Oh, what to do with Odubel Herrera?
The plight of Herrera is one of the most fascinating decisions facing general manager Matt Klentak this off-season. He came into the 2018 season as a member of a growing young team’s core. Selected in the Rule V draft before the 2015 season, Herrera shocked everyone by hitting .297/.344/.418 in his rookie season, with an fWAR of 3.8.
AS A RULE V PICK.
Michael Martinez is more typical of a Rule V pick. Odubel Herrera is an extreme outlier. It was a fantastic pick, no doubt about it.
From 2015-2017, Herrera hit .288/.344/.430 with an OPS+ of 108 and totaled 10.5 fWAR over those three seasons. He was an All-Star in 2016. During that three-year stretch, he averaged 14 HRs, 54 RBI, 18 SB and 34 doubles per 162 games.
After the 2016 season he signed a five-year, $30.5 million contract, and was living up to that deal, even if he was a bit headache-inducing from time to time.
This year, he had gotten off to the hottest start of his career, hitting .339/.401/.531 with 7 HRs and 11 doubles through his first 47 games. He had a 45-game on-base streak thrown in there, and was adding a surprising amount of power to his game. He appeared to be the best overall player on the Phillies and was heading toward not only an All-Star caliber season, but a potential MVP-caliber season.
And then, the trapdoor opened.
From May 26 through the end of the season, Herrera hit .214/.266/.367. While never being a big on-base guy, he got on base just 27% of the time over the last four months of the season. He did see an increase in his home runs, with 15 more from that point on, 22 on the season, but he hit just 8 doubles over his last 400 PAs (101 games).
Part of the problem could have been the team’s philosophy on hitting more fly balls, in the hopes of hitting more home runs and increasing slugging percentage. Well, Odubel did hit more fly balls this year (37.1%), up from his career mark of 33.4%. However, his infield fly ball rate (13.9%) was way up from last year (8.8%).
That focus on elevating the ball may have messed up his ability to make contact in the strike zone as well. While Herrera didn’t expand his zone more this year, he was much worse at making contact within it, with a zone contact rate of 59.9%, down from 63.5% a year ago and 67.3% two years ago.
Then there is his defense, which had been so good his first three years in the league (an impressive feat for a minor league second baseman). His glove suffered in a big way in 2018, both in terms of UZR and DRS, helping to drop his fWAR to 0.9 this season.
When Herrera was hitting well and providing solid defense, the team, and most fans, could live with his periodic lacks of concentration. But when you’re playing barely above replacement-level, those shortcomings become major red flags.
The big question is what the Phillies believe still lies inside of their center fielder. Was the last four months a fluke as Odubel tried to adjust to a new hitting philosophy? If he goes back to his old habits, will his old production return? Was it just a bad rut he couldn’t get out of? Or might they use this opportunity to rid themselves of a player that is so inconsistent?
Manager Gabe Kapler clearly loves Roman Quinn, who is a superior defender and brings a lot of offensive intangibles to the job. Quinn received a majority of the starts in center field over the last month of the season, but he is fragile, which makes him a risky everyday player.
Herrera is still a young player, and next year will be his age-27 season. His contract is quite reasonable. But have we already seen Herrera at his peak? Will he be better than what we saw in his first 2-3 seasons? And if not, is that enough? He was, after all, close to a four-win player in those first two seasons.
Decisions on Herrera will likely be dictated by who the Phils bring to the team in free agency or through trades. Regardless, the Phillies should certainly be considering upgrades to a more stable, less streaky, more fundamentally sound alternative for center field in 2019.