The Philadelphia Phillies center fielder is a Rule 5 find who is trying to prove he can be a longterm answer in the club’s rebuilding program.
Going into that 2014 MLB Rule 5 Draft very few Phillies fans had ever heard of then Texas Rangers’ 2nd base prospect Odubel Herrera. Today he is one of the key building blocks of the Phillies rebuilding future.
Of the starting position players on the 2016 roster, only Herrera and 3rd base sensation Maikel Franco look to be full-time position player pieces when the team is ready to start competing again for an NL East flag.
In what was one of the deepest rookie classes ever, Herrera went on to slash .297/.344/.418 and led all NL rookies with 30 doubles a year ago. He led all of Major League Baseball in BABIP (Batting average on balls in play) with a .387 clip.
That performance begs the question of how Herrera can maintain or improve upon last season’s offensive output in 2016? After a dozen games through Saturday night it looks like we might have our answer. Herrera has become one of the most disciplined hitters in baseball this year. His 5.20 average pitches per plate appearance mark leads all MLB players.
With that BABIP now down by .041 points, he ranks 64th among qualified hitters in that category this year. His Batting Average itself is down a corresponding .034 points. But Herrera has more than made up the difference in the kind of production we would expect from a player who has not put the ball in play as often as he did in 2015.
Gone is the free swinger who logged 129 K’s against 28 BB’s last year. Heading into Sunday’s game, Herrera is walking as often as he’s striking out, negotiating 11 of each in the Phils’ first dozen games.
The increase in his walk rate has pushed his OBP (on-base percentage) up to the .429 mark, which is a massive .085 points higher than 2015. His wRC+ is 135. This compares very favorably to last year when his wRC+ was 110, a full 10% better than the average big league ballplayer.
Thus far, manager Pete Mackanin has written Herrera’s name in the Phillies’ lineup two-spot six times, and in the three-spot six times during a wild 12-game start to the 2016 season. He’s batting .350 out of the three-hole, compared to .167 out of the two-hole. His OPS is .225 points higher when batting 3rd instead of 2nd in the batting order.
Though Herrera’s production has been far better out of that three-hole, it’s tough for Mackanin to pull Franco out of what is traditionally a big RBI placing at the number three slot. The old baseball axiom that says you bat the team’s best hitter third to ensure he comes to the plate in the first inning might not be applicable here.
Franco has batted third in the order six times, and hit in the cleanup spot another five times. He is batting over .110 points higher out of the four-hole and his OPS is virtually unchanged whether batting in the 3 or 4 places.
On a team struggling to score runs such as the Phillies, Mackanin must obviously maximize the lineup as best he can. He’s getting very little offensive production from his corner outfielders, middle infielders, 1st base, and catcher.
Herrera’s maturation at the plate, which includes a more patient and disciplined approach than last year, is keeping him thriving as an offensive force. Theoretically it should be tough to replicate last year’s numbers. Becoming a more disciplined hitter was one of the few avenues available for Herrera to improve. He embraced the challenge and did what was necessary to become a more complete ballplayer.
Having Herrera step his game up to the next level helps, but only so much on the weak-hitting Phils. By now Herrera has placed a stranglehold on his position as the starting center fielder, and is considered a legitimate threat in the Phillies’ lineup. As a recognized force to be dealt with, he won’t sneak up on anyone this year.
Herrera knew that coming in, and changed his game to keep up with the adjustments that pitchers have made against him. He’s not only a talented baseball player, but is also showing that he has the mental game to continue being a good pro for years to come. A player just scratching the surface of his many skills, the Phillies and their fans have to be encouraged as ‘El Torito’ appears to only be getting better.