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April 21, 2016

Patience is a virtue: Odubel Herrera improving plate discipline this season

Odubel Herrera is a 24-year-old Venezuelan who is still figuring out the English language.

He can answer quick questions, but uses a translator more often. Like anyone else, he’s most comfortable in his native tongue.

There are some topics, however, that require no translation. Like the mounting strikeout total he endured as a rookie last year with the Phillies.

“Too many for a little guy, you know?” Herrera said with a big smile and small laugh after batting practice at Citizens Bank Park on Wednesday.

Herrera struck out 129 times in 537 plate appearances last year. It was close to Ryan Howard territory (138 strikeouts in 503 plate appearances last season).

The difference is Howard also hit 23 home runs. Only three major league players racked up 129 or more strikeouts without a double-digit home run total last year: Anthony Gose, Chris Owings, and Herrera.

“Every time I struck out, I hated it,” Herrera said. “And my dad let me know that, too.”

Herrera’s dad regularly follows Phillies games back in Venezuela.

“My at-bats,” Herrera explained, “it’s like those are his at-bats.”

Herrera is still working on cutting down the Ks. His 16 strikeouts through his first 16 games this season are three more than he had through his first 16 games in 2015.

But he’s making up for it with a much more mature approach at the plate, one that’s resulted in him being one of the most patient players in baseball through the first 2 1/2 weeks of the 2016 season.

Herrera entered Thursday’s off day in the Phillies schedule leading the major leagues in walks, with 15, and also in pitches per plate appearance, with 5.03.

Herrera, who has hit second or third most regularly in Pete Mackanin’s lineup, was moved up to the leadoff spot on Wednesday. It was a result, in part, to a player impressing the manager with his enjoyment at simply getting on base.

“He’s not the smartest guy in the world but he’s a smart hitter, and I think he’s starting to figure it out,” Mackanin said. “I get a kick out of watching a guy who claps, who gets happy when he gets a walk.”

Just last week, Herrera joyously flipped his bat after drawing a walk.

“If somebody has a problem with a guy who flips a bat after he walks – I agree with (Bryce) Harper, let him enjoy it," Mackanin said with a chuckle.

Herrera is nothing if not a player who enjoys the game; it’s been obvious since he brought his infectious smile into the clubhouse last spring and in bringing his “baby bull” persona onto the field, too. Even Chase Utley, normally emotionless in between the lines, got in on the fun.

But Herrera also takes his craft seriously. 

“I struck out too many times last year,” he said. “That’s something I didn’t like at all. So what I want to do is put the ball in play, get on base. Because ultimately I want the guys behind me to bring me around.”

The Phillies offense has plenty of faults, currently. It’s averaging an MLB-low 2.63 runs per game and is sporting a National League-worst .271 on-base percentage.

But if you want to take out a positive, and consider the players in the lineup that are likely to still be around when the team is contending again, Herrera’s progress as a professional hitter is certainly something to get a excited about.

Despite the strikeouts, Herrera had a fine season as a rookie in 2015, when he joined the Phillies through the Rule 5 draft. He hit .297 (second among MLB rookies with at least 350 plate appearances), with 30 doubles (also second among MLB rookies) and had a .762 OPS (identical to Matt Duffy of the San Francisco Giants, who finished second in the NL Rookie of the Year voting).

Herrera was asked if he was impressed with himself, given that he was making the leap from Double-A to the big leagues.

“It doesn’t surprise me because I’ve always had the confidence that I was a good hitter,” he said. “But this is just getting started. I hope I can get much, much better.”

And that’s why he’s working on his approach, trying to be “more disciplined” and “patient.”

“Because that’s definitely going to help me down the road,” Herrera said.

Herrera collected his major league-leading 15th walk-on Wednesday by way of the first intentional walk of his career. In 2015, he didn’t draw his August 19, in his 107th game of the season.

He’s already more than halfway to reaching his 2015 walk total of 28.

“(It might be) because the opposition’s pitchers look at our lineup and see he’s one of the better hitters, and they’re not giving him anything to hit,” Mackanin said. “By virtue of that alone, maybe he’s become more selective.”

But Herrera has said he’s also made a conscience effort to quick swinging at pitcher’s pitches, too. It’s resulted in longer at-bats, which benefits not only himself but the rest of the team, since it cuts into the opposing starter’s pitch count and, early in a game, allows his teammates to see what they’re working with, too.

Herrera, again, with 5.03 pitches per plate appearance, has a comfortable lead over the next two MLB hitters who have seen the most pitches, Mike Napoli (4.80) and Jose Bautista (4.71).

Herrera saw 4.01 pitches per plate appearance last season, leading the Phillies and 34th in baseball.


Herrera has seen a MLB-best 5.03 pitches per plate appearance in 2016. Some notable former and current Phillies P/PA career numbers and career bests:

 P/PA (career)Personal best P/PA  (year)
 Ryan Howard 4.03 4.19 (2007) 
 Jimmy Rollins 3.72 4.14 (2014) 
 Carlos Ruiz 3.85 4.21 (2010) 
Chase Utley  3.93 4.12 (2009) 

It’s easy to forget that many players are still a work in progress when they reach the big leagues. Many are continuing to develop, whether they’re pitchers fine-tuning their repertoire or adding a new pitch, or hitters working on their approach.

Herrera, who doesn’t turn 25 until December, obviously falls into that category.

“We talk about developing players, and last year was an experiment year to see who makes adjustments,” Mackanin said. “It’s a game of adjustments. So who is going to make adjustments? Instead of making the same outs the same way over and over, swinging at the slider in the dirt over and over and over and swinging at high fastballs over and over and over again, you’d like to see players realize, ‘Hey, I see what they’re trying to do with me and I’m not going to swing at that pitch anymore.’ That’s the maturation process. … You need to have a plan at this level. Pitchers will exploit your weakness. It doesn’t come to you overnight.”

Herrera was asked if he sets personal statistical goals, whether it’s reaching 100 walks or 200 hits, hitting .300 or striking out less than 100 times this season. He said that, yes, of course, he did.

And he didn’t need a translator to finish his answer.

“I don’t want to tell you,” Herrera said before flashing his boyish grin again.

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @ryanlawrence21