Is Odubel Herrera a Good Defensive Center Fielder?

A year ago today, baseball fans outside of the Delaware Valley were first introduced to a rookie outfielder on the worst team in baseball. His name: Odubel Herrera. You may recall that Herrera was a Rule 5 pick who had been a second baseman in the Rangers organization only to find himself named the Opening Day center fielder for the Phillies due to the, how shall we say, less than ideal nature of their 2015 roster. He didn’t find immediate success and received inconsistent playing time during the first half, so it wasn’t until July 25th that he appeared on the national stage. In what ended up being Cole Hamels’ final start in Phillies red, Herrera made one of the more iconic final outs in a no-hitter.

When the ball was hit, I remember knowing it would be a home run. When I realized the wind was going to keep it in the park, I remember knowing Herrera wasn’t going to be able to backtrack and make the catch. When I saw him make the catch, I remember knowing that baseball is unknowable and I should really stop pretending otherwise.

That play was typical for the experience of watching Odubel Herrera patrol center field. In fact, he made a similarly dramatic play in the eighth inning of the same game:

His dramatic style made a certain degree of sense, right? He was a converted infielder, so circuitous routes and unconventional approaches were to be expected as Herrera undertook the intimidating task of learning a new position while playing at the highest level as a rookie. As a result, it was more than a little surprising at the end of the year to check out what advanced metrics had to say about Herrera’s defense and find that the reviews were stellar. Per our advanced metrics, he was the fifth most valuable defensive center fielder in the majors behind four guys you’ve certainly heard of if you’re a fan of great center field-defense:

Top 5 Defensive Center Fielders in 2015
Name Team DRS UZR/150 Def
Kevin Kiermaier TBR 42 40.7 32.0
Lorenzo Cain KCR 18 14.5 16.3
Billy Hamilton CIN 8 18.8 16.2
Kevin Pillar TOR 14 16.0 16.1
Odubel Herrera PHI 10 9.9 11.7

Had the Phillies uncovered a defensive prodigy in center field? Could the guy whose defensive style constantly had viewers holding their breaths actually be one of the best defensive outfielders in the league? As you know, defensive metrics are particularly susceptible to small-sample-size disclaimers, which means it was more than justifiable to hold off before declaring Herrera one of the best defensive center fielders in the league. The eye test — which is equal parts unreliable and undeniable — told us that something might be slightly amiss and, as it turns out, his defensive metrics have slipped notably this season.

By Defensive Runs Saved, he was an impressive +10 defender a year ago and is a significantly more mediocre +1 defender this year. His UZR/150 has fallen from 9.9 to -2.1. His overall standing among major-league center fielders has fallen from top five to slightly below average at 12th of 19 qualified fielders. Again, sample-size disclaimers are critical here regarding the precise value of these numbers, but the broad stroke they paint are notably different. Which depiction is right? Is he a good fielder or a middling one?

One of the first ways I approached this question was by looking at his outlier plays. Inside Edge Fielding groups plays into different buckets based on the frequency with which similar plays are made across the league. This year, he’s made just two catches on batted balls which fell into the Unlikely (10-40%) or Even (40-60%) buckets. Two made plays may sound low, but the sample size is incredibly small — he’s seen just seven batted balls in the Unlikely bucket and four in the Even bucket.

Here’s his one catch from the 40-60% group:

And here’s his best play of the year by this metric, the one he made from the 10-40% category:

Those two plays demonstrate an undeniable positive attribute in Odubel’s fielding: he’s able to convert his speed into excellent range in the field.

Now for the bad. Let’s take a look at the three plays he has missed which were described as having a 60%-or-better chance of being made. He’s missed two out of six chances in the Likely (60-90%) bucket:

 

And, for his worst play of the season, the one play he’s missed out of 202 in the Routine (90-100%) bucket:

Again, the range isn’t the problem. On the first two it’s execution — seeing the ball into the glove — and on the third it’s getting an atrocious read and bad first step on a routine fly ball.

Now I want to tell you something about those three missed plays – they took place on June 21st, June 24th, and June 23rd, respectively. Over a period of four games, Herrera produced the three worst defensive plays of his season. This is not me discovering a hidden unknown trend. His struggles were well known at the time to the extent that he was benched on June 25th and instructed to take fielding practice in right field. We talk frequently about offensive slumps or pitching slumps, but it’s rare that we acknowledge defensive slumps. Slumps may or may not be predictive or meaningful, but they are certainly descriptive and there may be no better way to describe Herrera’s play in the field at the end of June as a defensive slump.

Another place I went looking for clues as to Herrera’s “true talent” as a fielder was his errors. For well-documented reasons, fielding percentage does a horrendous job expressing the defensive performance of a player — for instance, not one of those three missed plays above was ruled an error — but errors do help us identify specific events. They don’t tell us every time the fielder did something wrong, but tell us when some of the mistakes occurred. In Herrera’s case, he’s had eight this season. Of those eight, five were booted or dropped balls, two were bad throws allowing runners to advance and one, well, look:

Did you see it? Look at the box in the upper left hand corner. See where it says “1 out” when that ball was hit? I don’t mean to get too technical here, but when there’s just one out and you catch a ball, you aren’t supposed to throw it into the stands. This bonehead play is a bit of a trend in his errors. The poor throws are a result of an arm that is average at best, but the copious boots and drops can essentially all be chalked up to lapses in concentration rather than below-average ability. Here are a few of those lapses:

 

In the end, all of this circles back to our original assumption about Herrera as a defensive outfielder: that being a recent convert to the position will result in him being a bit rough around the edges. At the risk of coming to a conclusion that’s a bit of a cop out, I think the truth about Herrera’s defense lies somewhere in between his 2015 and 2016 numbers. He’s demonstrated a remarkable natural ability at the position but also shown a frustrating inconsistency in realizing that ability. It’s also important to keep in mind that he’s just 24 years old and not even 18 months into his career as a center fielder. As a result, I find myself leaning on the optimistic side of things and seeing room for future growth and development as a defender in Herrera’s future.





Corinne Landrey writes for FanGraphs and MLB.com's Cut4 site. Follow her on Twitter @crashlandrey.

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'Tungsten Arm" O'Doyle
6 years ago

Amaro did us good. First Herrera, then Dylan Cozens in a couple years. Phils won’t have a fraudulent AAA outfield before too long.