Abreu inspires Angels on, off field

Abreu inspires Angels on, off field

TEMPE, Ariz. -- Bobby Abreu's 13th season in the Major Leagues was in many ways his most fulfilling -- and not because he finished higher in the American League Most Valuable Player balloting (12th) than at any time in either league in his distinguished career.

Abreu came to work every day with the Angels knowing he'd make an impact in some way even if he went 0-for-4 with two strikeouts, which happens about as often as this most genial of men forms a sentence containing harsh words.

Embraced as never before by teammates with his fourth Major League organization, Abreu, who turns 36 on March 11, flourished as a daily source of knowledge and wisdom as well as hits, walks, RBIs, runs scored, steals and defense.

"I had a lot of fun," Abreu said through an ultra-bright smile. "This group is special. They all enjoy the game.

"They know how to play hard. They hustle and they listen. They want to learn, every at-bat, every day. They wanted to be better players than they already are, and they would ask me questions all the time.

"I was always trying to give answers, some advice, to help out. I'm older, you know."

Leadership generally falls in the category of intangibles, acknowledged and appreciated but rarely documented by numbers.

In the case of Bobby Abreu, the pride of Maracay, Venezuela, the evidence is there in black and white. The most easygoing of athletes had a transforming impact on the 2009 Angels, most notably in the area of discipline in the batter's box.

Chone Figgins, who sat next to Abreu in the home clubhouse and picked his brain every day, gave him credit for elevating his on-base percentage from a career .356 to .395. This had more than a little to do with the four-year, $36 million free-agent deal Figgins commanded from the Mariners.

"I had one area of my game I was looking to improve," Figgins said, referring to his OBP, "and Bobby helped me in more ways than I can tell you. And he was the same every day, always there for me."

Next witness: Torii Hunter. His on-base percentage climbed from a career .326 across 10 seasons to .366. It was no accident.

ABREU'S MVP FINISHES
Year Team Place
1999 Phillies 23rd
2001 Phillies 16th
2003 Phillies 27th
2004 Phillies 23rd
2005 Phillies 14th
2007 Yankees 17th
2009 Angels 12th

"I'd be in the on-deck circle watching Bobby, how he approached his at-bats," Hunter said. "I learned a lot watching him work counts. I became more selective, controlling my aggression better. It's like a domino effect. It had an impact all the way down the lineup.

"I'm really happy they brought Bobby back. He brings so much personality to a team, along with what he does on the field."

Abreu didn't wait long to agree after the season to a two-year, $19 million offer with an option for 2012. He earned $6 million, incentives included, on a one-year deal in '09 after leaving the Yankees.

"This is where I wanted to be," he said. "Why would I want to leave?"

Hitting coach Mickey Hatcher has stressed for years the value of being selective, of driving your pitch when it's there but resisting stuff out of the strike zone that gives pitchers the edge.

Hearing it in theory is one thing. Seeing it applied by a highly respected professional, day after day, has more direct and personal benefits.

Shortstop Erick Aybar, one of Abreu's younger protégés, had perhaps the most dramatic improvement of all the Angels.

Carrying a .262 career batting average and .298 on-base percentage into his fourth season, Aybar led the club with his .312 average and hiked his OBP to .353 -- a gain of 55 points.

"Bobby is the best," Aybar said. "He helped me a lot last year, and I hope he helps me this year, too. I admire Bobby Abreu. He's not only a great hitter, but he's a great person.

"He's a simple man, a humble man. He shows you what is important. I'm always watching him to see how he does things on the field."

TAKE YOUR BASE
Bobby Abreu's walk totals since 1998 and league rank (if in top 10).
Year Team BB League rank
1998 Phillies 84 10th in NL
1999 Phillies 109 5th
2000 Phillies 100 7th
2001 Phillies 106 3rd
2002 Phillies 104 6th
2003 Phillies 109 4th
2004 Phillies 127 2nd
2005 Phillies 117 2nd
2006 Phils/Yanks 124
2007 Yankees 84 10th in AL
2008 Yankees 73
2009 Angels 94 3rd

These words are Latino salsa to Abreu's ears.

Fellow Venezuelans Juan Rivera and Maicer Izturis unfailingly credit Abreu for his ability invoke laughter and spread good vibes while delivering subtle insights.

"He sees what you do best and tries to make sure you stay with it, stay confident," Rivera said.

Rivera, finally fully recovered from a broken leg suffered the winter after the 2006 season, established personal bests in '09 with 25 homers and 88 RBIs, batting .287 while raising his OBP 17 points to .332.

"I listen to everything Bobby says and watch everything he does," Izturis said. "If you want to get better, that's what you do. He plays the game the right way."

Izturis, appearing in a career-high 114 games, lifted his OBP 22 points to .359 while batting .300.

Kendry Morales, the Cuba-born slugging first baseman, also sees the right fielder as a figure to study and emulate.

"It's great to have the benefit of being around him," Morales said. "He's a role model for a young guy like me, on and off the field."

In no small part because of Abreu's teachings, Morales unleashed a phenomenal second half performance in '09, his first full season.

Finishing fifth in the American League MVP balloting, he delivered 34 homers and 108 RBIs while batting .306. His OBP rose from .302 through parts of three seasons to .355.

"It's good to be aggressive, but sometimes you can be too aggressive and help the pitcher out," Abreu said. "That's something I talk to all the guys about.

"When Kendry learned how to wait for a pitch he could drive with runners on base, he really took off and had an outstanding year."

In a touch of irony, Abreu was one of the few Angels whose career OBP dipped -- from .405 to a still-substantial .390.

He batted .293, scored 96 runs and drove home 103, reaching triple digits in RBIs for the seventh consecutive season. He also stole 30 bases (in 38 attempts), reaching that plateau for the first time since 2005.

2010 Spring Training - null
Sights & Sounds
Spring Training Info

Abreu is a walking definition of durability. If he plays at least 150 games for his 13th consecutive season, he'll match Willie Mays for the all-time Major League record.

"That's something I'm proud of, being there every day for my team," Abreu said.

Angels manager Mike Sciosica called Abreu his MVP last season for the wide range of assets he provided.

It is a measure of his all-encompassing value that Abreu doesn't even need to be in the lineup to exert an influence on his team.

"I remember last year when he had a two- or three-game spell when he was striking out," Brandon Wood, the young third baseman, said. "I had a locker right next to Bobby's, and I was curious to see how he'd act. He's always so happy and upbeat; I wanted to see if this was going to break him a little.

"He comes in and he's laughing, dancing to his Latin music. He looks over, grins and says, `I can't hit a thing.' Then he goes out and hits shots all day.

"Watching Bobby gives me a goal to reach -- not physically or with fundamentals as much as his mental maturity. He's loose and having fun before the game, but when it's time to play, he's serious and totally into it.

"That's the way the game should be played."

The Abreu way. It is fast becoming the Angels' way.

Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.