Andrew Abbott Proves Starting Ability, Versatility In Unexpected Fourth Season With Virginia
Like many draft-eligible college players a year ago, Virginia lefthander Andrew Abbott figured he was going to hear his name called at some point during the five-round 2020 draft.
A 6-foot, 180-pound lefthander, Abbott had proven to be a reliable fixture in Virginia's bullpen since stepping on campus, and in the shortened 2020 season was on his way to a career year, with a 1.35 ERA and easily the best strikeout rate of his career (18.9).
“I expected to get drafted based off the seasons I had here and the season that I was having when Covid hit,” Abbott said. “That’s what everybody goes into the draft thinking, prove what you can do and then scouts and teams will draft you off of what they see. And, you know, I went in thinking that was going to happen.”
Despite his performance, and despite ranking as the No. 132 player in the 2020 class, 160 picks came and went and Abbott’s name wasn’t called for any of them. At the time, he probably wasn’t feeling great.
But almost a year later? Well, the feeling is different.
“But you look at it now, coming back here probably will be one of the best things I’ve done,” Abbott said.
Abbott stepped into a new role during the 2021 season, going from the bullpen to a starting role—and Virginia’s Friday night starter at that. The Republican Grove, Va., native was looking to further increase his versatility, improve as a pitcher and make all 30 clubs who passed on him in 2020 regret that decision.
“The big thing this year was just going out and making sure that I prove teams wrong,” Abbott said. “I wanted to prove them wrong and be like, ‘Alright, well this is what you would have gotten last year and this is what would have been in your minor league system this year.’
“But now you have to wait and now you are hopefully going to pay me more money than you were going to last year. So there’s a whole lot driving it … My intentions were to prove everyone wrong first of all and then second of all was to help our team win. Trying to do the best of both worlds have been the drive this year.”
Through his first 12 starts and 75 innings, Abbott has certainly given teams a glimpse of what they are missing out on. In his first full-time starting stint since he was in high school at Halifax County (South Boston, Va.) High, Abbott has posted a 3.12 ERA and held opposing hitters to a .223 average, while striking out 115 batters and walking 24.
His most recent start against Wake Forest was perhaps his best outing of the year, where he outpitched potential first-rounder Ryan Cusick by going 7.1 innings without allowing a hit or a run and striking out 16 batters while walking just two.
And despite throwing more innings than he ever has previously, Abbott’s stuff has held up well and actually improved in some cases, with a slightly higher average fastball velocity than a year ago, and his lowest walk rate since 2018.
“Bullpen is just one, two, maybe three innings,” Abbott said. “You come in and you’re a bulldog. You want to get everyone out. You can go deeper in counts, you can use your best two pitches because you have a little less wiggle room, but they are high-stress, high-intensity pitches.
“Starting is more about, I want to get through the fifth, sixth, seventh inning for my team. And then I want to get guys out within three to four pitches to keep my pitch count down. I want to execute all my spots as best as I can. Still showcase my stuff, still ramp it up when I can, but I want to be able to get outs.”
Abbott has thrown at least seven innings in six of his 12 starts so far this season, never pitching fewer than 4.1. Two of his biggest focuses when preparing for a starting role this season with pitching coach Drew Dickinson were developing his changeup and trying to get ahead in counts as much as possible.
Previously, Abbott had mostly relied on a two-pitch mix: a fastball that sits in the low 90s and gets up to 94-95 mph and an upper-70s, 12-to-6 curveball that is his go-to outpitch. This spring, Abbott’s changeup usage has more than doubled, and opponents have hit worse against the pitch than either his fastball or curveball.
“I trust all three equally,” Abbott said, “especially now that I am throwing changeups to both lefties and righties. In years past—I am trying to think of exactly how many I threw—but my second or first year here I probably only threw like 25 combined changeups the entire year in the ‘pen. And this year I am probably near 200, probably, pitch-wise. So that’s a huge increase.
“I spent all fall working with (Dickinson) on it. Just mixing grips, just tossing it, getting the feel around it because I hadn’t really thrown it since high school. But my go-to pitch is my curveball. It will always be my curveball. My fastball, I trust it, I have command on both sides, I can go up, I can go in and out. The changeup is just a pitch for me to throw off timing, one. And then two, when it’s on it’s moving and it’s like a slower two-seam, like an 85 mph sinker I guess you could think of it because it just goes straight down. It’s been a pitch to throw off timing and use against righties to try and get early contact or a big double play situation, try to get a rollover ground ball … It would probably be curveball, fastball, changeup but I trust them all equally.”
Thanks to a more refined three-pitch mix and his standout performance this season, Abbott has climbed up draft boards and many teams have confidence that he can handle a starting role at the next level now that he’s proven it in college.
Scouts have also been impressed with the overall progress Abbott has made as a pitcher since his high school days. He’s filled out and gotten stronger, and with that strength has come velocity. He’s also honed his craft on the mound to become more efficient and consistent this year, while adding more confidence in his changeup.
While Abbott was the one to put in the work—and he’s also put in the work off the field, getting a biology degree in three years and will graduate with a master’s degree in psychology this year—he is also quick to give credit to his coaches, both at Virginia and otherwise.
“Jeff Stevens, my pitching coach back home has helped me for, oh Lord, 13, 14 years probably,” Abbott said. “He’s the one who taught me my curveball. I’ve had my curveball (grip) since I was 14. And then I had Billy Wagner as a coach in high school. That was where the bulldog mentality came from. I mean he is a family friend now and I trained there a little bit over the summer, throwing bullpens in front of him, getting his feedback and stuff.
“So having those resources behind me, I’ve always been grateful … It wouldn’t be right for me to go without thanking them for what they’ve done.”
After learning from one of the best big league relievers this century, it is perhaps unsurprising to find out Abbott has both the mentality and the desire to pitch in that capacity moving forward. When asked about which role he preferred, he struggled to pick one or the other and said it’s consistently been the hardest question he’s had to answer—from media and scouts alike.
He’s happy to pitch wherever a team might need him, and after going undrafted a year ago, he’s eager to get his chance and more prepared for whatever pro ball might throw at him after an unexpected—but now more appreciated—fourth season in Charlottesville.
“I’m just grateful to have been able to have done both,” Abbott said. “And to have been successful to a certain degree in both. Honestly, it’s just going to help me down the road because it gives that team who drafts me the idea of like ‘OK we can try him out here, if it doesn’t go right then we always have that second plan. He’s done this and he’s done this.’ So it’s helpful.
“And just talking with coaches and stuff, you look at the big leagues—the versatile players are the ones who stay around. The guys who play multiple positions, the guys who can do the jobs that people don’t necessarily want to do … And that’s kind of how I’ve always been. ‘Whatever you need, coach, I’ll do it.’ ”