Anyone who’s regularly watched the Philadelphia Phillies over the last few years knows that something’s been off lately with Odubel Herrera. The Phils’ starting center fielder put up seasons of 4.0 and 3.8 WAR in 2015 and 2016, respectively, providing excellent up-the-middle defense while slashing a combined .291/.353/.419 with an 111 wRC+. The team duly rewarded Herrera for his strong performance, signing him to a five-year, $30.5 million extension last December that made him the only current Phillie with a guaranteed contract in 2018. This year, though, hasn’t gone quite as smoothly for Herrera as his first two big-league seasons did. His slash line, currently .256/.292/.389, has fallen significantly from the above numbers, and his 75 wRC+ is the seventeenth-worst in the majors, placing him squarely amongst such other nonperformers as Jose Reyes, Albert Pujols, and Phillies teammate Maikel Franco. Further, Herrera’s WPA through June 9 has been almost impressively bad; with a WPA of -1.51 and a leverage-neutral WPA of -1.19, he’s been the worst in the league by both measures. The second-worst performers in each area aren’t even close, either, as Trevor Plouffe‘s -1.14 WPA and Alcides Escobar‘s WPA/LI of -0.95 are barely in the same stratosphere as Herrera’s numbers.
Yes, the season’s been a struggle for Herrera, and he and the Phils’ coaching staff haven’t been shy about their frustrations. Herrera, who last season spent 137 out of 159 games in spots one through three in the batting order, has batted sixth or seventh in eleven of the team’s last sixteen games. And as Philadelphia Inquirer writer Matt Gelb wrote at the end of June, Herrera’s in-game focus has become a concern to his teammates; infielders Freddy Galvis and Andres Blanco have recently brought up the issue to their outfield counterpart. After being fined in June for unsuccessfully trying to steal second base despite a manager-instituted red light, Herrera’s admitted as much himself, saying that he tends to “not concentrat[e], a lack of concentration … I have to slow down and be smarter and just learn from things.”
Although the incident in question occurred on the basepaths, this lack of focus appears to also have made its way into Herrera’s plate appearances. To me, it’s evident that the issue boils down to his plate discipline. Take a look at his 30-game rolling Swing%, O-Swing%, and Z-Swing%:
As we can see above, through the first two months of 2017, Herrera was swinging at a career high percentage of pitches, and it’s evident that his O-Swing% rose much more steeply during May than his Z-Swing% did. In fact, Herrera’s 46.9 May O-Swing% was the second highest in the majors, trailing only that of the Rays’ Corey Dickerson.
When we look at a heatmap of Herrera’s whiffs this season, the results can’t be particularly encouraging for the Phils:
While Herrera’s whiffs have, more or less, generally been centralized around the outer half of the plate, he’s been swinging and misses at pitches in nearly every location in the strike zone. This isn’t a batter with a hole or two in his swing – this is Swiss Cheese. And it shouldn’t be a surprise that as a result of this free-swinging approach, Herrera’s walk rate in May was almost non-existent; he drew just one walk in 112 plate appearances for a miniscule 0.9 BB%. For reference, months this bad have occurred just twelve times since 2012, and Herrera’s OPS, wOBA, and wRC+ have been the worst of them all:
We can see that a low BB% alone does not necessitate a poor month. In May of 2014, Adam Jones actually was surprisingly good despite having just one walk in 133 plate appearances. Herrera, however, had the highest strikeout rate and second highest soft hit percentage of the above bunch, and for a batter whose speed is one of his stronger assets – he averaged over twenty stolen bases between 2015 and 2016 – Herrera’s infield hit rate was quite low at just 2.8%. To be fair, luck does play a large role in that statistic (heck, speedster Ben Revere had an IFH% of zero in August 2014), but Herrera has recently been chastised for failing to thoroughly run out ground balls.
As we saw in his rolling Swing% chart above, Herrera’s been far more patient at the plate lately. Since the beginning of June, he’s decreased his O-Swing% to 35.6, Z-Swing% to 65.9, and SwStr% to 10.2, while slashing .318/.343/.488 with a 117 wRC+. However, these numbers are tempered by a BABIP over .400, as well as a 3.7 BB%. Further, his xwOBA since June 1 is just .327, so it’d be an exaggeration to say that Herrera’s been hitting the ball particularly well in the last month. Even so, I’d expect an eventual improvement in Herrera’s BABIP, HR/FB, IFH%, and BUH%, all of which are at career lows, and I’ll feel even more optimistic if Herrera continues turning May’s overly aggressive plate approach around. I imagine Herrera’s coaches and teammates feel the same way.