Graham Johnson has had a front-row seat to Bryan Abreu's rise over the last year or so. In fact, watching the first strong Texas League outing for the seventh-ranked Astros prospect came as little surprise for Double-A Corpus Christi's pitching coach.
In his fourth Hooks outing, Abreu faced one batter over the minimum over five hitless innings -- striking out six and walking a pair -- as Double-A Corpus Christi blanked Frisco, 5-0, on Wednesday at Whataburger Field. The right-hander earned his first win since moving up on April 23.
"I think the big thing is that he's always had that stuff," Johnson said. "Now he's just so much more confident to attack the zone with it, for the most part. Now that he's able to do that, he's able to game-plan a little bit better and understand how his stuff works and when to use it, as opposed to just throwing his best stuff at them."
Video: Hooks' Abreu completes five hitless frames
After a 1-2-3 first inning, Abreu (1-1) issued a leadoff walk in the second to Christian Lopes. But Preston Beck lined out to right and the 22-year-old got Charles Leblanc to bounce into a double play.
Abreu issued a two-out walk to Brendon Davis in the next frame, but punched out his third man of the inning to start a string of seven straight RoughRiders retired to conclude his outing.
The native of the Dominican Republic threw a season-high 89 pitches, 59 for strikes. Staying around the strike zone was key for Abreu, who walked seven between his first two Corpus Christi appearances and one in previous outing on May 10. It took him until Wednesday to surpass the three-inning mark in the Texas League.
Gameday box score
"It was more of him getting back to what he does best," Johnson said. "He just tried to do a little bit too much in that first outing, which a lot of young guys try to do when a guy comes up to a new level, especially when it's a higher level. It's a little bit of nerves and you're trying to make an impression and you're trying to do a little too much with your stuff. Bryan needed to just let his stuff play, because it really is that good."
Two of his first three outings with the Hooks were planned, three-inning relief appearances. The Hooks utilize a piggyback system for their rotation, and Johnson said Abreu will start plenty at some point, with the goal of going five at least five innings in those opportunities.
The right-hander began the season with Class A Advanced Fayetteville, where he made three starts and allowed six runs over 14 2/3 innings. His time with Woodpeckers didn't mark his Carolina League debut, though. He ended his 2018 campaign by starting the one-game Mills Cup championship and delivered four one-hit frames before Buies Creek captured the title in 11 innings.
Abreu debuted last June for Class A Short Season Tri-City before heading to the Midwest League and joining Quad Cities for 10 appearances, including five starts. He posted a 1.64 ERA and went 3-for-3 in save opportunities while striking out 68 and limiting opponents to a .165 average over 38 1/3 innings. That's when Johnson first had Abreu under his tutelage.
It finally clicked for the 6-foot-1 hurler in extended spring training last year as Abreu parlayed his instruction into a breakout season. After signing for $40,000 in Houston's 2013 international class, he spent his first four years in Rookie ball attempting to conquer control issues. The Astros rewarded him by placing him on the 40-man roster this past offseason.
"He's super-athletic, but he's kind of a longer-leveled kid," Johnson said. "For him, it was just getting his body to work together in unison. You got to approach that from a multitude of angles, whether it's recovery, just making sure his body feels good, strength and conditioning, obviously his movements on the mound."
With only four Class A Advanced starts under his belt, Johnson said it's almost like skipping a level.
"It definitely seemed like, from a stuff standpoint and from a poise standpoint, he was ready to make the jump in the eyes of the decision-makers," the pitching coach said. "This is definitely a really good test for him. Obviously, you're going to face better lineups, more patient hitters and [he'll learn] how to better utilize his stuff."
2019 MiLB include
Abreu's chief weapon is a curveball graded at 65 by MLB Pipeline, and he also sports a wipeout slider. They complement a four-seam fastball that ranges from 92 to 96 mph and is boosted by late run, according to Pipeline. The curveball has been the most devastating offering for him, and Johnson believes the Abreu's shape, velocity and command of the pitch make it elite.
"He kind of have has all three of the pieces, which is something that you don't see a ton, especially out of a young kid like himself," the coach said.
Right-hander Justin Ferrell allowed the RoughRiders' lone hit in the sixth to Davis and recorded five outs before giving way to righty Colin McKee, who polished off the shutout by fanning five and walking one in 2 1/3 hitless innings.
Astros No. 11 prospect Ronnie Dawson opened the scoring with a solo homer in the third and made it 2-0 an inning later with an RBI single. Osvaldo Duarte also went yard.