Meet Odubel Herrera: The Phillies Opening Day Center Fielder

Last weekend, Phillies manager Ryne Sandberg indicated the team is moving Ben Revere from center field to left field to make room for Odubel Herrera — a speedy slap hitter they plucked from the Rangers in the rule 5 draft last winter. Although he’s second baseman by trade, Herrera apparently showed enough outfield range this spring to convince the Phillies brass that he could play a passable center field. Or at least they think he can be better than Ben Revere, who’s known for taking circuitous routes every now and then.

Making the Phillies outfield isn’t exactly a challenge these days, especially with Domonic Brown slated to start the season on the disabled list. Herrera will likely be flanked by Ben Revere in left and some combination of Darin Ruff and Grady Sizemore in right. Cesar Hernandez is also in the mix, but he’s probably less consequential than any of the players I’ve already named. It comes as no surprise that the Phillies ranked in the bottom four for all three outfield spots in this year’s positional power rankings.

Even so, Herrera didn’t have his roster spot handed to him. He’s earned it with a strong spring. The 23-year-old has hit .321/.356/.339 this spring with 6 steals. He didn’t just beat up on A-Ball pitchers either. According to Baseball-Reference’s opponent quality metric, his average opponent has been a Quad-A pitcher, on average. Spring numbers aren’t all that predictive, but they also aren’t entirely useless. And for players like Herrera with such a limited track record against quality pitching, even the smallest piece of data helps.

Now, about that limited track record. Herrera split the 2014 season between High-A and Double-A, where he hit an impressive .317/.387/.396 with 23 steals in 34 attempts. On the surface, that seems like a nice little player. Not many prospects put up wRC+s north of 120 as a 22-year-olds in Double-A. Hunter Renfroe, who’s one of the more highly-regarded hitting prospects, wRC+’d just 90 at the same age and level last year.

Despite Herrera’s encouraging surface stats, KATOH is far from enthused with his future prospects. KATOH forecasts him for just 1.8 WAR through age-28, and gives him a meager 7% chance of accumulating more than 4 WAR. Here’s the full breakdown.

MLB >4 WAR >6 WAR >8 WAR >10 WAR >12 WAR >16 WAR WAR thru 28
59% 7% 4% 3% 2% 2% 1% 1.8

KATOH’s biggest knock on Herrera is that he can’t hit for a lick of power. Herrera’s ISOs were among his league’s worst at both of his minor league stops last year. Additionally, Herrera’s strikeouts are cause for concern. His 17% strikeout rate from last year certainly wasn’t bad, but you’d hope for something a little better from a hitter with such little pop.

Herrera obviously has some flaws, but it’s not like he can’t do anything right. After all, he was one of the better hitters in Double-A last year. But Herrera’s long suits from Double-A aren’t very predictive of success in the big leagues.

Most notably, KATOH isn’t wooed by Herrera’s strong walk numbers. For hitters in the minors — especially in the low minors — walk numbers aren’t very predictive of future success. Herrera’s 17% and 7% walk rates from High-A and Double-A don’t hold much water.

KATOH’s not buying Herrera’s BABIP, either. We all know that BABIPs can fluctuate wildly in small sample sizes, so it comes as no surprise that they don’t tell us much about how a prospect will perform in the majors. Herrera’s 2015 batting line was highly influenced by his .384 BABIP. A BABIP that high is almost certainly unsustainable, especially for a hitter as punchless as Herrera.

To add some depth to Herrera’s uninspiring KATOH projection, let’s take look at some hitters who had seasons similar to Herrera’s 2014 campaign. Below, you’ll find a list of all hitters aged 21-23 since 1990 whose league-adjusted walk rate, strikeout rate, BABIP, ISO and stolen base frequency fell within 1.5 standard deviations of Herrara’s marks from Double-A.

Name PAs thru 28 WAR thru 28
Brian Buchanan 858 0.4
Cory Sullivan 1,272 -0.4
Chris Aguila 248 -0.7
Brian Barden 193 0.0
Mike Rouse 102 -0.7
Hernan Iribarren 29 0.0
Jerry Wolak 0 0.0
Victor Hall 0 0.0
Kurt Mertins 0 0.0
Aron Weston 0 0.0
Manny Gonzalez 0 0.0

Yuck. Brian Buchanan had an OK career as a reserve outfielder, but the rest turned out to be replacement level fodder, or worse. Every one of these hitters had an OBP over .330 in Double-A, but none of them managed to carry that success over to the big leagues. This is exactly why KATOH’s not crazy about high-OBP prospects with little power.

Focusing exclusively on 2015, ZiPS and Steamer have very differing opinions of the 23-year-old’s outlook. ZiPS anticipates he’ll produce a non-terrible 84 wRC+, which wouldn’t be useless coming from a center fielder. That’s basically Billy Hamilton’s bat. Meanwhile, Steamer forecasts a putrid 66 mark. Jackie Bradley Jr. was the only center fielder who hit worse in over 400 plate appearances last year.

The discord between the systems has everything to do with Herrera’s projected BABIP. For all other aspects of his game, ZiPS and Steamer are in lockstep. For what it’s worth, Herrera ran a BABIP of .351 in his four and a half years in the minors. However, keep in mind that minor league BABIPs are always higher than they are in the majors.

System BB% K% ISO BABIP wRC+
Steamer 5.0% 18.2% .076 .288 66
ZiPS 5.7% 18.4% .065 .337 84

There’s some disagreement about how much Herrera is going to hit, but the real wildcard is his defense. Although he’s been a middle infielder his entire life, the Phillies appear ready to use him as their center fielder this year. Herrera dabbled in the outfield last year, but the 13 games he played represent his entire body of outfield work as a professional. And only two of those games came as a center fielder.

Going strictly by foot speed, it’s not apparent that this experiment will go well. Kiley McDaniel rated Herrera’s speed as average: A 50 on the 20-80 scale. Most center fielders have — at the very least –above-average (55) or plus (60) speed. For comparison, Jorge Soler, Steven Souza and Aaron Judge each received a grade of either 50 or 50+, and aren’t even being considered for center field duty.

Given his merely average speed and lack of experience in the outfield, it’s hard to imagine Herrera being anything better than passable in center. Combine that with his punchless hitting, and you have yourself a pretty unremarkable player. Herrera’s probably a replacement level outfielder at best.

The Phillies obviously aren’t going anywhere in 2015, so they might as well use their roster as a sandbox to try some things out and see what sticks. Herrera probably won’t be one of the things that sticks, but stranger things have happened. Even if he’s merely the next Brian Buchanan, that’s still a player of some value. It’s a small amount of value, sure. But when the alternative is giving those plate appearances to the rotting corpse of Grady Sizemore, it’s probably worth taking a look.

Chris works in economic development by day, but spends most of his nights thinking about baseball. He writes for Pinstripe Pundits, FanGraphs and The Hardball Times. He's also on the twitter machine: @_chris_mitchell None of the views expressed in his articles reflect those of his daytime employer.

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9 years ago

I imagine the Phillies would attempt to fix the RF issue by signing Dayan Viciedo, because heck, why not at this point? If you’re gonna have a terrible outfield, may as well go whole hog.

Regarding Doobie, he’s almost certainly not the answer at CF. The Phillies, simply, do not have the answer to their outfield woes on the team. Still, you need to make do with what you’ve got, and right now anything is an upgrade over Ben Revere in CF.

Now what to do about Ben Revere in LF…sigh…:(