Phillies Herrera Hopes to Avoid Sophomore Jinx


Odubel Herrera‘s emergence during the 2015 season came as a complete surprise for Phillies fans. When selected in the Rule 5 Draft from the Texas Rangers on December 11th, 2014, the player known as “El Torito” (the little bull) wasn’t considered a top prospect.

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The hope was that Herrera could stick as a utility guy, especially with his second base history and the team’s plans to try him in the outfield. As the season wore on, it became apparent that the performances people were witnessing were not an illusion, but rather a player getting better right before their eyes.

Corinne Landrey of the Crashburn Alley site looked at whether Herrera or Cesar Hernandez might continue what at the time were positive offensive contributions. Time answered that question resoundingly, as it became apparent that Herrera has a better future as a positive contributor for the Phillies than does Hernandez.

Now that the season is over, we can also look at some other indicators that Herrera should be able to avoid the dreaded “sophomore jinx” that has often followed successful rookies in Major League Baseball history.

At the beginning of the year, Herrera’s approach could be likened to that of someone allergic to bee stings who had just walked into an active bee hive. Anything that was near the plate, Herrera was swinging away. From April through June, he managed to draw just nine walks.

Herrera’s pre-MLB All Star break slash line of .268/.297/.398 wasn’t one that instilled confidence to that point. Still, the fact that he was producing an 88 wRC+ meant that his roster spot was secure. This was especially so with a Phillies team whose offensive ineptitude could at times be described as laughable.

And then something happened. It’s hard to tell exactly what happened, as it’s difficult to know what was going through Herrera’s mind. But he began to change his approach, taking more pitches, drawing more walks.

Herrera became a better overall offensive player. His walk rate more than doubled from 3.2 percent before the break to 7.3 percent after, while he lowered his strikeout rate from 24.5 percent to 23.6 percent. His second half slash line of .329/.394/.440 with a 133 wRC+ shows a vastly improved hitter.

In digging a bit deeper, there are further indicators which reveal that his approach was improving. Take a look at this table:

[table id=61 /]

What jumps out from the information in the table is that Herrera was learning to do more with what pitchers were giving him. He wasn’t hitting the ball in the air as much. Instead Herrera was making harder contact, which led to more hits and opportunities to get on base.

That improved result led to his experiencing a basic tenet of baseball: if a player is a good hitter, or is improving as a hitter, he will stop getting hittable pitches.

A quick glance at his “zone profile” shows that pitchers approached him the same way all year, yet Herrera demonstrated an ability to lay off those pitches as the year went on. The types of pitches being thrown to Herrera changed as the season wore on, as opposing pitchers began to notice that he could do damage to their fastballs.

While these were all positive signs from the young hitter, who will turn 24 years old at the end of December, there was some luck involved as well. His BABIP rose throughout the year, ending up at a very high .387 mark.

It could be easy for some to dismiss his 2015 as a BABIP-driven season, especially since Herrera’s number is almost 90 points higher than the league average. Even the most ardent of Herrera supporters have to acknowledge that factor did play a large part in his success.

However, with Herrera’s speed, there shouldn’t necessarily be any expectation of a huge drop-off. Thanks to that speed, he is far more likely to leg out base hits than the average runner.

This season, with the team finishing with the worst overall record in Major League Baseball, was a difficult one for Phillies fans to endure. Watching Herrera blossom into an above average talent was one reward, both for those fans, as well as for team management in the front office.

The fact that the Phillies scouting department was able to find such a diamond in the rough as Herrera helped to make planning for 2016 and beyond, and particularly the decisions about the outfield alignment, that much easier.

Let’s just hope that “El Torito” can continue on with the adjustments he made during the 2015 season as he moves into the future. If Herrera can continue on his current path, it could even lead to an NL All-Star Game selection. That development would be huge for the Phillies continuing rebuilding program.

Next: 2015 Phillies Infield Report Card