Remember when Odubel Herrera had the third most walks in baseball this season? Jeff Sullivan wrote about it in late April. Herrera was a Rule 4 draft pick who immediately became a 4-win player in his rookie season for the Phillies in 2015. As such, he quickly dropped in the mental space I have that holds players like Jose Bautista and J.D. Martinez who changed something after already becoming major leaguers and became dramatically different players. And so maybe it was possible that Herrera could become the next Joey Votto. I just didn’t know how to project those late bloomers.
Herrera’s transformation was one of the most interesting stories of April, but because of the Phillies’ status as non-contenders, I lost track of his performance as the season went on. At a glance now, his 2016 line shows noticeable offensive improvement, in particular with his increase in walk rate from 5.2 percent to 9.6 percent. But here’s the thing: his walk rate didn’t actually improve. He just had a super-weird April before becoming the exact same player he was in 2015.
|Rest of 2016||60.3%||37.1%||50.5%||11.6%||6.3%||.342||.334|
Herrera’s bizarre first month seems to have been driven by a change in approach from opposing pitchers. Suddenly, Herrera’s first-pitch strike rate dropped by more than 10 percent from the previous season, and he reacted by swinging less. That change in profile really illustrates the importance of a hitter’s count as compared to a pitcher’s count. It’s much easier for hitters to lay off of pitches outside of the zone when they have the count advantage. Herrera took that to the extreme, cutting his out-of-zone swing rate from 35.5 percent in 2015 to 20.9 percent in the first month of 2016.
When pitchers returned to their more aggressive ways in May, Herrera’s swing rate increased and his walk rate and on-base percentage decreased almost exactly to where they had been the previous season. Projection systems like Steamer—which has Herrera at an 8.3 percent walk rate in 2017—tend not to discriminate between a player who consistently produces a stat throughout the season and one who achieves his totals in short-lived streaks, and while I believe that is the correct approach in general, I also believe an exception is warranted in this case. Herrera’s change was externally-driven and short-lived. His projection should match the 11 months of consistent performance, not the 1 month of outlier performance.
Herrera might not be Votto, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t a useful fantasy player. He combined to produce 40 home runs plus steals in 2016 and was only 1 of 34 players to accomplish that feat. Herrera’s excellent .291 career batting average is propped up by a .366 BABIP, but his combination of power and speed make that number reasonably sustainable. Finally, Herrera hits in the heart of a young and improving lineup that has finally shed Ryan Howard. Driven by that opportunity, Herrera should gain in runs and RBI. His is a similar profile to Ian Desmond, whose consistency and lack of weaknesses made him a perennial fantasy asset despite his lack of an elite skill.
Brad Johnson identified Herrera as the No. 25 outfield in 2016 and has him pegged in the same spot in 2017. Desmond is No. 23 on that list, so even allowing for my pessimism with respect to his not-actually-improved on-base skills, that ranking seems entirely justified.
Scott Spratt is a fantasy sports writer for FanGraphs and Pro Football Focus. He is a Sloan Sports Conference Research Paper Competition and FSWA award winner. Feel free to ask him questions on Twitter – @Scott_Spratt