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One Big Question: Can Fernando Abad improve against righties?

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Fernando Abad was undone by right-handed hitters last year, and he’ll need to do better to make his mark in 2017.

MLB: Tampa Bay Rays at Boston Red Sox Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to Over The Monster’s One Big Question series. For the next 40 (week)days, we will be trying to answer one important question for each player on the Red Sox 40-man roster. The goal is to find one interesting portion of each player’s game to watch for, whether that be in spring training or the early regular season. We’ll be going straight down the list on the team’s roster page, meaning we’ll be going in alphabetical order through each position group, starting with the pitchers. Today, we’re highlighting Fernando Abad.

The Question: Can Abad become acceptable against right-handed hitters?

While the biggest Red Sox deal came weeks before the trade deadline, when they picked up Drew Pomeranz from San Diego for Anderson Espinoza, the team did make a true deadline deal when the acquired Fernando Abad from Minnesota for Pat Light. The trade was supposed to shore up the bullpen, but the southpaw never really made his mark in Boston. In his very first game with the team, Abad allowed a go-ahead three-run home run to Robinson Cano. Things didn’t get much better after that.

In fact, things went so poorly that it wasn’t clear whether or not the Red Sox would even tender him a contract for the 2017 season. They, of course, did end up doing so, though the two sides haven’t yet agreed to exact terms and there’s an outside (though utterly unlikely) chance they’ll go to a hearing. Either way, he’s almost certainly going to be part of the Opening Day roster and play a role in Boston’s bullpen. If he does, he’s going to need to be better against right-handed hitters.

As Ben said back in September when Abad’s year was coming to a close, the southpaw wasn’t really as bad as he seemed to be. The ideal role for the former Twin is as a LOOGY, and he pitched quite well against left-handed bats after allowing that home run to Cano. On the other hand, those at bats against right handed batters did happen and the results cost the Red Sox in some crucial moments. In an ideal world, he would only face lefties, but we don’t live in an ideal world. Managers are too smart to stack their lineups with too many left-handed hitters in a row, and it’s hard to dedicate a roster spot to a pitcher who will face one batter in every game. You may be thinking, “well, that’s why Abad shouldn’t have been tendered a contract,” to which I’d respond, “well,....yeah.” But, he was tendered a contract, and he will be in the bullpen, and he will face righties.

The simplest solution is to limit those situations as much as possible. Even if it’s not completely avoidable, it’s John Farrell’s job to put his players in the best position to succeed. He actually did a pretty decent job of it after Boston acquired Abad, as about 42 percent of his opponents were left-handed hitters. Compared to the 38 percent rate from his time in Minnesota and his 43 percent career rate, it’s a fine job. Of course, Abad won’t be as much of a focal point in Boston’s bullpen as he has been in the past, and it should be a little easier to get that number closer or maybe even a little over 50 percent. Last season, among the 46 pitchers who faced at least 50 lefties, only 10 pitchers had the platoon advantage more than half the time.

So, now we need to figure out what he needs to do in those other 50 percent of plate appearances. His numbers with the Red Sox paint a distressing pitcher. Abad had little control, walking 20 percent of his right-handed opponents while striking out just over 14 percent. It wasn’t just the peripherals, either. Righties had an overall field day against Abad, producing a .432 wOBA.* The thing is, he wasn’t nearly as bad in Minnesota. Before the trade, he walked 14 percent of righties (still a bad rate, of course) but struck out over 22 percent. He also allowed a wOBA of just .312, equivalent to Denard Span’s overall batting line. Over his career, he’s allowed a .330 wOBA to righties with a 17 percent strikeout rate and an 11 percent walk rate.

*For reference wOBA is on the scale of OBP. So allowing a .432 wOBA is….not great.

Surely, part of the reason for the dropoff in performance after coming to Boston can be chalked up to sample size. I mean, we’re only talking about 35 plate appearances. Still, relievers live in the world of small sample sizes, and as a fringe member of the roster Abad’s going to need a quick turnaround to stick around all year. The first thing to address is his control, which fell off a cliff after coming to Boston. As a pitcher who throws his fastball roughly half the time, it’s no surprise that’s the pitch that became an issue after the trade. According to Brooks Baseball, the rate of fastballs that were called balls jumped by ten percentage points after the deal. Take a look at the side-by-side comparison of Abad’s fastball usage. On the left is his pre-trade zone plot, and on the right is the post-trade.

Looking at that plot, it’s clear that it wasn’t just control that was off with Abad, but also command. Put simply, he couldn’t get the ball to go where he wanted. Not only did he have trouble throwing strikes, but he also had trouble keeping the ball down. This helps to explain the hard contact he gave up, as his hard hit rate versus righties jumped from 25 percent with Minnesota to 39 percent with Boston. That, combined with the fact that his ground ball rate fell from 47 percent to 30 percent is a recipe for disaster. If Abad is going to improve in this area, he’s going to need to improve that fastball command.

While he’s far from the most important player on the roster, Abad is likely to be one of the two lefties in Boston’s bullpen to start the year. Such a small role should make it easier for Farrell to limit his usage to something as close to a LOOGY’s as possible, but he’ll still be tasked with facing righties on a semi-regular basis. If he’s going to stay on the roster for the long-term, he’ll need to do better. He doesn’t even need to be good, just something better than disastrous.