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.
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.
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.
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.