 40 (1970)
José Abreu 37 (2014)
Kendry Morales 34 (2009)
Tony Oliva 32 (1964)

 

There are also other measures of Abreu remarkable year – all worthy of mention. Bursting on the scene in the month of Abril, he quickly joined former Cienfuegos teammate Yasiel Puig as the only two players in big league baseball history to earn overlapping “rookie-of-the-month” and “player-of-the-month” plaudits for their spectacular first 30-day-span of big league action. Abreu would earn these same honors on several more occasions, as the month’s top AL performer in July and as top rookie in both June and July. He would also post three of the longest consecutive-game hitting streaks of the campaign, strings of 18 (June 15 thru July 4), 21 (July 6 thru August 1) and 14 games (August 19 thru September 5). A single dry outing on July 5 interrupted a hot spell in which Abreu hit safely in 39 of 40 consecutive outings. And several historic landmarks were reached along the way. Abreu became only the second rookie in the past 65 seasons (following Ichiro in 2001) boasting multiple 18-plus-game hitting strings, and the first White Sox player (rookie or otherwise) to do so since Hall-of-Fame Eddie Collins turned the trick back in 1920. Abreu also joined former Boston star Nomar Garciaparra as the only two big leaguers ever to slug 30 homers and author a pair of 18-plus batting streaks in the same campaign.

He would also become only the sixth Cuban rookie in either league to earn an MLB All-Star Game roster spot, following the in footsteps of Orestes Miñoso (1951), Tony Oliva (1964), José Canseco (1986), Rolando Arrojo (1998) and Tampa-raised José Fernández (2013). And the all-but-rubber-stamped ROY honors will soon put him in yet another rare category as the fourth Cuban to garner the prestigious award (Oliva, Canseco, and Fernández preceded him). It should also be pointed out here that José Abreu is only the second Cuban to achieve these various feats and awards after developing his skills while playing in the post-revolution “modern-era” Cuban League. The only other “defector” to stake such a claim was Rolando Arrojo with his single All-Star appearance a decade and a half earlier.

It was after all a dizzying ride, and all indications are that next year will likely raise the bar a further notch. Rusney Castillo has already garnered a bigger signing bonus ($72 million), and there are rumors that Yasmani Tomas might extend the Cuban “gold rush” even farther, since there is now chatter about a potential (and more than likely unwarranted) $90 million package being thrown at the latest slugging refugee from Fidel Castro’s diminishing baseball empire. Given the rapidity with which Abreu trumped Puig’s initial breakout debut year it might be risky business to dismiss altogether the possibility of yet another such Cuban rookie onslaught next spring. During brief September call-ups Castillo (with a pair of homers and .333 BA over only 10 games) and Chicago Cubs flashy prospect Jorge Soler (24 outings with 5 dingers and a .292 hitting mark) both served notice that there might be yet another Abreu or Puig ready to explode on the scene. But the likelihood of either Castillo or Soler (or perhaps Yasmani Tomas) approaching Abreu’s rookie performance does nonetheless seem rather a longshot indeed.

 

Peter C. Bjarkman is Senior Writer at BaseballdeCuba.com (since 2007), widely recognized as a leading authority on Cuban baseball history (both pre- and post-revolution) and author of A History of Cuban Baseball, 1864-2006 (2007) among numerous other titles.