Graduating to Better Things: Odubel Herrera

There are times where everyone is right and wrong at the same time.  No one saw Odubel Herrera having the year he had, but there also wasn’t a lot to say he could the things he did in 2015.  The reports out of the Rangers organization was that he was a plus hitter with some speed, and last winter he showed some more power than he had at any point in his career prior.  Everyone knew that the Phillies were going to use him in the outfield, but since his experience was very limited (especially in center field) it was hard to get a grasp on how good he could be out there.  Top that all off with Herrera make big adjustments in the second half the season in terms of his approach at the plate, and you have big time breakout.  When all is said and done, the Phillies may have ended up with a solid rebuilding piece for the price of $50,000, that is a huge win for the scouting staff.

What Was Written Before the Season:

28. Odubel Herrera – 2B/OF

Role: Second Division Regular
Risk: Medium – Herrera will be making the jump from AA to the majors, and while the bat has been above expectations, there are still a lot of questions about which positions he can handle.
Summary:  It is really hard to rank Herrera in the Phillies’ system.  The Rule 5 pick lacks a real set position; his numbers seem to outstrip his tools, and he is about to be thrust into the major leagues.  Herrera was a bit of a sleeper in a Rangers system that is full of Latin middle infielders.  In 2014 he won the Texas League (AA) batting title before going to the Venezuela Winter League, where he won the batting title and put up a blistering .372/.432/.556 line in the regular season.  Herrera is passable at second base, but the glove and arm are more towards fringe average, possibly reaching average.  However, he has taken to the outfield this winter, first in left field and now center field.  There have not been any reports on how good the defense has been in winter league, but it has been positive enough that the outfield is where the Phillies see him getting the most time.  Herrera has made good strides toward a better approach and saw a big jump in his walk rate in 2014.  Despite his showing in winter ball, Herrera has yet to show anything above 30 power potential previously, and while he has plus speed, he has not been a productive base runner up to this point.  Herrera has a good feel for contact and scouts love his hit tool.  It looks like the Phillies are committed to working Herrera into the 2015 team.  The big question for Herrera is whether he can actually play the outfield.  If he can, the fall back is a utility role.  If he can’t then he is going to be on the tough road of hitting at second base.  Given how Herrera has outhit his tools so far, there is a chance he will outhit the second division label I have above and can carve out a career as a major league regular.

What Happened in the Minors:

As a Rule 5 pick Odubel Herrera went right to the majors and he didn’t look back.

What Happened in the Majors:

Stat Line: 147 G 537 PA 30 2B 3 3B 8 HR 16 SB .297/.344/.418 5.2% B% 24.0% K%
Major League Debut: April 6, 2015

Depending on your favorite version of WAR, Odubel Herrera had the best Rule 5 season in history.  Baseball Reference gave Herrera credit for a 3.8 WAR season and Fangraphs gave him credit for 3.9 WAR.  That rating was good enough for 5th among all rookies and 8th among major league center fielders.  Speaking of center field, after playing most of Spring Training in left field, the Phillies moved the former second baseman to center field in time for opening day, and that is where he stayed all season.  A lot of his value came from this defense as most defensive metrics had him as being worth about 10 runs above average in center field.  It was an adventure visually for him to get to many balls in the outfield, but ultimately his speed gave him a large amount of range.  I am not entirely believing of the run value of his defense, but by the end of the season Herrera looked very comfortable in center field and looked to be at least an above average defender out there.

At the plate Herrera’s overall line has some big warning signs for unsustainability; his strikeout rate is fairly high, his walk rate is not great, and his BABIP (.387) is unsustainably high.  However, that simplifies Herrera’s season and the adjustments he made over the course of the season.

BB%K%ISOBABIPLD%wRC+
1st Half3.224.50.1300.34720.888
2nd Half7.323.60.1110.43226.5133

So we see a slight drop in power and a big jump in BABIP.  The BABIP was fueled in many ways by a strong uptick in batted ball profile as Herrera was among the MLB leaders in LD% over the second half of the season.  But it isn’t just the line drive percentage that leads to the high BABIP for Herrera.  He sprays the baseball to all fields as shown here in his season spray chart:

Odubel Herrera (1)

Let’s take this a bit beyond the full year spray chart and look at quality of contact in the first and second half.

PullCenterOppoSoftMedHard
1st Half36.231.732.221.651.327.1
2nd Half34.133.033.017.357.225.4

What we see here is a slight decrease in hard hit balls to the pull side (which may have led to the slight decrease in power), but what we do see is Herrera hitting solid contact to all fields.  This could lead to continued success on balls in play because it will be difficult for opposing defense to adjust to him.  One thing of note is that all of Herrera’s home run power is to the pull side.  This is unsurprising given his low power numbers coming into the season that hinted at limited power.  However, there is legitimate home run power in Herrera’s swing and he was not hitting cheap home runs when he did connect.

Going back to our larger first half vs second half table, we see a big jump in walk rate for Herrera.  If we break some of the related data by first and second half we see some interesting pieces that may have contributed to that change.

PitchesBallsStrikesPABall %Strike %P/PA
1st Half109533576027830.59%69.41%3.94
2nd Half105938667325936.45%63.55%4.09

I don’t have the swing rates so we don’t know whether Herrera swung more or less in the second half.  What we do know is that pitchers threw him more balls and less strikes.  Part of this probably had to do with Herrera proving himself to be a more dangerous hitter than his minor league scouting report.  Given his strikeout rate it is also likely that pitchers tried to expand the zone more vs Herrera.  Either way Herrera saw more balls in the second half and turned those into walks at a higher rate.  That should help lead to some sustainability in his walk rate in the second half.

The Future:

This is the portion of this piece where I temper all the optimism of Herrera’s 2015 season.  However, first I want to address something that gets constantly thrown around, moving Herrera back to second base.  Let’s start with the basic scouting before getting into the numbers.  The general consensus was that Herrera was a below average defender at second base and while improving, there wasn’t seen to be a huge upside there.  As we said earlier, Herrera’s defense in center field was his most valuable skills in 2015.  Let’s jump into the numbers now, starting with some expected offensive regression.  It is possible that Herrera improves enough to offset the losses due to a low BABIP, but he is not going to have a .387 BABIP forever so it is likely we see some numbers slip with the bat.  As for the position, the positional value of center field and second base are the same, so Herrera will need to match his defensive value in center field at second base.  Considering that no second baseman matched Herrera’s ~10 runs of defensive output at second base (the highest was 6.4 runs according to fangraphs).  To move Herrera off center field then you will need a superior player and right now no one is that in the majors.  Nick Williams has high upside, but Herrera and Williams can coexist in the outfield, this makes the question then whether all of the Phillies’ outfield prospects hit, where do you play them all.  This ignores the fact that they can be traded to fill positions of need.  Overall, Herrera just put up nearly 4 wins of value and it is going to take a big effort by someone else to unseat him.

As for the other aspects of Herrera’s game, he is going to need to start by cutting down on the strikeouts.  Even when he increased his walk rate, his strikeouts stayed high.  He can foul off a lot of pitches, but is still very aggressive at the plate, and pitchers are able to expand the zone on him.  He doesn’t need to become passive, but he could afford to take a lesson from Maikel Franco and look for his pitch more, especially early in counts and then use his great contact abilities to battle late in counts.  Another potential area of growth for Herrera is on the base paths, he stole 16 bases, but at a poor rate.  He has the speed to be a decent base stealer so it will be on him and Mickey Morandini to improve on the base paths this year.  The unknown area of improvement is his power.  Herrera hit for less power in the second half, but he has the strength to hit a few more home runs and at least keep up his doubles pace.  He will only be 24 on opening day, but he is pretty filled out and compact so there is not a lot of place to put more muscle.  This means it will be down to Herrera improving the quality of his contact, something he is proving adept at.

Herrera played like a first division center fielder in 2015, and while it is hard to see him keeping it up, he did flash it as his ceiling.  If he can continue to make adjustments and maintain solid defense, there is no reason to think Herrera cannot be a major league regular in center field.  Not bad for a guy most had written off.

Author: Matt Winkelman

Matt Winkelman

Matt is originally from Mt. Holly, NJ, but after a 4 year side track to Cleveland for college he now resides in Madison, WI. His work has appeared on Phuture Phillies, The Good Phight, and TheDynastyGuru.

1 comment

  1. Timber

    The most level-headed assessment of Herrera I’ve read. Well done. I would love for the Phillies to at least explore his trade value this offseason after what might have been a career year.