Odubel Herrera Isn’t Walking Anymore
Aside from a shockingly positive win-loss record, the most talked about development of the early Phillies’ 2016 season was the explosion of Odubel Herrera‘s walk rate. Herrera said that he was disappointed with his rookie season strike out, and merely worked in the offseason to improve on his discipline. Whatever he did, it certainly worked early on – through the end of April, his 22.1 percent walk rate was tied for the league lead with Paul Goldschmidt.
However, much like that unexpected early season success, Odubel hasn’t maintained the walk rate. He’s still been a productive hitter (126 wRC+), but a rate that was tied for the league lead in April became tied for 69th in May, and has only been tied for the 114th-highest June walk rate (through 6/21). His cumulative 13.3 percent walk rate is still among league leaders – it just appears to have regressed to the mean over the last two months.
Obviously, Herrera’s walked less and struck out more as each month has progressed. What was once one of the lower outside swing rates in baseball has increased significantly – and it’s interesting that pitchers have made sure to throw more and more first strikes despite this trend. It’s completely possible that there is noise with monthly sample sizes, or even that first-strike rate is a lagging indicator. The book on Herrera is still that he is a prolific walker, and until enough time has passed and that perception has faded, pitchers will continue to place extra emphasis on getting ahead early in counts.
My least favorite net result of this regression is the number of pitches he sees per plate appearance. In April, Herrera saw a staggering 4.70 pitches per appearance. In May, that number fell to 4.08, and in June, it currently sits at 3.62 pitches per plate appearance. He’s not working later counts as much as he was earlier in the season, and the increased whiff rate means he’s not fouling off as many pitches – a key factor in working counts.
The below is an aggregation of Herrera’s swing rate data from Brooks Baseball.
Odubel still hasn’t swung at a 3-0 pitch all year, which is promising. In general, he has maintained a reluctance to swinging with no strikes called. However, it does look like he is swinging significantly more often with two strikes than in April. In fact, using Baseball Savant, we can see where he’s swinging in those counts.
What was, early on, a clear preference on pitches up and in appears to have morphed into a less focused heatmap. It is always completely possible that midway through the season, he adjusts and returns to his early season habits. Right now though, this loss of two-strike approach could be contributing to what is a relatively tepid (84 wRC+) June for Herrera.
The increase in whiffs is a little bit concerning, but even in this small June sample, Herrera is still striking out less and walking more than in 2015, when he already was a really valuable player. Regression is pretty much always smart to expect, and his walk rate was no different. Odubel made important strides in April, and he’ll either retain some of that residual ability moving forward, or he’ll return to something approximating his (still productive) 2015 self.
Either way, he’s still literally the 25th-most concerning player on Phillies’ roster.