Baseball media, more than that of most other sports, is obsessed with finding narratives to explain the success of a player who, on the surface, shouldn't be all that successful. A .230 hitting shortstop with limited glove skills "is a gamer who gets his uniform dirty." A pitcher with 16 wins but a 5.00 ERA "just knows how to win." Bobby Abreu seems destined to play that role for this year's Angels team.
The former Yankee right fielder is the subject of a glowing profile in the New York Times on Wednesday that declares "Stats Only Tell Half the Story for Abreu." Tyler Kepner credits him with helping the normally free-swinging Angels get more comfortable with taking walks and mildly criticizes the Yankees for letting him walk so that he could turn in his typically strong offensive season for a mere $6 million in salary. And, mystifyingly to anyone who saw Abreu play the field during his Yankee tenure, Kepner calls him a "workmanlike" player.
Here's a more complete profile. In 2008, the Angels walked 481 times. In 2009, the Angels walked 547 times. Nice improvement and could be a vote for Abreu's ability as a leader until you realize that he walked 94 times this season. That casts a skeptical eye on the notion of Abreu as leader, and the idea takes another big hit when you further notice that Chone Figgins, the only Angel holdover with a good walk rate, played 40 more games in 2009 and walked 39 more times. The rest of the team, then, actually walked less this season than they did before Abreu was in town.
The theory that the Yankees made a mistake by letting Abreu go is similarly misguided. They wound up paying Nick Swisher less money to play right than Abreu got from the Angels and got more offensive production for their money. Abreu has a sterling .390 on-base percentage, but the Yankees got more of the down-order power they needed from Swisher, especially during A-Rod's long absence to start the year.
Furthermore, Swisher, while not a Gold Glove winner, is a better defensive player than Abreu. He takes lunatic routes to balls on occasion, which makes him seem worse than Abreu, but he gets to more of them and, if nothing else, doesn't have the wall-o-phobia that marked Abreu's tenure in the old Yankee Stadium.
This all sounds like a diatribe against Abreu. It isn't. Abreu is a fine player who turned in the same kind of strong offensive season he's been having for the better part of a decade, but he hasn't become something more than that overnight. What he's done is go from being paid a lot of money while playing for the Yankees to getting paid a relatively meager sum while playing for the Angels. His play, derided as lazy and selfish in 2008, became sober and workmanlike in 2009 because of the amount of zeros on his check and the name on the front of his uniform.
The Angels won 94 games last year, they didn't need to "learn to win" or some other cliched nonsense. They needed a good hitter to play right, nothing more, and that's what they got.