If you were watching Tuesday’s night’s game against the Nationals, you might have caught a neat milestone: José Abreu collected his 1500th career hit (as well as his 1501st, but that one doesn’t end in a 0, so it got a smaller call-out). Abreu is 21st among active Major Leaguers in hits and, at the halfway point to 3000, stands somewhere in the mid-600s all-time. His start with the Astros hasn’t been the best, and while I hope he manages to turn it around, it’s still cool to appreciate a big moment like that!
Of course, that also got me thinking… Abreu’s path to the majors has been very non-standard. For those that don’t know, his 2014 Rookie of the Year campaign came at the relatively late age of 27, thanks to Abreu being born in Cuba. In fact, he was a ten-year veteran of the Cuban National Series before defecting after the 2013 World Baseball Classic.
And players like that, with interesting and unique careers, have always fascinated me. I actually wrote about another one like that a few years ago, Astros’ unlikely batting champ and postseason hero Yuli Gurriel. And before that, I took a deep look at Hiroki Kuroda, who was much better than you might remember (or might have ever realized at the time!).
I had always thought about doing that for another player down the line, and Abreu always seemed like one of the favorites. So I thought, in honor of Jose Abreu’s 1500th hit, why not go back and take a look at his total career? For basically all of this, I’ll be pulling from Baseball-Reference’s extensive library of foreign league stats.
In the Cuban National Series, Abreu debuted with his hometown Elefantes de Cienfuegos back in the 2003-04 season. They were somewhere in the range of middling-to-bad for most of his early career, and Abreu’s first two seasons were similarly fairly rough, sporting OPSes of .674 and .676. However, there are some big caveats there: the CNS is a noted pitchers league, Abreu didn’t really have a set position yet (he mostly played right field, but also spent time at center field and all three bases), and perhaps most importantly, he was only 16 when the season started. So what if the offense he later became noted for was still in its early stages? We can’t really calculate a comprehensive WAR for this time, but it’s still possible that he was a net neutral just based on his defense and versatility.
From there, though, he began to settle in. He more or less solidified as a right fielder who could flex to third base, and his OPS jumped up to .961 in the 2005-06 campaign. It would drop to a still-solid .830 the next year, and then climb back to .992 in 2007-2008. 2008-09 saw him improve a little more, crossing the 1.000 OPS mark for the first time, and he finished in the top ten in the Series in both slugging (.630) and home runs (19).
It’s worth reiterating that this big breakout 08-09 year, Abreu’s sixth in Cuba, was still only his age 21 season. Cienfuegos was still splitting him between right and first base, but would move him to first full time for the 2009-10 campaign, although I’m not sure if that was decided before the season or just something that happened naturally as it went along. Either way, the subsequent 2009-10 season was also the year where he first looked like the phenom who would have MLB teams salivating in five years.
That season, Abreu became the clear best player in the CNS. He would post a 1.376 OPS, meaning that his improvement from 2008-09 to 2009-10 was even bigger than his improvement from his debut at age 16 to 2008. He would lead the league in OBP and slugging, and fell just 5 points short of the batting title, giving him an overall triple slash line of .399/.555/.822. He also finished second in home runs (30) and eighth in RBI (76).
Abreu would follow that up by actually winning the Triple Slash Crown the following two seasons, hitting .453/.597/.986 in 2010-11 and .394/.542/.837 in 2011-12. He also led the league in homers the first of those seasons (33), but fell 6 RBI short of a traditional triple crown at 93 (the second season, he finished second in both, at 35 and 99); despite that, he was still named the league MVP in 2011. His 2012-13 campaign was less overwhelming than those two seasons, “only” leading the league in homers (19), but he still finished second in slugging (.617) and landed in the top ten in average, OBP, and RBI. Again, despite this strong resume, at this point, Jose Abreu was still only 25!
After a strong performance for Team Cuba at the 2013 World Baseball Classic, Abreu defected, and ended up sitting out 2013 (which would have been his age 26 season) in hopes of signing with an MLB team. That wound up being the Chicago White Sox, although the Astros surprised a lot of people at the time by finishing second in the sweepstakes despite coming off their third straight 100-loss season. Reflecting on that, it’s a weird alternative universe to consider: just think about the past decade, but a version where Abreu arrived more or less right in time with the Astros’ ascendancy to their current preeminent status. Either way, Abreu immediately debuted at the MLB level in 2014 (he still hasn’t played in a minor league game) and won the Rookie of the Year award, and you know the rest.
So let’s go back to those Cuba numbers again. It’s easy for me to rattle off stats for a foreign league, but it can be hard to appreciate. The CNS is just a different environment, after all. What about if we normalized it, in a way similar to OPS+? We can’t account for park factors (from what I can tell at a glance, Cienfuegos seemed fairly neutral?), but calculations that compare it to a league-average 100 baseline are easy enough.
With that context, that four-year run at the end is even more eye-popping. A four year stretch where you are, at worst, twice as good as a league-average hitter? A peak OPS+ of 276?? Sure, the Cuban National Series isn’t as high a level of talent as MLB, but knock 80 points off of those years and you’re still looking at, like, peak Miguel Cabrera-type numbers. Knock 100 off and he looks a bit like Yordan Alvarez at those ages. In that context, it makes sense that even after his year off from competitive play, Abreu was still able to come back and immediately lead the AL with a 173 OPS+.
Add it all together, and you’ve got an Abreu that has played in 2108 games, and totaled (as of the morning of 6/15/23) 2388 hits, 476 doubles, 425 homers, 1480 RBI, and a .306/.388/.538 slash line. And sure, there are a whole lot of caveats there, but they do cut both ways; Abreu wouldn’t have debuted nearly as early if he could have signed with an MLB team from the start, but he also would not have been left to put up OPSes well over 1.000 in minor league half seasons or miss the entire 2013 season, either.
It seems realistic to guess that he might have arrived at the same time as, say, Evan Longoria and Andrew McCutchen? That lines up age-wise at least, and it certainly makes sense that he would be ahead of them in both hits and homers. And for added context, McCutchen was the league MVP in 2013, the year before Abreu got to debut, so it’s hardly unthinkable that he might have missed out on some really good years in that missing stretch.
I don’t know that there’s a larger point at this moment. I don’t think that Abreu’s career is quite finished yet (Wednesday night’s game raised his wRC+ by 8 full points!), so anything that tries to wrap it all up right now is going to wind up incomplete. So let’s just leave it here for now, as a greater, more comprehensive appreciation for a player who has already had an extremely unique career, one that many people might not have fully noticed because of all of its quirks.