Whats With Odubel Herrera’s Walk Rate?

It’s no secret that Odubel Herrera has been walking much more this year. Going into Tuesday’s games, Odubel ranks 6th of 194 qualified hitters in walk rate at 18.2%, just below Brandon Belt and Jose Bautista. Last year, he ranked 112 of the 141 qualified hitters in baseball at 5.2%. It’s been written about on Crashburn Alley and on other sites several times, but I’d like to add some nuance to the conversation.

Lineup protection is considered something of a myth in sabermetric circles; according to statheads, it’s not entirely irrelevant, but its effect is greatly overstated. In Tom Tango’s The Book, his research suggests that a lack of lineup protection is associated with a slight uptick in walks from a team’s better hitters, but also a higher number of strikeouts. Is this what we’re seeing with Herrera this year? And more importantly, will his walk rate crater once the Phillies lineup has more than 3 serviceable hitters?

To evaluate those questions, I first looked at Herrera’s Zone% or rate of pitches in the strike zone, along with his walk and strikeout rates. Odubel Walks 1

The first thing that pops out is that Odubel has indeed seen a much lower rate of pitches in the zone, as compared to the first half last year. The rate this year is nearly indistinguishable from the second half last year, when Odubel also had no protection in the lineup. However, contrary to Tango’s research, his K% has decreased over time. Though this could be due to his continued development as a hitter, as opposed to any adjustment from pitchers.

NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 10: Odubel Herrera #37 of the Philadelphia Phillies bats against the New York Mets during their game at Citi Field on April 10, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)

(Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)

His skyrocketing BB% could be the result of a few different variables. It could be that the lack of threatening hitters in the Phillies lineup allow a pitcher to pitch around Herrera. It could also be that, as Odubel proved himself to be a viable Major League hitter, pitchers couldn’t groove pitches down the middle to him anymore. Or it could be some combination of both, or another factor I haven’t considered.

To test this, I created a custom leaderboard on FanGraphs to isolate players who roughly fit Herrera’s profile. My requirements were for seasons between 2010 and 2016, with a K% between 15% and 25%, and an ISO between .100 and .150. This returned 153 player-seasons. Some names that repeatedly showed up were similar in many ways to Herrera, including Brett Gardner and Austin Jackson, and some weren’t (Billy Butler).

Of those 153 player-seasons, 2016 Herrera’s Zone% ranked 143rd, and his BB% and wRC+ are both first (this is the part where I need to acknowledge the small sample size). In 2015 though, his Zone% ranked 91st, while his BB% was 125th, and his wRC+ was 33rd. This is represented in the table below.

Odubel Walks 2

So it appears that among players of Odubel’s general profile, that is, slightly below average-to-average power and average-to-high strikeouts, he is an outlier in terms of Zone%. He’s seeing fewer pitches in the zone, and while we can’t attribute this to his lineup with any certainty, it does make sense, especially considering Maikel Franco’s comparable Zone% this year (46.9%) compared to the team as a whole (48.3%).

So does this mean that, with a group of good hitters around him, Ol’ Dubes will return to his extremely low walk rate? Not exactly. Between 2015 and 2016, his Z-Swing% has barely moved, while his O-Swing% has gone down almost seven percentage points. Since his breakout season, pitchers have adjusted by throwing him more balls, and he has adjusted by not swinging at them while maintaining his aggressiveness in the zone.

The most important thing to note is that even a version of Odubel that only walks 5% of the time is still a valuable hitter, and there’s no evidence showing that he’ll take that massive a step back in the walks department. It would be foolish to suggest that he can maintain his current 18% walk rate, but it would be even more foolish to attribute his increase in walks solely to the Phillies’ other hitters, or lack thereof.

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  1. Romus

    May 11, 2016 08:37 AM

    Welcome on board…I like your ‘Schtick”….very good detailed informative article.
    On Herrera……though it is only one PA per game does leading off have any bearing to that lineup protection theory? Because of his lower in the zone strike pitches, he is a leader on most pitches per plate appearance this year.
    And Mack has installed him now, it appears, as their every day lead-off hitter going forward..

    • Michael Schickling

      May 11, 2016 08:51 AM

      Well as a leadoff hitter, he’s walking 13.6% of the time compared to almost 23% the rest of the time. Small sample size and whatnot, but I could see his coaches telling him to be more aggressive at the top of the order. He’s seen almost one fewer pitch per PA in the leadoff spot.

      • Romus

        May 11, 2016 10:47 AM

        Ok …thanks for that information

    • Eddie

      May 11, 2016 01:58 PM

      If protection had much of an effect, he’d be getting more walks batting leadoff, in front of Hernandez; instead he got more early in the year when he was batting in front of Franco.

  2. John

    May 11, 2016 09:51 AM

    This is why saber metrics is not the do all to end all, rather just another tool to use. Batter protection And batting order have everything to do with how a player is pitched to. Do you think Herrera would have half as many walks if Harper or Trout where on deck? He probably would have twice as many homers and an even higher average.

  3. brad

    May 11, 2016 11:17 AM

    On a power hitter like Franco, I would expect the protection theory to matter. He is slow and not a threat on the base paths, and is a big threat to pop a home run at any time. With Herrera, by letting him get on base you have a huge threat on the base paths with 2-3-4 coming up. Hernandedz-Franco-Howard is a bad 2-3-4, but all of them are capable of getting a base shit, or in the case of Howard and Franco, hitting home runs. When you put Herrera on base, he’s not only a threat to steal, but a ball in the gap is a run even from first, and a base hit is most likely 1st and 3rd. I think the protection theory would only apply to power hitters.

    • brad

      May 11, 2016 11:17 AM

      lol I said base shit,,, meant base hit

    • Michael Schickling

      May 11, 2016 01:06 PM

      I expected to find something along those lines as well, but that’s just not what the data showed. Maybe the “threat” of Cesar Hernandez at the plate after Dubes just really doesn’t scare any pitchers.

      • Whitey

        May 11, 2016 11:24 PM

        Would agree with Brad re non-power hitters, but protection would matter for good singles hitters with risp, especially if 1b is empty or already 2 outs and the run is important. I’d take my chances with Cesar over O.H. if I were a pitcher – make O.H fish out of zone or walk.. Doubt there is enough of a sample to even bother teasing out

      • Michael Schickling

        May 12, 2016 09:34 AM

        Yeah I thought about looking at it, but there were only 7 or 8 games where he was hitting in the 2 spot. I thought the sample size was too small to even think about haha

  4. Finn

    May 11, 2016 11:35 AM

    Good write up. I enjoyed the analysis.

  5. smittyboy

    May 11, 2016 11:45 AM

    Appreciate the article and focus on Herrera. I would suspect he is still learning and adjusting to ML pitching but shows an inordinate ability to make contact on balls down and away. I don’t think there is any question he is being pitched around and he exhibits a hitting ability that could result in a batting championship at some point. He is clearly dangerous because he hits the ball hard with authority or can punch it through infield holes. Because he runs well he is disruptive once he gets on base. With the current lineup, why pitch to him ?

  6. Frank S.

    May 11, 2016 01:43 PM

    Only incidental to the article, but the Phillies sure seem to have a knack for finding Rule 5 Centerfielders, don’t they?

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