Jose Abreu Optioned to the Minor Leagues: How Did We Get Here?

In a surprise maneuver, the Houston Astros are demoting their veteran first baseman in hopes of having him right the ship.

Jose Abreu optioned
SEATTLE, WA - MAY 07: Jose Abreu #79 of the Houston Astros walks off the field after an at-bat during a game against the Seattle Mariners at T-Mobile Park on May 7, 2023 in Seattle, Washington. The Mariners won 3-1. (Photo by Stephen Brashear/Getty Images)

It’s been hard to watch Jose Abreu lately.

If you’re a Houston Astros fan, you know exactly what I’m talking about.

Abreu, 37, was mercifully optioned to West Palm Beach in a surprise transaction to close out a brutal month of April that featured a .099/.156/.113 triple slash, along with a .269 OPS (-21 wRC+) in 77 plate appearances.

West Palm Beach, for added context, is where the Astros’ rookie Florida Complex League team plays. A harrowing reality for the veteran first baseman to adjust to, at least temporarily.

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Houston’s GM Dana Brown called the demotion a chance for Abreu “to get some at-bats and his timing back right”, while also praising the 37-year-old for being a “team-first guy.”

But how did we get to this point with the 2020 American League MVP, exactly?

Abreu’s situation deteriorated faster than anyone could’ve expected.

Last season was the first warning sign for Jose Abreu

It’s natural to expect some level of decline as a player ages, but as soon as Abreu signed his three-year, $58.5 million contract with the Astros, he seemed to hit the proverbial “wall”.

Coming off a strong 2022 with the White Sox (his last of nine total seasons with the franchise that signed him out of Cuba in 2014), Abreu had set himself up nicely to cash in on his productive walk year, which he evidently did. He cut down on his strikeout rate (21.7% in 2021 compared to 16.2% in 2022) while walking at a similar clip to the season prior (9.3% in 2021, 9.1% in 2022), a formula that typically leads to success at the plate (137 wRC+, 3.8 fWAR in 2022).

One area of concern for Abreu that season, however? His power output, which had been slashed in half between 2021 (30 HRs) and 2022 (15 HRs).

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For a player whose career has been (and still is) predicated on the long ball, that was an unwelcome development to his game.

Fortunately, Abreu fared a bit better in the power department in his first season with the Astros (18 home runs in 2023), but everything else suffered as a result: his plate discipline (7.1% walk rate against a 22% strikeout rate), fWAR (-0.5) and wRC+ (86).

Even beyond the numbers, though, it was clear that Abreu, then just two full seasons removed from his 2020 AL MVP campaign with the White Sox, wasn’t on his game in 2023. And that should’ve been the first writing on the wall for the Astros.

Abreu simply can’t hit MLB pitching right now

Some players end up with a case of the yips, like the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Gavin Lux had back in spring training.

But what Jose Abreu is experiencing is much more than a case of the yips. He simply looks lost at the plate and the metrics reflect this.

Take Abreu’s hard-hit rate, for example. At just 27.8% thus far in 2024, he’s well below average for a big league hitter, per Baseball Savant.

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He’s also not getting his barrel to the bat, with a 0% barrel rate in 2024.

You read that right: 0%. That means Abreu simply cannot generate any kind of power right now, which again, for a player who has built a career off hitting home runs, is extremely alarming.

For comparison’s sake, Shohei Ohtani’s barrel rate is 23.3% in 2024, which is other-wordly. But that’s simply to provide some additional context on the barrel rate metric and to further demonstrate just how much Abreu’s best tool has declined.

One of the major culprits for this? An inability to hit the fastball.

Abreu was missing nearly 30% of heaters thrown to him in the strike zone this year, which was almost double the amount he whiffed on even just last season (16.3%). And the fastballs he was able to square up weren’t hit hard (average exit velocity of 89.5 miles per hour off the bat in 2024, the lowest of his career).

That made Abreu a relatively easy at-bat for an opposing MLB pitcher in April. Why even bother calling for an off-speed pitch like a changeup, curveball or slider when the hitter can barely catch up to the fastball?

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So what’s next for Jose Abreu and the Houston Astros?

Hopefully, a stint in Florida can help Abreu push the reset button on what has been an unmitigated disaster of a 2024 season thus far.

For what it’s worth, the decision to option the veteran first baseman to the minors was a mutual one, which illustrates Abreu’s awareness of his deep struggles and willingness to do what it takes to help the Houston Astros now and going forward.

The decision is also easier to make given Houston’s overall struggles to begin 2024. Heading into the season’s second month, the Astros sit in last place in the American League West, a position no one expected them to occupy at any point during the season.

With the team struggling, there’s no reason to let Abreu languish with them. Instead, he’ll hope to resurface in Houston after a temporary reboot, while the Astros can see what they have in first base prospect Joey Loperfido, who was just called up to the majors in Abreu’s stead.

Let’s call this a bump in the road, for now. We’ll undoubtedly revisit this topic soon enough, when Abreu’s in the right headspace once again.