There was a brief moment last August when Albert Abreu looked like he was about to become an important part of the Yankees bullpen. In that month, he tossed 14.1 innings with a 2.51 ERA, while opposing batters hit just .196 and slugged .314. For the first time in his career, his main offering was a sinker. Like many other relievers on the team, that sinker was the main weapon he used in lifting himself out of jams.
Unfortunately, Abreu couldn’t keep up this performance for too long, as he struggled for the rest of the year in his small sample of eight innings pitched. His brief stretch of not giving up home runs ended abruptly. The 8.3 percent of fly balls that left the yard in August jumped to 27.3 percent in September and October. On the surface, it looks like August was a fluke. But was it?
It’s tough to define whether Abreu was doing anything differently in August versus the other months. His pitch mix didn’t significantly vary month to month, and he never had a stretch where his usage was consistent. Because of that, it makes the most sense to judge Abreu holistically, based on his raw stuff and what he brings to the mound every day.
At first glance, Abreu’s arsenal resembles that of a pitcher who would spam high fastballs and low and away sliders.
When you see a four-seam fastball with near perfect active spin/spin efficiency, you expect that pitcher to use that pitch more than any other, and for Abreu’s entire career before 2021, that is exactly what he did. For some reason, it never resulted in sustained success. Abreu is a pitcher who came from the Houston Astros organization, and who always maintained high prospect status because of this key pitch trait. To abandon it for a sinker with almost near perfect active spin as well is an interesting move.
The shift from four-seamer to sinker begs the question: how good is this sinker that it was worth decreasing the four-seam usage rate from 50 percent to 15 percent? Well, Abreu wasn’t exactly figuring it out with the four-seam. His command and control were both always iffy. Poor control and middling spin can be a dangerous combo for a pitcher trying to pound the upper part of the strike zone. A small mistake can leave a heater in the money zone for hitters to take the fastball deep, as Abreu often did.
That’s where the sinker comes into play. It’s a low spin pitch, but he is throwing it with some serious heat. If other Yankee sinker ballers have shown us anything, it’s that a high velocity sinker is a great tool to miss barrels and yield unthreatening contact. In all of 2021, Abreu gave up a -2 degree launch angle on all sinkers, versus 20 degrees on four-seamers. Obviously, this isn’t an extremely sophisticated analysis, but it’s a huge indicator for Abreu, since he’s been prone to giving up barrels on his four-seamer for his entire career.
When you locate sinkers in this area of the zone at 99 mph, you’re bound to miss barrels. Like many pitchers, Abreu will find success when he begins to consistently control this pitch. It doesn’t have crazy movement or seam-shifted wake, so it’s not necessarily a wickedly nasty pitch, making the control extremely important.
So is that it? Abreu’s key to success is just controlling his sinker? Well, in a way, yes. Abreu has always had above-average secondary offerings, but lacked the fastball to make those offerings play up. With a controlled sinker that mirrors well with his changeup and a slider to get whiffs, his ceiling as a reliever is similar to that of other Yankee stud relief pitchers. Sometimes that’s all it takes when you throw this hard. Once you find the fastball that you can control, and which simultaneously optimizes your other pitches, your future is immediately brighter.