What’s Going On With Odubel Herrera

This year, Odubel Herrera is an everyday player, and only two players in baseball have drawn more walks. On its own, maybe that doesn’t convey its real significance, so consider that, last year, Odubel Herrera was an everyday player, and 193 players in baseball drew more walks. Herrera today has more than twice as many walks drawn as Joey Votto. Votto last year out-walked Herrera by literally 115. In the first 29 games after the All-Star break, Votto drew more walks than Herrera did in the entire season. This point actually captures two things — Herrera has been surprisingly good, and Votto has been surprisingly bad. Separate the last one, though, and you’re left with the fact that Herrera has been surprisingly good.

The Phillies presumably expected Herrera to be useful. He was just rather astonishingly a four-win player, and though there was plenty of room for him to come down, the talent was obvious and Herrera can defend his premium position. Yet I’m sure the Phillies weren’t looking for Herrera to boost his OBP damn near a hundred points. Herrera isn’t going to stay at .432 all season long, but this has been a glorious start. And Herrera is showing something he didn’t show as a rookie.

I’m not the first to notice this. I’m not the hundredth to notice this. As the Phillies lineup goes, there’s a small number of things worth noticing, and Herrera’s among them. And it catches attention when Herrera draws a walk, because he just didn’t do that very often before. Herrera has one more walk than he has strikeouts. Last year he had 101 more strikeouts than he had walks. Even though Herrera hit .297, he wasn’t totally satisfied. So Herrera made a conscious decision. Specifically, he wanted to end up with fewer strikeouts, but, generally, Herrera wanted to show more discipline. Herrera had a focus, and now we’re seeing the fruits of that. You could say there’s a parallel there to Randal Grichuk. What’s happening isn’t happening by accident.

Compared to last year, Herrera’s walk rate is up by an almost unfathomable 16 percentage points. It’s early enough that there are some pretty big individual swings, but Herrera’s increase is easily the largest in the league. Colby Rasmus is walking plenty more. Christian Yelich is walking plenty more. But no one is quite on Herrera’s level. He’s walked a fifth of the time he’s come up. The strikeouts, in turn, are down a bit. Herrera has lowered his strikeouts even though he’s ending up in more deep counts.

What’s the mechanism for this? It would be easy to say Herrera wanted better discipline, and then just leave it at that. But, every hitter would like to have better discipline. Even guys like Votto and Jose Bautista would like to have better discipline. Wanting something isn’t the same as executing something. The first thing we can see with Herrera: he’s swinging with the exact same frequency at would-be strikes. He’s trimmed his swing rate at would-be balls, though, by about seven percentage points. That’s a promising indicator. Herrera has dropped his O-Swing% more than any other Phillie.

That’s a sign of a better eye. We should also, however, talk about opportunities. For example: Herrera is just seeing fewer pitches in the strike zone. His zone rate is down more than four points, which ranks him in the top 20. So part of the reason for this is pitchers are just throwing Herrera more balls. And there’s an even bigger factor — Herrera is seeing the seventh-lowest rate of first-pitch strikes. His rate of first-pitch strikes is down 16 percentage points, which is the biggest drop in the league. In part, we’re seeing better selectivity, but we’re also just seeing wilder pitchers. When you start off 1-and-0, instead of 0-and-1, you don’t have to be so defensive. You can lay off more borderline pitches, and your discipline looks better as a consequence.

Going even deeper, there’s another thing. Herrera has easily the league’s lowest rate of pulled batted balls. He’s hitting almost everything up the middle or the other way, and compared to last year, his pull rate is down 21 points, more than anyone but, surprisingly, Chris Davis. And according to Statcast, Herrera is showing a little reduced batted-ball authority, especially around line-drive and fly-ball launch angles. He’s managed to hit more baseballs at promising angles, but those very baseballs aren’t being hit as hard. My hypothesis on all this: Herrera might be using a somewhat simpler swing, something quicker that allows him to wait an extra split-second before committing. That would cost him some power, but he’d gain bat control, and, maybe more importantly, he could be a better judge of the pitches coming in. With more time to decide, Herrera would be better at separating balls and strikes, and that would be reflected in his walks and strikeouts.

Let it be known, there is power in there. Herrera did this not long ago:

And last year, this happened, with Herrera clearly swinging to beat the crap out of the ball:

Herrera can turn on a pitch and hit it 400 feet. He’s proven that, but I suspect that, this year, that’s not something he’s looking to do much. I think he’s cut down a little on his swing, aiming for center field or thereabouts, and that lets him be a better judge. It makes him tougher to put away, and easier to walk, especially as long as pitchers are falling behind. Herrera doesn’t have Joey Votto’s eye, but he can improve on last year’s discipline. He already has.

Where I assume this goes: Over time, pitchers will be more aggressive with strikes, because Herrera won’t be hitting for much power. He’s not going to keep getting ahead 1-and-0 all the time, and that’ll cost him free passes. Obviously, he won’t keep getting this many free passes. But it would be interesting to see where Herrera ends up if he maintains this up-the-middle approach. He does have pull power, but he doesn’t have so much that he should be selling out for it. He should be looking to hit line drives on strikes, and so far, so good. Herrera’s been a little lucky to walk as often as he has, but that doesn’t mean it’s all been a fluke. Herrera, I think, has shortened up, and though that’s something he did in the name of more contact, it looks like his on-base skills could benefit. He’s not going to save these Phillies by himself, but for a player they got for nothing, this is the second encouraging twist.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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7 years ago

A working (read: pulled out of my rear) theory I have is that the strike zone has shrunk by a hair, making those people with average-above average eyes that took balls right on the corners into superstars overnight. I started thinking this after reading the article about Keuchel Dave wrote.

Since then, I’ve seen more and more evidence of it. I think a big tell is that on my Astros team, a lot of the hitters are glancing back at the ump, almost unsure of themselves that they’ve drawn a walk. It seems to happen more vertically than horizontally, as the horizontal strike zone seems to be the same.

If I’m right about it, I think that means that players like Rasmus are legit this year, since anything in the wheelhouse is going to be driven hard.