When the Chicago White Sox signed Cuban defector Jose Abreu to a six-year, $68 million deal, the expectation was that he would be worth his money, and the hope was that he would be be the next slugging first baseman/DH in the line of team greats Frank Thomas and Paul Konerko. It turned out to be a pretty solid bet.
To that point, the massive man had been a world-beater in Cuba's top league Serie Nacional, labeled as "The Best Hitter You've Never Heard Of" by Grantland's Jonah Keri. That carried over to the majors, where the 27-year-old rookie Abreu slashed an incredible .317/.383/.581 with 36 home runs, good enough for an rWar of 5.5. He also won the AL Rookie of the Year and Silver Slugger Award for his position, placed fourth in the AL MVP race and was voted to the All-Star game.
Other than being one of the best hitters in the world's best league, what distinguishes Abreu even further is his timing mechanism, one that has mostly gone out of fashion since guys like Sammy Sosa who came from a, let's say, different era, dominated the game: the toe tap.
A hitter's toe-tap can be like Abreu's, or more pronounced like the step-back of the aforementioned Sosa. (Notice in the linked video a pre-juicing Sosa used a traditional non-tap load.) However, as hitters have returned to normal human size once again—and seemingly slower bat speeds—and with average pitch velocities on the rise, the toe tap has slowly dissipated, save for large humans with elite athleticism (body control) and bat speed like Troy Tulowitzki.
The problem with the toe-tap is that it makes it harder to pick up the two pitches that look like fastballs the most, changeups and sliders (splitters too, but data is harder to find on that), in time before committing to the pitch, especially down and away. It also makes it difficult for them to keep their weight back on slower off-speed pitches like curveballs. Basically toe-tappers are committing to a certain timing window more so than guys with a smoother, traditional hip-cock and stride who are still gathering information in their load before committing forward. Most tappers rely on seeing the pitch type and location before they move forward after they step back, which, at a certain point, becomes extremely hard to do as velocities tick up and competition improves; this is why it is rarer in today's game.
Abreu's poor showing on sliders, changeups and curveballs down and away are in line with most tappers. His timing window makes it harder for him to keep his weight and hands back long enough for the ball to get deep enough for him to square it up with a flat barrel. These strikeouts on pitches in the dirt against the hard throwing Justin Verlander on a curveball and a changeup from James Shields best exemplify this point.
Tappers are also more prone to be free-swingers because they are committing earlier than optimal. Abreu swung at 54.5 percent of all pitches thrown at him last season (league average in 2014 was 46.2%) and only walked in 6.4 percent of plate appearances after subtracting intentional walks.
So Why Toe-Tap At All?
Simple: it increases power. After loading/stepping back, toe-tappers are propelling their body forward at a faster rate than a guy with a more traditional load. The increase in forward velocity by their body naturally transfers to their hands, bat head and then the ball.
What Makes Abreu Special?
At 6-foot-3 and 255 pounds, Abreu is simply a very strong man who produces incredible bat speed combined with elite hand-eye coordination and body control. The video above is of his first MLB home run on a 76 MPH curveball on the inner half and thigh high thrown by the Rockies Chad Bettis. Below is the front view.
As Abreu moves forward after he toe-taps you will notice a little pause before he unleashes hell on the hanging curveball. This is called a delay. When he recognizes the curve, the delay kicks in. His stride foot puts on the brakes for his lower half (as he recognizes pitch type), while simultaneously he brings his hands in (as he picks up the location) to fire the barrel. Most toe-tappers do not have the body control, nor bat control, to create a delay and then deliver the bat head to the ball on time, flat and with such force.
If Bettis had missed down and away, chances are Abreu would have swung over the breaking ball or would have been out front/rolled over since he is committing to a certain timing window once the tap is complete, but since the Rockie missed in, Abreu was able to maintain his weight and hands "behind the ball" and began one of the greatest offensive months of baseball in 2014.
In the second home run of the above video—and that particular game—Abreu's approach (a willingness to go to all fields) and tap help him take a 91 MPH fastball thrown letters-high off the back wall of the White Sox bullpen in deep right center. His hard forward motion post toe-tap gives him the ability to "catch up" and murder pitches that most big leaguers just can't handle, especially the harder stuff.
As we can see with the hot/cold zones above, Abreu's ability to hit cutters and fastballs down and away (league average was .253 for the AL) helps show that location alone won't keep him from being able to handle pitches; you need to demonstrate a combination of location and velocity to stand a chance. The better performance also shows you the correlation between toe-taping and a loading window primed for fastball-like pitches.
But: Abreu's swing requires superhuman endurance
As the season wore on and, like all major leaguers, Abreu's body began to break down, his elite body control slipped and his tap-and-go approach made it a lot harder for him to keep his weight behind the ball and deliver the maximum amount of velocity through it. He still made a ton of contact and hit for average because of his crazy hand-eye coordination, but his power dropped dramatically to the point where he only delivered five home runs and seven doubles (and a fluky triple) in the months of August and September.
It will be interesting to see if more time spent playing DH—Chicago acquired Adam LaRoche in the off-season to give Abreu days off from first base—will make his late-season power outage a one-time thing, or if will the inefficiencies of a the toe-tap will continue to rear up as Abreu ages and his ridiculous physical tools begin to erode.
Z.W. Martin is a freelance writer, owner of Zach Martin Baseball and the General Manager of the Homestead Ranchers. Follow him on twitter @ZWMartin or @ZM_Baseball. Email him at zacharywmartin at gmail dot com. He lives in Chicago, IL.