If a Philadelphia Phillies fan had to create a baseball player from scratch, including not only the talents that would make him great, but also the intangibles that Phillies’ fans love - the grit, the hustle, the “he plays the right way” attitude - many of them would point to someone like Chase Utley. A select few would point to the fiery persona of Larry Bowa as the archetype for a Phillies baseball player, someone the entire city would embrace.
Two guys that have recently walked through the halls of Brotherly Love were Bobby Abreu and Scott Rolen, players of immense, near Hall of Fame talent, but both without the love that you might think would adhere themselves to the warm embrace of the fans. One of them was never adored by the fans as he should have been based on the production he gave and one was, by the end of his tenture, about as disliked as one can get thanks to a scoffing of a huge contract extension. Yet both deserve to be thought of in a higher light among fans. While they may not have been the perfect Philly player, they didn’t deserve the scorn that they got.
I posed this question on Twitter the other day and got an overwhelming response.
Here is an interesting debate. Who is the more under appreciated/underrated baseball player in the last 20 years in Philadelphia baseball-land? (Yes I’m only including these two):— Ethan Witte (@ethan_witte) May 22, 2020
It was pretty obvious that this was going to be the answer to this question, but I wanted to see how the fans felt anyway. One response was pretty much dead on when it came to putting the question in the proper context.
I think people know Rolen was great but hate him for wanting to leave. Or at least they should know— Franzke & LA (@FranzkeLA) May 22, 2020
If it’s fair to think that people know how good Scott Rolen was, then it’s clear that Bobby Abreu was underrated/under appreciated more than the surly third baseman. Looking back on his tenure here in Philadelphia, it’s pretty clear why as well.
From 1998-2006, while Abreu was in Philadelphia, he was easily one of the better offensive players in the National League. This is evidenced by his accumulating 47.2 bWAR during this time period, sixth in the National League. While WAR is a controversial stat among most any fans, it does give you a nice comprehensive way of looking at player production and it’s not actually arguable that Abreu wasn’t one of the best.
Another way of looking at Abreu’s ability with the bat is to look at the numbers that people see while at the game. We all know that for the casual fan, they want to look at a scoreboard and be able to get a pretty clear picture as to whether a player is having a good season or not. They don’t want to bother with numbers like wRC+ and OPS+ and wOBA. They want the meat and potatoes. Is he hitting .240? He can’t be that good then, nevermind the .350 on-base percentage or the .463 slugging. So, we can put Abreu through that eye test and compare him with the players of this time. Let’s throw up some parameters and see where he falls. How many players, from ‘98-’06, in the National League averaged at minimum a .300/.400/.500 slash line while getting at least 5,800 plate apperances? Go ahead, guess.
It’s two - Abreu and Todd Helton. One of them had the advantage of playing half of his home games in the thin Rocky Mountain air and the other was Abreu. And remember, this is during Barry Bonds’s height of power (he missed the criteria due to number of plate appearances).
However, if you wanted to get into those fancy stats, we can. OPS+ is one of the ones that helps separate the good from the bad since it puts all stats on a level playing field. If 100 is average, then above that must be good. If we set the minimum number of plate appearances from ‘98-’06 in order to include the greatness of Bonds to 4,000 PA, then we can look at who had the best OPS+. Bonds, of course, set himself apart with a 213 OPS+ during this time, but Abreu will lodge himself in the eighth position with a 139 OPS+. He was incredibly good and also incredibly durable. It’s an underrated part of his game, his durability. In this same time period, Abreu ranks 4th in plate appearances (5,885) and 3rd in games played (1.353). He was always on the field, only missing days seemingly to get a day off. Of course, the Abreu detractors would also point at a more sinister reason for his playing so many games - his defense.
Oh, that defense.
Ask anyone who remembers him playing and that is probably the first thing that will come up. Not his offensive production, not his durability, it’s his defense. In an article at Beyond the Box Score highlighting Abreu’s accomplishments, the author glances over his defense briefly:
Despite his impressive offensive career, his defense was at best a mixed bag and borderline unplayable towards the end of his career. The result was a string of 2-WAR seasons to conclude his career that masked just how brilliant his offense was at the time.
This is fine and not totally inaccurate, but this shouldn’t be how he is remembered defensively. His -43.8 defensive fWAR is ranked quite low (162nd out of 208 qualifying OF) and is a main reason his overall WAR total isn’t higher. His UZR/150 of -6.3 is 50th among 63 qualifying OF. His advanced numbers, as you can see, aren’t exactly sterling. Was he “wall shy”? Only he’d be able to tell you that, but the eye test certainly was not on his side.
If you take a look at the more standard, traditional fielding statistics, he will come back a little bit. Thanks to his cannon right arm, he ranked third among 65 qualifying OF with 94 outfield assists, 10 behind the second place Vladimir Guerrero. His fielding percentage of .983 is plenty respectable and is also much further ahead of Vlad. It’s not the greatest way of trying to make an argument in this age of enlightenment, but he was not all bad with the glove. The perception of his play clouds his actual production on the field.
So while it may take time to truly appreciate Abreu as the player, I think it’s fairly obvious that he is criminally under appreciated by the Philadelphia fanbase. He’s probably under appreciated everywhere he’s been. Lifting a link from the aforementioned BtBS article, some people really think he makes teams worse. Sure he’s been inducted on the Wall of Fame here, but most people have a negative view of his play. Don’t be that person. Realize how good he was and appreciate that the Phillies had a great one under their nose for a very long time.