Joey Votto singles to center to end a 10-pitch at-bat vs. LHP Andrew Abbott, Reds’ 2021 2nd-round pick, in a minor-league intrasquad game. pic.twitter.com/T14lPWghLA
— Bobby Nightengale (@nightengalejr) March 28, 2022
By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Former University of Virginia baseball standouts abound in the professional ranks. Some alumni of Brian O’Connor’s program spend their offseasons training in Florida. Others return to their college roots and work out at Disharoon Park.
“I’m pretty sure that Oak loves us being here,” Abbott said with a smile last week in the first-base dugout at the Cavaliers’ stadium.
That’s not up for debate.
“We love it,” said O’Connor, whose 20th season as Virginia’s head coach starts this weekend in Wilmington, N.C. “It’s been great having Andrew and Kyle around, and historically we’ve had a number of guys come and work out here in short stints at times.”
Abbott and Whitten were seniors on the UVA team that in 2021 advanced to the College World Series in Omaha, Neb. Whitten pitched 31.1 innings in relief that season. Abbott was a weekend starter who earned All-ACC and All-America honors.
O’Connor said he often sees Abbott, a 6-foot left-hander, talking to the Wahoos’ pitchers, and “it’s a great opportunity for our current players to learn from somebody who’s had so much success in our uniform.”
Abbott said: “It helps because I had the Omaha experience, and I’ve had the years where we didn’t do so well, so I can sit down with these guys and pass on those experiences, because they’re young. They’re gonna have to find their own identity.”
He talks regularly with the Cavaliers’ staff, too, including pitching coach Drew Dickinson. Virginia’s current pitchers are Dickinson’s main focus, “but he’s always around to answer questions and help you out,” Abbott said. “He’s always been there for us, and Oak lets us work into practice if we need to. I think it’s good for us as well, being a part of the team after you leave. UVA is always big on family and it’s a good lifestyle here.”
He rents an apartment in Charlottesville, but Abbott hopes to be out of town for an extended period. He’s one of the Reds’ top prospects, and they invited him to spring training this year. Abbott reported Monday to the Reds’ training complex in Goodyear, Ariz. (Cincinnati’s other pitchers include Justin Dunn, whose brother, Ryan, is a freshman forward on the UVA men’s basketball team.)
“I’m definitely fortunate to have the backing from the Reds, for one, and then everybody else on the outside,” Abbott, 23, said at Disharoon Park. “You may not make the team this year, but you go there and you showcase what you got. They always tell you that if you perform, then the decision is hard for them to make. It’s just going to be all about going there and laying it all out on the table for as long as I’m a part of it.”
In July 2021, the Reds selected him with the 53rd overall pick in the Major League Baseball Draft. He’d thrown 106.2 innings for the Hoos that spring, and so the Reds limited his workload that summer. He appeared in two games in the Arizona Complex League and four in the Florida State League before the Reds shut him down.
He began the 2022 season in Ohio with the Dayton Dragons, the Reds’ High-A affiliate, and went 3-0, with a 0.67 earned-average. After five weeks in Dayton, he relocated to Tennessee and joined the Double-A Chattanooga Lookouts, whose coaches include former UVA catcher Nate Irving.
Abbott started 20 games for Chattanooga and struck out 119 batters in 91 innings.
“The year he had last year was tremendous,” O’Connor said, “so it’s not a surprise that he’s in big-league camp. It also wouldn’t surprise me if he makes the club in some kind of role. I think his stuff plays right away very quickly in the major leagues, and I think it’ll be a matter of whether they look at him as a starter or a reliever.”
As a senior at Halifax County High School, Abbott recorded 158 strikeouts and only four walks, and the New York Yankees picked him in the 36th round of that year’s MLB draft. But Abbott was intent on attending college, and he had an illustrious career at UVA.
Under normal circumstances, Abbott would have been drafted after his junior year at UVA. But the COVID-19 pandemic forced the cancellation of college sports in March 2020, and the MLB draft was cut to five rounds that year. Abbott wasn’t selected.
He was disappointed at the time. Now, looking back, “I’m totally grateful,” he said. “I learned a lot about myself and what I could do, definitely, that next season. And that wasn’t just me. That was all the other [Cavaliers] that didn’t get drafted.”
The day after the 2020 draft, O’Connor drove to South Boston, which is about 60 miles south of Lynchburg, to meet with Abbott and his parents at the family’s home.
“It was a tough day for them,” O’Connor recalled, “but we got a chance to sit outside and spend a lot of time together and talk about the plan and what he needed to do to get to where he wanted to get to. We sat there that day and devised the plan for him to get better, to then go in the major-league draft where he wanted to and ultimately make the major leagues. Fortunately, he put the work in and he executed the plan, and he was certainly rewarded for that, and so was our team. Now he’s in a big-league spring training, and hopefully all of it comes to fruition.”
Abbott pitched almost exclusively out of the bullpen in his first three seasons at Virginia. Before his fourth year, he “added a change-up, which was significant,” O’Connor said, “and I committed that we’d make him a starter, but you can’t just do that. He needed to add the change-up, which he worked hard at doing. Also, he just needed to understand that he couldn’t go out there and throw 20, 25 pitches an inning and be a starter. He needed to understand that pitching to contact is good. That was kind of the next level of learning how to pitch, and he did all that, which allowed him to stay in games in the sixth and seventh innings.”
Since leaving UVA, Abbott said, he’s added a slider. “The change-up is still coming along. It’s proven to be a little bit more difficult to be more consistent with the change-up. The movement’s fine, it’s just being really consistent with it. But I’d probably say I’m the same pitcher. Approach-wise, mentality-wise, everything’s pretty much the same.”
He graduated from high school with about 60 college credits from Advanced Placement courses, and he approached his studies as seriously at UVA as he had at Halifax County. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in biology in 2020 and added a master’s degree from the School of Education and Human Development in 2021.
“It speaks to his character that he’s never taken the easy way out,” O”Connor said. “That’s how he was raised. That’s ingrained in their family, and that’s a big part of the reason that he’s had success on the baseball field. He doesn’t do anything halfway. He does everything full speed, and he’ll be rewarded for that. He said, ‘If I’m going to come back, I’m going to come back and do it the right way,’ and he lived up to it.”
Abbott grew up dreaming of playing pro baseball, and he’s made that a reality. Minor league ball can be a grind, but he’s not complaining. He appreciates how quickly he’s rising in the Reds’ organization.
“There’s a couple of buddies of mine that were drafted out of high school that are the same level as me,” Abbott said. “This will my second full year in pro ball, and they’ve been in there for six or seven.”
He’s also thankful for the welcoming atmosphere at Disharoon Park.
“It’s been a blessing to be back here the last two years,” Abbott said. “There might be a third, you don’t know. You don’t really start planning for the offseason until pretty much the week before the end of the season. You gotta get through the first seven months of playing, and then you kind of just make a decision from there.”
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