It should be no surprise to most loyal TGP readers that, considering my trenchant defense of the unduly unpopular Phillies reliever during the 2011 season, I would volunteer to write his player preview. In fact, most of what I have to say about Herndon I have already said in my series of posts on him. Just to recap: back in May when Herndon -- the Phillies' 2010 Rule 5 selection -- was at the nadir of his popularity, lugging around a hefty 9.28 ERA, I argued for a more measured approach. Yes, Herndon was struggling, but it was far too soon to label him a bum, I contended. Provided Herndon could raise his strikeout rate just a bit (something for which there was already some precedent) he could be a valuable bullpen piece.
And indeed, after a stint in AAA to, presumably, work on some things, Herndon came back and raised his K-rate and his ERA plummeted. It required no special analytical skills to arrive at the conclusion that Herndon was much better than his early results suggested. Just a quick look at his peripheral stats and a recognition that his bad luck on balls in play and flyballs was not sustainable was enough. By the end of the season, Herndon's ERA had actually dropped below his ERA estimators (FIP/xFIP/SIERA) thanks in large part to a bizarre 3.2 inning relief appearance in a 5-4 extra-inning loss to the Marlins. He logged 7 walks -- 5 of them intentional -- but only one earned run in that game.
Pitchers who can post 50+% ground ball rates do not grow on trees, and that happens to be Herndon's main skill. By definition, groundballs cannot leave the ballpark, so they are the preferred form of ball in play for any pitcher, but especially for pitchers without sky-high K-rates. Herndon generates his groundballs with a 90-94 mph sinking fastball that he throws almost 70 percent of the time. He complements the pitch with a so-so slider and a changeup which he mixed in a bit more in 2011 with decent results. It's not as if Herndon is a pure "pitch to contact" type, either. As I noted above, he raised his K/9 from 4.99 in 2010 to 6.16 in 2011.
Still, it is not a certainty that Herndon will even make the Major League squad coming out of Spring Training. Presently, the Phillies bullpen depth chart is as follows: Jonathan Papelbon, Antonio Bastardo, Chad Qualls, Jose Contreras, Dontrelle Willis, Kyle Kendrick, Michael Stutes, and David Herndon. Whether Herndon makes the team will depend on several things: 1. How well he pitches in Spring Training, 2. Whether Charlie Manuel chooses to carry 13 pitchers (unlikely), 3. Whether Contreras is fully recovered from his elbow injury, 4. Whether Dontrelle Willis can find the strikezone 5. Whether Charlie Manuel prefers Michael Stutes to Herndon. With the strong likelihood of injuries over the course of a 162-game season, though, there's no doubt we'll see plenty of him in 2012. And when you do see him try to temper the moans and groans, because he's actually pretty good. If the Phillies find themselves in desperate need of a groundball, they shouldn't hesitate to call on Herndon.
I see no reason to believe that Herndon can't repeat or even improve upon his 2011 numbers in 2012.