What Does Lefty Fernando Abad Bring to the Red Sox Bullpen?

The Red Sox traded minor-league reliever Pat Light to the Minnesota Twins for major-league reliever Fernando Abad at the beginning of August in 2016. The Red Sox are Abad’s fifth team in his seven years in the majors, always as some form of middle reliever. His career statistics (3.71 ERA, 107 ERA+, 1.310 WHIP) suggest a more or less average pitcher, but that doesn’t accurately summarize his career; Abad has had seasons when he was very good (1.57 ERA/238 ERA+ for Oakland in 2014), and others when he was pretty bad (5.09 ERA/80 ERA+ for Houston in 2012).

His 2016 included both. The lefty was fairly good for the Twins, with a 2.65 ERA and 1.206 WHIP over 34 innings, but he was much worse for the Red Sox (6.39 ERA, 1.658 WHIP in 12 ⅔ innings, leading to 3 blown saves). His hit rate ticked up (from 7.1 H/9 for the Twins to 9.2 for the Sox), his walk rate soared (3.7 to 5.7 BB/9), and by the end of the season John Farrell was using him almost entirely in very low-leverage situations. Still, even after the trade, Abad pitched well against left-handed batters (OPS against of .460, vs. .986 for righties), and he may have a role as a left-handed specialist.

What he throws. Abad throws a four-seam fastball (“FF”) and a two-seam fastball (“FT”), both in the low- to mid-90s and differing mainly in that the two-seam version has more horizontal movement. (The two fastballs aren’t very distinct, so there is some subjectivity in deciding which is which. I have recategorized his pitches manually here, since PITCHf/x was not very good at classifying his pitches.) He also throws a curve (“CU”) and a changeup (“CH”), both with a very wide range of speeds. His changeup in particular ranged from the low 60s to the mid-80s. Most of his curves cluster around 75 to 80 mph, but he does throw some as slow as 60mph. In 2015, Abad also threw a cutter, but there is little sign that he threw any in 2016:

Fernando AbadPitch usage and trends. Abad uses his four pitches roughly equally (30.0% two-seam, 27% curve, 23.9% four-seam, 19.2% changeup), increasing his curve use and reducing his changeup frequency when behind in the count and to left-handed batters. When ahead in the count, he threw his fastballs, especially the two-seam variety, more often. Although the outcomes were very different, Abad didn’t particularly change his pitch usage after joining the Red Sox:

Fernando AbadOver the course of the season, he shifted from using his four-seam fastball more often, to preferring his two-seam version, but this change was already complete well before the trade. (In the charts below, the trade is indicated with vertical red lines.) His fastball velocity, if anything, increased slightly over the season, but again this is something that happened while he was with the Twins, not after the trade. One thing that did change is his changeup velocity, which increased somewhat after the trade, since as noted by Christopher Smith of MassLive.com the Red Sox preferred his faster version of the pitch:

Fernando AbadPitch value. Although Abad had a reverse platoon split from 2013 through 2015, with left-handed batters hitting an average of .110 points of OPS higher than righties, in 2016 he had a fairly strong conventional split. Right-handed batters had an OPS of .789 against him on the season, while left-handed batters OPSed just .459. That came from his four-seam fastball and his changeup, both of which were much more effective against LHB than RHB in 2016.

His curve was slightly better against righties than left-handed batters, and overall, both of his fastballs and his curve ended up just about average, in terms of total bases yielded per 100 pitches. His fastballs both had higher than average ball rates, while his curve was much more likely than average to be a strike.

His changeup was exceptional. To right-handed batters, the pitch’s effectiveness was well above average. To left-handers, the pitch was literally unhittable. Abad threw 41 changeups to left-handed batters in 2016, and not one was hit. Sixteen of them were balls, which is a slightly higher rate than average (39.0% compared to the average for a changeup of 37.7%), but the rest were fouls (8 pitches), swinging strikes (7), outs (6), or called strikes (4):

Fernando AbadThree of Abad’s four pitches lost effectiveness after the trade. His four-seam fastball was surprisingly effective for Boston, yielding just one hit (a single) on 51 pitches. On the other hand, he threw 15 balls (49%) with the pitch, which is much worse than the league average of 34.7%:

Fernando AbadThat typifies Abad’s struggles for the Red Sox; when his pitches were difficult to hit (four-seam fastball, changeup), they were often out of the strike zone, and when he threw strikes, with his curve, it was likely to get hit.

Pitch location. Rather than looking at Abad’s pitch location over the season as a whole, we will compare his locations when he was with Minnesota to after the trade to Boston. Keep in mind that the smaller sample size in Boston – 12 ⅔ vs 34 innings as Twin – adds fuzz to the location plots. Even so, we can see that the locations of all of his pitches suffered, fitting with his increased walk rate in Boston. His four-seam fastball to right-handed batters was in the upper third of the strike zone before the trade; afterward, it often missed high. His two-seam fastball to LHB went from showing a fairly tight cluster in the outer third of the strike zone, to being a broad smear that was often far outside or inside the zone. His changeup to lefties, which remained unhittable after the trade but had a higher rate of balls, started to miss high and inside:

Fernando Abad


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Featured image courtesy of the Associated Press.

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