When a team selects a player in the Rule 5 draft, merely remaining on the 25-man roster for the entirety of the season is often enough to declare the selection a success. Teams leave these players unprotected for a reason: they do not feature prominently in either their current or future organizational plans. Since these organizations have the most complete set of information available regarding the players they leave unprotected, their availability is a telling indictment of their ability. Therefore, it is extremely rare that Rule 5 picks ever develop into viable major league players, let alone do so in their often premature rookie seasons.
Odubel Herrera was one of those rare exceptions to that Rule 5 rule. Developed as a second baseman in the Rangers system, Herrera played nearly 98% of his minor league defensive innings in the infield at either second base or shortstop. To find a spot for him on their roster, however, the Phillies moved him to centerfield during Spring Training.
Unlike fellow infield-to-outfield convert Cody Asche, Herrera took to the outfield well enough and became something of a stronger-armed Ben Revere. While he took puzzlingly inefficient routes, his speed allowed him to compensate for bad reads. That ugly effectiveness was never on display more prominently than it was during Cole Hamels' mid-July no-hitter at Wrigley Field.
The first exemplary Herrera catch came with one out in the eighth inning of that game when Phillies arch-nemesis Cody Ross lifted a fly ball to left-center field. As you can see in the video embedded below, Odubel didn't exactly pursue the ball along a straight path. Maybe he's been doing too many training runs along the grid-patterned streets of Philadelphia with his "first, run straight back to the wall; then, hang a sharp left toward left field" to track down the ball.
The second Herrera-induced circus catch came memorably on the last out of the game.
Here Herrera makes catching a perfectly routine flyball in front of the center field warning track look like one of Hercules' twelve labors. And while we should applaud Herrera for having the speed and agility to recover from his poor read on the ball, the fact is that this moment should have been about Cole Hamels' no-hitter, not Herrera's fielding. It was extremely rude of him to insert himself into this game that was not about him.
Even with his Reverean route inefficiency, Odubel graded out as an above average defender, netting the Phillies somewhere between one and two wins with his glove depending on the flavor of defensive metric you prefer. It is certainly possible that another year of experience seeing fly balls off the bat from center field will help Herrera improve his routes. If he does, the makings of a near-elite defender are there, minus the arm you'd ideally crave from the position.
But it was Herrera's offensive ability that came as the biggest surprise of his game in 2015. Despite not terribly impressive, but also not exactly light, minor league hitting numbers, none of which came above AA, Herrera produced at an above average level (110 wRC+) in the majors. There's a theory occasionally floated in prospect discussions that players gain little developmentally after AA and that, in most cases, prospects can just as well skip AAA and head right to the pros. Odubel's 2015 batting line lends a data point in support of that theory.
But how did he do it? It certainly couldn't have been his batting stance:
Good lord! What is that? Is his right ankle okay? If I were Ryne Sandberg, I would have pulled Odubel Herrera from the lineup before he even faced his first pitch in batting practice. If I were Ruben Amaro, I would have told him to pack his bags and head back to Arlington. This stance shouldn't work. You need to stand on the bottom of your feet, not the side of them. This, Odubel, is not how you do the whole hitting thing.
To my relief, I discovered that this stance is little more than a farce. Before the pitcher delivers a pitch, Herrera reverts to a much more traditional stance that brings hitting baseballs thrown by major league pitchers back into the realm of possibility. So much in the realm of possibility, in fact, that he finished 6th among qualified rookies in batting average (.297) and produced a line 10% better than league average.
The results are one thing, but there is also reason for skepticism regarding his ability to continue to produce at that clip going forward. Among all 141 qualified major league hitters, Herrera had the highest BABIP (.387) ahead of players who are known for mashing the ball (Miguel Cabrera, Paul Goldschmidt) and speed demons (Dee Gordon). While his above-average speed should allow him to maintain a higher-than-average BABIP, his lack of elite speed or elite hitting makes that .387 BABIP figure entirely unsustainable.
Earlier this week, Matt Winkelman provided a helpful deep-dive into Herrera's progression as a hitter over the course of the season and reached this conclusion regarding his BABIP (bolded text is mine):
...what we do see is Herrera in the second half of the season 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.
Solid contact + above-average speed = higher BABIP. This is, all other things being equal, a true formula. But .387 is an other-worldly BABIP and that formula and Matt's analysis do not imply that to be likely to continue for Herrera.
What we likely saw in 2015, then, was something close to Odubel Herrera's ceiling as a baseball player. Let's not rush to take anything away from that: that ceiling was that of a first-division centerfielder. He finished 8th among all major league centerfielders in fWAR and 9th in bWAR. That, as they say, will play. That it will play is saying something for a Rule 5 pick who many intelligent people wrote off as recently as six months ago.
Odubel Herrera's 2015 season was an astounding success. For a Rule 5 pick who changed positions in Spring Training to insert himself into the top of most conversations about the future of an organization with his rookie-year performance is nothing short of amazing. So, to put a grade on Odubel Herrera's 2015 only one suffices: A for Amazing.