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Albert Abreu is coming along slowly

With several Yankees returning from injury this week, his results may have been too little, too late to justify his roster spot.

MLB: New York Yankees at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Albert Abreu’s circuitous development took him through three organizations after debuting with the Yankees in 2020, and fans came into this year with the fading impression that Abreu’s potential, elusive for three seasons, was still in there somewhere.

Before 2022, you could draw comparisons from Abreu to Jonathan Loáisiga, as a young reliever poised to make the step up to late-inning weapon. It didn’t turn out that way, and he ended up DFA’d in a roster crunch. The Yankees showed some belief in him by bringing him back into the fold after detours in Texas and Kansas City. They’ve now held down a roster spot for Abreu the better part of three years, and the results still aren’t there. Whether he sticks around when several regulars return from the IL remains to be seen.

Abreu’s velocity has dropped demonstrably this season, in general a red flag, but it could be indicative of adjustments he’s made to stay in the strike zone. It’s not unheard of at all for relievers to struggle to locate at max effort, and to find more success with their mechanics under control. His sinker and four-seamer still have above-average zip on them even throttled down.

The Yankees fiddled with his repertoire again this offseason to finally coax better results from the young right-hander. Most glaringly, his four-seamer has been all but abandoned. Abreu has mediocre fastball spin, only in the 21st percentile this year, and the pitch didn’t have enough carry to miss bats up in the zone despite its excellent velocity, so it makes sense for Abreu to deemphasize that part of his game.

Abreu entered 2023 with a ghastly 5.52 career FIP, in no small part due to his high walk rate. Command has always been the problem, and after 76.2 big league innings averaging an even five walks per nine, the Yankees tweaked his arsenal coming into this year to mixed results so far. Let’s go further under the hood and examine the movement profiles of his sinker and changeup.

Abreu’s repertoire is a bit misleading — he throws hard, but the shapes of his slider and sinker aren’t as lively. Because of this, he doesn’t miss as many bats as his velocity would imply. Because of its toned-down movement profile, one figures the Yankees see the possibility of commanding the sinker as a primary pitch. By contrast, Clay Holmes’ sinker has so much movement that he struggles to command it as his primary pitch. Abreu’s sinker could more easily avoid that problem.

The coaching staff can play with Abreu’s stuff in every which way, but it won’t change the simple issue of falling behind in counts. Abreu’s command issues only exacerbated the existing problems with his primary offering. His four-seamer had multiple problems: low spin, he didn’t command it well enough to be effective, and, often behind in counts, he threw it most often to hitters sitting dead red. Hitters of any quality turn dangerous when they guess right.

The use of his changeup is the one area Abreu shows the most potential. He tends to locate the pitch much more precisely than the sinker, which has a very similar shape to the changeup. This begs another question of usage: should the sinker be deemphasized in favor of the changeup if they have identical shapes and his command is flat-out better with the latter?

The location chart for the sinker has too much red too close to the middle of the plate:

By contrast, The changeup’s chart looks remarkable for a pitcher with such steep command problems.

The move from four-seamer to sinker was a positive one, but a sinker/changeup pitch mix more like Wandy Peralta’s from the right side could yield sharper results.

The changeup has been objectively a better pitch for Abreu this year, which is encouraging. The most noticeable change in his results is limiting extra base hits: his xSLG has decreased every year of his career, dropping from .370 in 2022 to .353 this season. The average exit velocity on the changeup fell significantly from last year to this year: 92.5 mph last year to 85.3 mph in 2023.

Overall, these tweaks have produced some modest results in avoiding hard contact, especially using his changeup. Even after ditching the four-seamer, Abreu still walks too many, and becoming changeup-primary could be his best shot at more improvement — if he even gets the chance as a number of rehabbing Yankees loom in Somerset.