The average 45-52 year old Caucasian male baseball fan might not be paying attention to a rebuilding Philadelphia Phillies team in stages of its own infancy, nevertheless the development of the Rule 5 draft pick Odubel Herrera. But an average baseball fan wouldn’t be reading about his new approach at the plate and development of a centerfielder on a maturing team.
This 24 year old Venezuelan centerfielder signed as an international free agent with the Texas Rangers in 2008 and was selected with the 8th overall pick by Philadelphia in the 2014 Rule 5 Draft. Herrera was groomed as a second baseman throughout his time with Texas, and only made the switch to the outfield for the 2015 season with Freddy Galvis and Cesar Hernandez currently in the lineup at shortstop and second base. Although so far this season Hernandez has made some mental miscues on the base paths including misunderstanding the infield fly rule. Currently Herrera offers the team a solid center fielder with an upside. The rest of the outfielders in their system are largely unproven. He slashed .297/.344/.418 through 495 at-bats in 2015.
At a glance one would think that Herrera is the below average offensive production with only 8 homeruns and 41 RBIs in 2015. Yet his 3.8 WAR from 2015 represents a solid everyday major leaguer. There is a metric called weighted runs created (wRC+) that measures the additional runs a player adds to a team, 100 is the average value of a player. Herrera’s 2015 wRC+ was 110, slightly above average, but so far this season has a 143 wRC+. This measure represents not only his value as a hitter, but also as baserunner, critical in the leadoff spot he occupies.
A significant part of successfully getting on base requires the ability to draw walks. Herrera had 28 in 2015, for a walk rate of 5.2%, with the league average around 8%. His 24% strikeout rate is well above the league average 20% of plate appearances ending with a K. These percentiles represent a young player new to the National League. Herrera is facing more skilled pitchers than he was used to in High A and AA during the 2014 season. Even his 129 Ks were second lowest of the 6 qualified National League rookie-status position players. He actually led all of those 6 qualified rookies in batting average with .297. His average was ahead of the rising stars: Matt Duffy .295, NL Rookie of the Year Kris Bryant .275, Addison Russell .242, Michael Taylor .229, and Joc Pederson .210.
Following the 2015 campaign, he worked with Steve Henderson, Philadelphia’s hitting coach, to change his approach and strikeout less than he did in 2015. He was not concerned about improving his walk rate, because even his .344 OBP led the team among those who played anywhere near a full season. He also pulled the ball quite a bit in his rookie season, which has changed with his walk rate so far in this young 2016 season. As it stands, Herrera is 3 walks shy of the total he had in 2015, and he’s only played 31 games.
His swing is much more of an inside-out swing path and has improved his frequency that he hits balls to the opposite field, as to avoid being a victim of the shift. A 2015 pull rate of 35.2% is down to 23.5%. He is hitting 40% of his hits, straight back up the middle, and 36.5% to left field. When he wants to hit the ball for power, he reverts to pulling the ball, and has certainly showed that he hasn’t lost any of his occasional power. Additionally his ground ball rate has improved 7% and swung at fastballs 6.5% more often so far in 2016.
Much of this information must be taken with a grain of salt, seeing as it is only May, but an indicator of sustainable success is batting average on balls in play. This measures how many balls hit into fair territory fall for hits. His 2015 BABIP was .387, and so far in 2016 that value is .390. That negligible difference means he isn’t just having more balls fall or sneaking through shifts, but he is hitting to the same degree as he did last year. A significantly higher BABIP this year could represent short term success, but similar values lend themselves to being repeatable.
To represent the change in approach, one can look at the swing rate, the value represents the percentile of pitches that are swung at. He has swung 5.2% less often so far this season and 11.6% less swings on balls, outside the zone. His plate vision has improved in one winter more than any player in the league has in recent memory. For the balls that he does swing at outside the zone, he’s making contact on those 11.7% more often than he did last year. In essence, he has significantly improved his understand of the strike zone and has improved his ability to defend with 2 strikes to foul off pitches. He’s seeing more pitches now and that’s reflected in his .330/.455/.418 slash line and .898 OPS. He has already produced 1.1 WAR which is on pace to finish better than his 3.8 total in 2015. He certainly represents a top of the lineup hitter for a budding and maturing Phillies club.