Remembering April 2016 Odubel Herrera

Ah, Odubel Herrera. When you read his name, what’s the first thing that pops into your mind? Is it the lapses on the basepaths? Is it the absolute joy he displays on the baseball field? Is it his stellar defense in center field? Is it his free-swinging approach at the plate? Is it the BAT FLIPS? No matter what Odubel Herrera brings to your mind, I doubt your first thought is of a disciplined hitter with an advanced approach at the plate. But, what if it was?

Let’s take a look back to April of 2016. Odubel Herrera was starting his second big-league season, coming off a very productive rookie season, where he played excellent defense in center field, sprayed hits all around the field, and, quite frankly, was one of the few reasons to watch the 2015 Phillies. However, Odubel walked at a well below-average rate of 5.2%, and struck out more than average, at 24%. He didn’t hit for much power, and his statline was greatly aided by an unsustainable BABIP of .387. I believed, and probably rightfully so, that if Odubel failed to make changes at the plate, his offensive value would suffer. With that being said, watching Herrera at the plate in April 2016 was one of the most unexpected transformations I’ve ever seen from a major-league player.

So, what changed for Odubel in April of 2016? To get an idea of how different he was at the plate, take a look at this chart, comparing his career plate-discipline numbers to his April 2016 plate-discipline numbers.

 

Odubel Herrera’s Plate Discipline Metrics

Metric Odubel Herrera, April 2016 Odubel Herrera, Career
O-Swing% 21.1 36.3
Z-Swing% 65.4 68.9
O-Contact% 66.0 64.3
Z-Contact% 84.1 85.5
SwStrk% 8.6 11.7

 

Wow. While these rates were accumulated over a fairly small sample size of 104 plate appearances, the differences between his April 2016 numbers and his career numbers are absolutely stunning. His O-Contact and Z-Contact rates were within 2 percentages of his career numbers, and his Z-Swing percentage was only three and a half percent less.

Meanwhile, Herrera’s O-Swing% in April 2016 was over 15 points lower than his career rate. For reference, in 2017, the players with the most similar O-Swing rates to April 2016 Odubel Herrera were Anthony Rendon, Brett Gardner, and Chase Utley. As you would expect, three extremely disciplined hitters with good control of the strike zone. They rated 12th, 13th, and 14th in O-Swing% among hitters with 300 or more plate appearances. Very impressive.

When we look at players who, in 2017, had similar O-Swing rates to Odubel’s career numbers, we see a much different trio of hitters. Tommy Joseph, Darwin Barney, and Jose Iglesias. Not exactly a group of fearsome hitters at the plate. They rated as 251st, 252nd, and 253rd among hitters with at least 300 plate appearances, out of 287 hitters. Not so impressive.

Could Herrera’s improved discipline stats have been aided by simply being pitched outside of the zone more often? No, not the case. Throughout his career, Odubel has been pitched inside the zone on 41.9% of pitches. In April 2016, he was pitched inside the zone even more often, with 48.9% of pitches coming inside the strike zone.

Did Herrera make a conscious decision to be more selective at the plate? It looks like that may be the case. I found a few articles about Herrera’s improved plate discipline in April 2016, including this one from the Morning Call. The article speaks of Odubel Herrera and his father having an issue with his relatively high strikeout rate during his rookie season. Unhappy with his high strikeout rate, Herrera came into 2016 planning to display a more patient approach at the plate. That, he certainly did.

So, what changed after April of 2016? Odubel Herrera quickly regressed towards his career average O-Swing%. Herrera finished 2017 with a hideous 40% O-Swing rate, one of the worst marks in baseball. He walked only 5.5% of the time, and struck out 22.4% of the time. Both rates are similar to the ones he produced in his rookie season. He put up an even 100 wRC+, which is actually pretty impressive for someone who swings at so many bad pitches. However, if Herrera ever wants to be something more than a league-average to slightly above-average hitter, he’ll need his plate-discipline metrics to look more like they did in April of 2016 than they have throughout his career.

Odubel Herrera walked an incredible 22.1% of the time in April 2016, while striking out only 17.3% of the time. For one month, Odubel Herrera borrowed Joey Votto’s eyes at the plate. Since then, he’s looked a lot more like Odubel Herrera. Will he ever look like Joey Votto again? For a player as unique and ever-changing as Odubel Herrera, I don’t want to rule it out. This is what’s fun about baseball. In a few months, we’ll get to see.

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Conrad Parrish
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Nicely done on the article :)) Herrera is really interesting, so I’m glad you wrote about him and reminded me of what has made him unique. It should definitely be interesting to see if he could maybe put it all together this season in the best case scenario. I’d be comfortable projecting around 3-4 WAR for him next season, largely based on his impressive physical abilities and previous seasons.