Anatomy of the Fernando Abad Debut

Aside from acquiring a left-handed reliever, the Boston Red Sox were quiet at the trade deadline. Shortly after they did make waves with the promotion of a top prospect and then a heart-wrenching loss at the hand of the Seattle Mariners. Justin Gorman examines the Fernando Abad debut pitch-by-pitch to see what went wrong against Robinson Cano.

Non-waiver trade deadline acquisition Fernando Abad has probably never been on anyone’s bullpen wish list. In his six-year MLB career, he has saved just one game in 298 appearances. His K/9 hovers between seven and eight each year, and he’s only thrown more than 50 innings in a season once. The velocity on his four-seam fastball (92-mph average) is sufficient, but doesn’t light up radar guns, and the contrast with his knuckle-curve (76 mph) and changeup (74 mph) is not exceptional.

Many Red Sox fans probably assume that Abad was acquired to be an additional left-handed one-out guy (LOOGY) out of the bullpen, but his splits are not typical of a traditional lefty-only reliever. In fact, right-handed batters have slashed .253/.333/.412 against Abad, while left-handed batters have posted a similar line: .246/.293/.403.

On Tuesday night, beleaguered manager John Farrell called on Abad to make his Red Sox debut, facing dangerous left-handed hitter Robinson Cano. [SPOILER ALERT] Seattle’s second baseman smoked a three-run homer to propel the Mariners to victory. Many have criticized Farrell’s management of David Price and his bullpen – and Farrell and Price should not absolved of liability for their part in giving away a four-run lead in the eighth inning. However, focusing in on the pitch selection to Cano shows that Abad and Sandy Leon should also shoulder some of the blame:

Abad’s first offering was a downright nasty curveball on the outside corner that froze Cano and put Abad ahead in the count, nothing and one:

Abad then uncorked a 55-foot breaking ball that Cano chased and Abad was quickly ahead 0-2. Leon sauntered out to the mound to visit with Abad – and at this point the at-bat went totally off the rails:

Leon did not put down a sign, instead nodding at Abad to throw the pitch they agreed on during the mound visit: a 94-mph fastball so far outside it would have been behind any right-handed batter. A total “waste and hope he chases” pitch. The count now runs to 1-2:

Leon flashed a pretty complex set of signals and Abad did not shake him off. The lefty set and delivered a 94-mph four-seamer to the outside half of the plate. This fastball found more than the edge of the plate, but Cano fouled it off, and the count remained 1-and-2.

Leon flashed another set of signs, and then set a target directly over the middle of the plate. Abad delivered his third curveball of the at-bat and Cano was not fooled. He sent it into orbit with his swing follow-through reminiscent of former Mariner, Hall of Famer Ken Griffey Jr.

Brandon Magee summed things up perfectly: “[the] Red Sox pulled yet another defeat from the jaws of victory.” This at-bat shows that Fernando Abad and Sandy Leon gave Cano three good looks at his curveball, and wasted an otherwise advantageous count. The battery decided during their mound meeting that on 0-2 the best approach would be to throw a “chase me” fastball WAY outside to Seattle’s best hitter, and he predictably did not take the bait. Then on 1-2, Abad got away with throwing a lifeless fastball over the plate that Cano fouled off.

At this point, in a pitcher’s count with runners on first and second, the breaking ball is a good idea for a few reasons: First, Cano was frozen by the first (good) curveball and bit HARD on the second, which didn’t even reach the plate. Second, Cano has made a career out of hammering  borderline fastballs and can catch up with almost anyone’s heater. Finally, a curveball out of the zone and in the dirt is Abad’s best bet to induce weak contact, and an inning-ending double play.

Instead, either poor planning or poor execution (or more likely, a combination of the two) resulted in a curveball that hung over the plate. Leon was not set up inside nor outside – giving the benefit of the doubt, the fifth pitch of Cano’s at-bat was supposed to be low and middle. But Abad delivered a pitch that was not nearly low enough and was dead center in Cano’s power zone. No matter how you slice it, the decision to throw the curveball over the plate was incredibly risky, and the gamble clearly did not pay off.


Justin Gorman has written about relief pitchers, baseball contracts, an illegal delivery, and the case for expansion.

Follow Justin on Twitter @j1gorman.

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