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Odubel Herrera: A Tale of Two Players

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Occasionally, there’s already an NL MVP in the Phillies’ outfield. And then, many times, there’s not.

Philadelphia Phillies v Pittsburgh Pirates
The Good, The Bad: The Herrera
Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times... Is what we can say about Odubel Herrera’s career to date. The Phillies’ sometimes-scatterbrained outfielder can be one of the most dominant players in the sport for a stretch and then suddenly transform into a total train wreck.

On his best stretches he’ll put up numbers that match Phillies hopefuls Bryce Harper and Manny Machado (maybe without as much consistent power); on his worst days he couldn’t chauffeur those guys to the park. Why? What happens that changes a guy from an all-star to a fourth outfielder in the span of a week? All players can be streaky, but what happens with Herrera is extremely dramatic and it’s certainly puzzling.

Here’s a chart to illustrate some of his hot and cold streaks:

Start and end dates for each hot/cold streak per season, with basic stats

Those are some pretty strong “Best of Times” and they don’t represent a small sample size either; all totaled it’s over 1000 PA’s in 250 games. Added up, all of those hot streaks give you a player who slashes .332/.397/.502 for an OPS of .899. For comparison, there are only 10 outfielders who had those types of numbers for their career, and all but two are in the Hall of Fame (and one of those two is “Shoeless” Joe Jackson).

But for every action there’s a reaction, right? And for Odubel, the “Worst of Times” is pretty rough. Luckily for all involved those bad streaks are not that extensive. They are long enough though that they impact his numbers on the whole and alter the perception of who he is as a player. And for a large portion of 2018, that was the Odubel who took the field. It would not be an understatement to say that he played a salient role in the Phillies late season collapse.

What is it that sets him off? What changes in his game that turns him from “best” to “worst?”

The first thing to look at is walks. Odubel isn’t a player who retains the ability to walk when he’s on a cold streak. This is, of course, an invaluable tool for a baseball player. Plate discipline, being able to identify pitches and keep yourself from swinging at that which isn’t “your pitch,” manifests itself as walks and is a “slump-proof” tool that keeps players productive even when they’re not hitting. Bryce Harper is an excellent example of a streaky player who consistently maintains his ability to walk, preserving his capacity to be productive.

For his career, Odubel walks at a rate of 6.8% but when he’s been on the cumulative hot streaks outlined above his walk rate goes up slightly to 8.6%.

When you look at strike outs, Odubel’s career strike out percentage is at 21.7% and again, while he’s been hot that rate drops ever so slightly to 20.1%.

So when he’s hot, there’s about a ~2% rate difference to the positive in both walks and strike outs. That alone would not account for the massive disparity between the best of Odubel and the worst.

But when you look at his cold stretches you see he only walks at a 4.4% clip and to make things worse, predictably, he strikes out at a much higher rate of 25.6%. Again with the walk rate we see about a ~2% dip from the career norms but the K% jumps significantly at just shy of 4% points, representing a much more drastic difference.

That 4% rise in strike outs is consequential on its own but it becomes even more impactful when you take one other key factor into consideration: BABIP. Odubel’s career BABIP is a lofty .342. That number ranks 16th highest in all of baseball for qualified batters since 2015 when Odubel made his major league debut and it illustrates exactly how important it is for Odubel to put the ball in play. Whether its extraordinary hand-to-eye coordination or exceptional bat control, both of which stand out visually when observing his at-bats, or something else (quickness?), it’s important for him to not strike out and that 4% rise matched with the .342 BABIP could represent the “why” in his dip in his production.

Not surprisingly, his BABIP is significantly lower during the cold spells then when he’s been hot; .372 vs .218 in 2018, .413 vs .246, in 2017, .384 vs .253 in ’16 and .431 vs .277 in ’15. At some level this is to be expected during times when your play is either up or down but the depth of the difference in Odubel’s case is very telling. It’s even more interesting when you look at his batted-ball stats for those time periods where there’s very little difference in the hot and cold spells.

In some batted-ball stats, like GB% and FB%, the numbers are either equal, or a mix of higher/lower for both hot and cold. The only true, across the board difference seems to be in his line drive rate, where it’s consistently higher in his stretches of production and consistently lower when he’s less productive. But like (and probably correlated to) BABIP, that’s to be expected.

Some interesting trends start to appear when you look at the swing percentage data. Odubel swings more often at fastballs when he’s on a COLD streak then when he’s hot, by an average margin of about ~10% more. He also puts a higher percentage of these balls in play.

In fact, he puts the ball in play much more often when he’s on a cold streak and since we know that his BABIP is significantly lower, that would suggest that the contact he’s making in these stints is much less effective, not necessarily harder or softer as his batted-ball stats indicate, just resulting in more outs.

With regards to pitches seen in each situation, there is a noticeable difference as well. He sees 4.05 pitches per plate appearance when he’s rolling (4149 pitches in 1025 PA’s) but only 3.78 P/PA when he’s off (2258 in 597 PA’s). For comparison, in 2018 Joey Votto saw 4.05 P/PA and Aaron Nola saw 3.77 (Nick Williams saw 3.82 if you’d like a non-pitcher comparison).

Another factor, which cannot be quantified with stats but is fairly obvious while watching Odubel throughout his career, is his swing mechanics. There is a lot going on in Herrera’s swing and the more movement in a swing, the harder it is to repeat over a 162 game season. There’s so much going on that if everything isn’t exactly “on,” it’s most likely a huge factor for him going into these rough stages, where he lingers until he can get everything back in order. It really is a testament to his hand-eye coordination and bat skills that he’s even able to accomplish anything when he’s off.

So the answer to “why” doesn’t appear to be one single factor, but rather a precarious mix of ingredients that when all put in the pot and boiled produce a less than ideal player. One part plate discipline, a pinch of poor contact and a heaping spoonful of poor mechanics and you’ve turned Kobe steak into dog food. And no one wants to eat dog food. The Phillies and Odubel need to get the recipe straight and keep it at the right temperature – scorching hot.

Note: For those interested in raw data and would like to peruse the workbook I put together for this post you can see it here: Odubel Herrera Streak Data