CJ Abrams is Taking the Leap for the Washington Nationals

After showing signs of finding his footing towards the end of 2023, CJ Abrams has emerged as the early breakout star of the 2024 season.

WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 20: CJ Abrams #5 of the Washington Nationals rounds the bases after hitting a home run in the first inning against the Houston Astros at Nationals Park on April 20, 2024 in Washington, DC. (Photo by G Fiume/Getty Images)

When you trade away a franchise player, you hope the return can replace some of the lost production or set your team up well for the future. But when you deal a talent such as Juan Soto, you had better have at least one, if not more, difference-makers coming your way.

For the Washington Nationals, the early returns on their late-July 2022 deal with the San Diego Padres have eased the pain of trading away one of baseball’s best hitters.

James Wood has emerged as a top-10 prospect, Mackenzie Gore has started to deliver on his top-prospect pedigree, and CJ Abrams is blossoming into a superstar in front of our very eyes.

While the Nationals haven’t arrived at their next competitive window, Abrams’ play to open the 2024 season has given them one young star already playing at the major league level.

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As Just Baseball’s Aram Leighton wrote last September, Abrams had begun to scratch the surface of what was possible for him.

And he’s only continued on that upward trajectory this year after making a few mechanical tweaks in the last month of the season.

Following Sunday’s loss at the hands of the Miami Marlins, the 23-year-old shortstop was slashing .296/.367/.612 with six home runs, a .414 wOBA, 164 wRC+, and five stolen bases.

If you look at Abrams’ Baseball Savant page, you’ll see that this is more than just a hot start for the 2019 sixth-overall pick.

So let’s dive in and see what Abrams has done at the plate to take some significant steps forward to open the year.

Improved quality of contact

The easiest factor to attribute Abrams’ early-season success to is just how well he’s hitting the ball.

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He’s posting career-highs in average exit velocity (88.5 mph), barrel rate (8.9%), sweet spot percentage (46.8%), hard-hit rate (36.7%), and xwOBA (.394).

All these numbers just go to show that Abrams is making the most out of his contact when he’s making it, which is extremely impressive for a hitter who also doesn’t swing and miss that often.

To go along with his improved bat-on-ball numbers, Abrams is walking at a career-best clip and posting the lowest whiff rate of his career.

Essentially, what Abrams has done is what every hitter strives to do. Make more solid contact while making more contact.

Between adding muscle over the offseason, as he told The Athletic‘s Eno Sarris and the mechanical changes that have him staying in his backside a little bit longer, it’s clear that Abrams’ power surge in 2024 is a tangible product and not the result of a hot opening month.

Smashing fastballs

In 2023, Abrams was one of the worst hitters in baseball against four-seam fastballs.

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He posted a -14 run value — only two hitters had worse totals — and hit just .227 against the pitch. Pitchers obviously recognized the weakness and attacked the Nationals shortstop accordingly. 

Abrams saw four-seamers 33% of the time, and even though he wasn’t swinging and missing at them all that much, he couldn’t find a way to do significant damage when he put the ball in play.

But in 2024, he’s completely flipped the script.

Abrams has a +6 run value, is hitting .400 and is slugging 1.040 against four-seamers.

While some hitters can find success in selling out for the fastball, a positive sign in Abrams’ numbers is that he doesn’t appear to be sacrificing success on breaking pitches as he finds success against fastballs.

He only has a negative run value against one of the nine different pitch types — splitters — he’s seen this season, according to Baseball Savant. This will be important for him to maintain going forward, as pitchers have already started throwing him fewer fastballs with his early success against heaters.

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Pulling the ball in the air

While Abrams is hitting the ball harder than he ever has before, he’s also getting the most out of that contact by pulling the ball in the air more often.

He’s posting the highest average launch angle (17.8 degrees) and pull rate (50.6%) of his career.

All six of Abrams’ homers have come to the pull side, and seven of the left-handed hitter’s other eight extra-base hits have gone to right field.

Abrams has dramatically dropped his ground ball rate so far this season, going from 44.8% in 2023 to 30.4% in 2024. His flyball rate has actually also dropped this year, but the near 14% bump in line drive rate has played a big role in his success, as well. None of Abrams’ line drives have left the yard, but when he is hitting the ball on a line, he’s hitting .593 and .926 slugging percentage.

If you combine the flyballs and line drives that Abrams has hit to the pull side this season, they account for nearly 30% of all his batted balls — a mark that was 15.7% for him in 2023.

Since Abrams doesn’t post the gaudy exit velocities of some of the most feared sluggers in baseball, pulling the ball is a way for him to find the type of power potential he’s showcased through the first month of the season.

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There still is some work for Abrams to do defensively to enter the upper echelon of superstars in MLB, but at just 23-years old, the future sure does look bright for the Nationals and their franchise shortstop.