Andrew Abbott’s evolution as a pitcher

Andrew Abbott was fairly highly regarded prior to making his Major League debut last season for the Reds. After seemingly finding a new level in 54 innings between AA and AAA early last season, Abbott got the call to the big leagues in early June.

Abbott’s profile as a pitcher has been fairly fluid to this point, undergoing significant changes throughout his professional time while still remaining effective overall. Once known as an elite strikeout rate pitcher, having struck out no less than 30.8% of hitters at any level of the minors, the same profile didn’t exactly translate to the Majors.

To fully understand Abbott’s career trajectory to this point, we can first dive further into his minor league numbers. Beginning with 2022, his first full professional season, Abbott showed flashes to indicate he may have a future in a Major League rotation. Along with the elite strikeout rate, which sat at a combined 32.5% across two levels that year, he also did a good job at limiting hits and home runs. In AA, he allowed opponents to hit just .247 with 7 HR, despite a rather high .360 BABIP. He also maintained a 9.8% walk rate, just a touch worse than the Major League average. He also did this as a ground ball pitcher, posting a 44.5% ground ball rate.

2023 saw Abbott begin the season with three starts at AA, in which he allowed just six hits and three walks, striking out an insane 36 of the 56 total batters he faced. However, it’s worth cautioning that his strikeout rate was likely aided significantly by a different baseball they were testing in two leagues in AA. The ball was more tacky, and therefore caused a league-wide increase in both walks and strikeouts.

Abbott then moved to AAA, throwing 38 ⅓ innings with a still-high 34.8% strikeout rate. Notably, his ground ball rate dipped slightly at both levels in 2023, dropping to 39.3% in AAA.

Being called up to the Majors brought more changes to Abbott’s overall profile. Over the full 109 ⅓ inning sample, the strikeout rate dipped to 26.1%, and he allowed opponents to hit .242 with a more reasonable .302 BABIP. A major shift in his batted ball profile also occurred, with his ground ball rate dropping to 28.6% and his fly ball rate rising to 51.7%. The one aspect of Abbott’s game that has remained fairly consistent throughout every meaningful sample size in his career is the walk rate, which has hovered between 9-10%.

Even throughout his Major League time alone in 2023, Abbott saw some significant shifts throughout the season. Prior to the 2023 season, Abbott’s highest single season inning total in his professional career was 118 innings in 2022. If we split Abbott’s MLB starts into two groups encapsulating his first 11 starts in one group and his last 10 starts in the other, that almost exactly shows where he began to surpass his career high in innings. After his 11th start, which occurred on July 31, Abbott had thrown 119 innings in 2023 between the Majors and the Minors.

In those first 11 starts, Abbott pitched to the tune of a 2.35 ERA, allowing more than two runs in a start just twice. That came with holding opponents to a .196 average, though with a low .235 BABIP and 9 HR. He also struck out 27.8% and walked 8.6% in those starts, at least somewhat comparable to his minor league numbers. FIP and xFIP were less optimistic on Abbott’s performance, as he posted a 3.89 FIP and 4.40 xFIP in that time. His ground ball rate was an extremely low 24.4% in those starts, and his fly ball rate was 56.9%. Interestingly, this was far and away the most fly balls and least ground balls Abbott had allowed at any point in his professional career. He allowed a 34.6% hard hit rate and a 13.6% soft hit rate in those starts, per Fangraphs.

The last 10 starts did not go as well for Abbott. He posted a 6.09 ERA, and his 4.65 FIP and 4.80 xFIP were each notably worse as well. The profile changed further, with his strikeout rate dropping to 24.0% and his walk rate rising to 10.8%. Opponents hit .308 with a .384 BABIP as well. The batted ball profile changed yet again, with Abbott’s ground ball rate rebounding to 33.8% and the fly ball rate dropping to a much more manageable 45.4%. He also allowed a nearly identical 34.8% hard hit rate in those starts, combined with a 12.9% soft hit rate, per Fangraphs.

Many chalked Abbott’s late-season struggles up to possible fatigue from significantly surpassing his workload from previous seasons. However, this could not be seen in his pitch velocity, or even the spin rate or pitch shape (horizontal and vertical break).

That brings the alternate hypothesis that the league simply began to figure out Abbott as they had a chance to see and scout him at the Major League level. While that does somewhat track with the drop in strikeout rate, hitters weren’t making significantly harder contact, and actually hitting the ball on the ground more, both generally the opposite of what you’d expect after hitters adjust. It’s worth positing that Abbott may have simply seen a shift in “luck” or external factors such as defense, given that the shift in opponent BABIP was ultimately one of the biggest changes in his game between those two splits.

Fast forward to 2024, and Abbott’s profile has again shifted. Thus far in his five starts, he’s looked more like a pitch-to-contact pitcher rather than the strikeout threat we have grown accustomed to seeing. He’s struck out just 17.7% of hitters this season, though the walk rate still remains a rather familiar 9.7%.

Notably, each of his pitches have seen a drop in whiff rate, without a significant change in usage. This is most noticeable with his curveball. It’s always been a pitch that opponents have hit hard when they make contact, carrying far and away the highest BAA and slugging percentage against of any pitch Abbott has thrown in both 2023 and 2024. However, he had a 26% whiff rate on the pitch last season, which has dropped to just 9.5% this season.

While opponents are batting just .198 against Abbott this season, it comes with an unsustainably low .218 BABIP. His fly ball rate has again risen to a new career high at 55.7%, with ground balls sitting at 32.9% and line drive rate at a career low 11.4%. That profile actually lends to a somewhat lower BABIP profile, as line drives typically result in the highest BABIP, while fly balls result in the lowest. Quality of contact also helps support a lower BABIP, as he’s allowing just a 23.5% hard hit rate combined with a 17.3% soft hit rate. While it’s still extremely unlikely he can maintain a .218 BABIP, if he can continue the same profile, it remains likely he could sustain a BABIP below the league average, which could lead to more success.

The long story short on Abbott is there has been very little consistency throughout Abbott’s career. His profile as a pitcher has shifted significantly, even throughout individual seasons. Most recently, he’s gone from a pitcher formerly regarded as a great, and potentially elite, strikeout pitcher to a master of soft contact. The changes make it difficult to truly nail down what type of pitcher Abbott is and what he can be going forward.

Ultimately, throughout his Major League career thus far, Abbott has been an extreme fly ball pitcher. Even if he is able to limit some of the hard contact, playing in such a small home ballpark means to compensate for the fly balls, he’s going to need to generate strikeouts at a higher frequency. If he’s unable to, ultimately his HR/FB rate will stabilize as it does with most pitchers over the long run, and he’ll likely start giving up more home runs.

Naturally, if HR/FB remains constant throughout the long run, more fly balls would lead to more home runs. The key to Abbott’s success will be allowing less fly balls, whether it’s by generating more strikeouts, and therefore allowing fewer batted balls in general, or by turning some of those back into ground balls as he was able to do in the minors.

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Kyle Berger

Kyle Berger is a lifelong Reds fan who has lived in the Cincinnati area for his entire life. Kyle has always been interested in the analytics side of baseball, and recently graduated from Miami University with a degree in Business Analytics. You can follow him on Twitter @KB_48, where most of his Tweets are about the Reds or baseball in general.

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