Philadelphia Phillies: Odubel Herrera closing in on league’s elite

Already good, the Phillies' centerfielder is moving up a few echelons with a torrid start.


(Photo Credit: REUTERS/BILL STREICHER)

Over the last few seasons, Odubel Herrera has been one of the few bright spots for fans of the Philadelphia Phillies to base their hope.

Often known as much for his brash attitude as for his play on the field, Herrera has been quietly developing into one of the best center fielders in baseball since he made his debut in 2015. Last season saw his first true test of character, beginning the season in a two-month-long slump, but he showed his resolve by recovering to turn what could have been a lost season into a respectable one.

It’s hard to call the first two months of 2018 a breakout, considering how well he’s played in his first three seasons in the majors, but Herrera has rampaged through opposing pitchers this year and he’s making an assault on the upper echelon of major league players.

Who is the man they call El Torito? And what about this season is so much better than years prior? Let’s take a better look.

Coming up

A native of Venezuela, Herrera was signed by the Texas Rangers as an amateur free agent in 2008. He was an infielder at the time and only moved to the outfield shortly before he left the Texas system.

He moved quickly up the ranks in the Texas system. In 2013, he started the season at High-A Myrtle Beach and earned another fast promotion by turning in a .295/.398/.368 slash line, but he struggled at Double-A Frisco and saw himself back in Carolina a year later. Another solid performance saw him return to Frisco and this time he flourished, hitting .321/.373/.402 with a pair of homers and 48 RBI.

The performance wasn’t enough to earn him a spot on Texas’ 40-man roster, but it turned heads elsewhere. As the 2014 Rule 5 draft approached, the Phillies were on to the Texas prospect.

The Rule 5 draft prevents teams from stockpiling good prospects in the minor leagues to prevent them from reaching the majors elsewhere. Teams may take their pick of prospects from any other team, provided they had spent four or more years in the minors and were not on the team’s 40-man roster. To prevent excessive turnover, the drafting team must pay a prospect’s team $100k and must keep him on the 25-man roster at the major league level for the entire upcoming season. If they do not keep him on the roster, they must offer him back to his old team for half the money they paid.

The Phillies have traditionally had great success in the Rule 5 draft. They have found some important contributors this way through the years, most notably fan favorite and All-Star centerfielder Shane Victorino. They took Herrera in the Major League portion hoping to make him the next All-Star to come out of the Rule 5.

Debut

Herrera made the Opening Day roster as the starting centerfielder, despite never playing a game above Double-A. He briefly lost that role to Ben Revere but regained the job when Revere was traded. In July, he earned himself a place in Phillies history when he made several impressive plays to preserve Cole Hamels’ no-hitter in the lefty’s final start before being traded, ironically, to Texas. By the end of the season, he had a respectable .297/.344/.418 line with eight homers and 41 RBI.

More firmly entrenched in his role in 2016, his average dropped slightly, but his power numbers nearly doubled, from eight to 15, as well as stealing 25 bases.

But at the beginning of last season, he suddenly cratered. By the end of May, he was hitting only .218 as the Phils endured a brutal 6-21 month that sank a season that started with the promise of a step forward in the rebuilding period.

But Herrera pulled together after that horrid month. He slashed .318/.361/.526 the rest of the way. He hit twice as many doubles as he had the year before (42 to 21), as well as setting a career high for RBI with 56. It was a recovery that showed that, despite the occasional ostentatious bat flip or benching for lack of hustle, he had enough of a head on his shoulders to deal with adversity at the major league level.

The streak

Herrera reached base safely in each of his last four games in 2017. That little fact seemed nondescript at first—until the 2018 season began.

Herrera couldn’t be kept off the base paths. Day after day, he got on some way, somehow, putting up impressive numbers on the way. The streak would eventually reach 45 games before ending on Sunday against the Cardinals in St. Louis.

He enters Tuesday with the best batting average in the National League at .348 along with a .413 OBP and a .543 slugging percentage fueled by seven homers, fully half of his total from a year ago.

What’s more impressive is that over the course of the streak, he has significantly cut his strikeout rate while simultaneously increasing his walk totals. With those improvements, even when his insane BABIP (he entered last weekend with a ridiculous .398 mark) eventually drops, FanGraphs has him pegged for production that is 30 to 40 percent above league average.

That’s the production that only the game’s top players put together—and Herrera is making a serious push toward becoming one of them. Adding excellent defense to offense that was already effective and is now improving, and it’s worth asking how close Herrera is to being one of the game’s elite players.

He’s currently closing in on that category, and if he continues to produce the way he has for an upstart Phillies team that doesn’t seem like it wants to slow down, it will be exceedingly hard to argue against his inclusion.

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