On Odubel Herrera’s Defense

If you’ve watched Odubel Herrera in the field over the last two years, you might be surprised to see him rated as a positive by defensive metrics. He can certainly run circles around a ball from time to time, and we’ve all seen that iconic route that saved Cole Hamels‘ no hitter. But if you drill down into Herrera’s defense, it starts to look like he’s the opposite of Derek Jeter, who made the big plays and made us all wonder if the negative defensive numbers were wrong. Because Herrera is fine on the easy plays — it’s those 50/50 plays that lead to the questions about his ability in center.

Using the Inside Edge stats, which break defensive chances down into segments based on how difficult they have been across the league, we can look at Herrera’s ability in segments. He’s average-ish everywhere… except on one sort of play.

Odubel Herrera’s Defense by Degree of Difficulty
Number 90-100% 60-90% 40-60% 10-40% 1-10%
Rank Qualified ’16 17 12th 10th 16th 10th 14th
Rank min 500 innings 32 21st 17th 25th 20th 21st
Rank 2yrs 1000 inn 34 30th 11th 33rd 23rd 16th

If you look among the 17 qualified center fielders that played this year, Herrera is below average but passable on the easy plays. He’s not so good on the tougher plays. But if you up the sample a little to include players that played less regularly in center, the numbers suggest that he’s a legit centerfielder, maybe not a great one. And then if you look at the 34 players that played to 1000 innings in the last two years, he’s decidedly second half on most balls.

The highlighted band is always his worst foot forward, though. On 50/50 balls, on balls that 40-60% of the league would get to, Herrera has been at the bottom of the league.

What’s his deal there? Let’s look at the seven times this year that Odubel encountered a ball that the Inside Edge coder considered a 40-60% play. We’ll try to figure out if the coding was tough on him, and if it was his fault, what exactly he did wrong.

1) Freddie Freeman hit a lunging blooper on May 21st, and at first glance, it looks like Herrera makes a valiant attempt. But a second look reveals that he’s overrun the ball a little, and that his hands weren’t soft enough to react to that fact, and so the ball hits on the heal of his glove and dribbles past him. Herrera responds by taking a nap.

2) Phil Gosselin hit a booming fly ball on June 19th. We’ll be more scientific at the end, but my sense is that this is a tough ball, closer to 40% than 60%. There’s a little bit of a longer route there, but he’s almost able to make the play, and it’s totally possible that fear of the wall was the problem here.

3) Oh man I love this one. I’m not making fun of Herrera, I promise, but it takes a play like this to get Jeff Mathis a triple. He has four in his career! Herrera takes a terrible route on the ball and then doesn’t have the hops to make up for it. This is definitely a route problem.

4) Atta boy, ‘Dubel! A good route, a well-timed hop, and Herrera makes a great play on a Jung-ho Kang fly ball on July 22nd! No problems here.

5) On August third, Denard Span hit a line drive to center in the first inning. Once again, Herrera combined a poor route and less than soft hands. You can see he over-runs or over-dives on the ball because it comes too far in on him, and then he can’t deal with the ball and it eats him up. You can give him credit for diving for the ball, but maybe he didn’t need to dive if he doesn’t run as far.

6) Maybe this is just a Jay Bruce double. But check out the ‘banana’ route as Keith Hernandez puts it. Herrera runs in first, and then has to adjust and run out. Since he only missed it by a little bit, you have to figure that bend in the line may have cost him this ball.

7) Okay, it’s about time to get (slightly) more scientific with this. Because this looks like a screaming Kevin Plawecki line drive that Herrera did his best to get. 40% of baseball could get to that pitch? It’s a tough thing to guess, this isn’t about an error in the coding process, but it’s also maybe an unfair play to hold against Herrera.

So, with the help of Statcast, let’s put these plays in the spectrum of all baseball plays to the outfield. Tom Tango made a great chart that relates hang time and distance traveled to outcomes. Let’s annotate that chart with our plays.


Oh look at that. We shouldn’t be blaming the Freeman, Bruce, OR Plawecki doubles on Herrera’s routes or arms. That’s just our brain trying to make sense of those plays when presented as part of a list.

But they shouldn’t be part of the same list. Those plays, when looked at through the lens of hang time and distance traveled, were actually made about 15% of the time on average. Maybe we should be applauding Herrera for getting to them! Don’t blame the coders too hard — how difficult did you think those plays would be? It’s really not that surprising that not a single one of these plays in the 40-60% band were actually in the 40-60% band by hang time and distance traveled, since the 50/50 play is really hard to determine.

We can’t let Herrera completely off the hook, though. The other four plays — including the catch — were all actually more than 60% likely across baseball. On those plays, the bad routes and iffy hands were legitimately harmful to the outcome of the play. They made them look harder than they were, probably.

It’s interesting that we have that combination of hand and route problems because it was the hands that probably cost him a job in Texas — he couldn’t play an infield position, and with poor slugging numbers, he looked like a batting-average only bat without a position, and so he was available to the Phillies in the Rule 5 draft. But the fact that he’s getting to tough balls now, even with poor routes speaks to his great athleticism — and provides hope.

He probably won’t improve his hands much, but that seems to matter only on the most difficult plays — when he’s diving, for example — and so maybe that’s fine. Routes? Routes are the kind of thing you can learn with time, you’d think.

But now we’re guessing again. Trying to think and write about defense will do that to you. What we can say for sure is that he’s an athletic young man that will run his way to some tough balls and run his way out of some easier balls in the short term. The first fact means we underrate his defense (he missed a ball that he got to!) the second fact means we can overrate it (he wasn’t anywhere close, that was just a double!).

Maybe those two effects cancel out in sum as they did in our deep dive today, and Odubel Herrera really is a scratch defender in center as the numbers suggest so far. And maybe he can learn his way into some really excellent defense there, too. In which case the Phillies probably have a bargain on their hands.

With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.

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Skoolboy Jim
6 years ago

I think on the Freddie Freeman hit he might have been “taking a nap” to stay out of the way of the throw.