It is mostly a fact that all baseball articles concerning Odubel Herrera note the accomplishment of something remarkable. In 2015, it was a league leading BABIP driving a successful Rule 5 season. In 2016, he spent the month of April collecting all his walks for the year. In 2017, the story has been his range in the outfield. In between these accounts, there’s probably one or two about a lack of hustle or a bat flip that killed a passing bird. Still remarkable, if not entirely relevant to his baseball talent.
In that sense, the current post is a departure, as it regards Odubel’s very unremarkable offense this year. His current 82 wRC+ is a healthy clip below the league average. And beyond the face value of the results – a .255/.314/.390 batting line – there are underlying problems driving the dip in performance. To that point, here are two numbers deviating in the wrong direction.
Swinging at more pitches outside of the zone and making less contact on pitches inside the zone is a bad combination. These are not subtle changes, either. They are huge red flags. A dramatic change in plate discipline like this can sometimes come with a change in approach by the hitter, but there is nothing to show that Odubel has altered his approach in any way. In fact, it’s quite the opposite: it is the pitchers who are altering their approach.
Up until this year, Odubel was pitched a certain way. Most of the fastballs he saw were located on the outside half of the plate and beyond. Take a look:
Because pitchers fed him fastballs over the outer half, and because most offspeed pitches are also thrown away from the hitter, he only ever needed to cover one half of the strike zone. To his credit, Odubel took advantage. He would sit back on the offspeed pitches and allow fastballs to get deep in the zone before shooting them to the opposite field. Only three qualified hitters sent a higher percentage of balls the other way than Odubel in 2016. While going the other way is not the best route to power, he collected hits in bunches with this approach.
With that knowledge, consider the adjustment pitchers are making in 2017 with their fastball location:
If not obvious from the chart, Odubel is being challenged with fastballs both up and inside, forcing him to expand his coverage of the strike zone. Instead of sitting on those outside pitches and sending them to the opposite field, he’s being made to cover the inside part of the plate. You can see this change in the direction of his batted balls.
Moreover, the high and inside fastballs give reason for the noted contact and discipline problems. Odubel was never very discerning in regard to balls and strikes, but because he mostly ignored the inside edge, he also ignored the pitches coming too far inside. By getting Odubel to acknowledge the inner half of the strike zone, pitchers are exploiting his aggressiveness in an entirely new area outside of the strike zone.
Beyond that, the high and inside pitch is opening up new swing-and-miss in Odubel’s game. By keeping him from committing to the outer half of the plate, pitchers are getting him to miss more frequently in that same area. The real problem pitches have been the sinker and the changeup, the pitches that fade down and away when thrown by a right-handed pitcher. These are pitches he handled last year but are now giving him fits. His whiff rate has gone from 6% to 12% on the sinker and from 15% to 24% on the changeup. This is all contributing to a 27% strikeout rate against right-handers, leading to a 52 wRC+ against pitchers in which he has the platoon advantage.
Odubel has hit his way out of slumps before, but this issue poses a different type of challenge. It’s going to require some form of discipline. The solution is probably akin to what he was doing before: pick an area of the strike zone and ignore the rest. Maybe he will refocus on the outer half and start slapping hits into left field again. Or maybe he will start driving the inside pitches over the outfield wall in right, justifying a few of those bat flips. You never know. Odubel is well-acquainted with the remarkable.