The most important highlight clip of Odúbel Herrera’s career involves him falling on his face. With two out in the ninth inning of Cole Hamels’s Wrigley Field no-hitter in 2015, Kris Bryant skied a curveball—the 129th pitch of the afternoon for Hamels—into deep center field. Herrera drew a bead on it and backed up toward the ivy, lost his footing on the warning track, and face-planted in a cloud of dust. But he never took his eye off the ball, which landed right in his outstretched left hand, as if he’d planned to fall in that precise spot.
It says something about the Phillies of the past three years that their best player’s biggest moment came on a fly ball in a meaningless July game, but this play also says a lot about Herrera: It’s not always pretty or easy, but he gets the job done.
“Odúbel” is a perfect anagram for “double,” of which Herrera has 36, which ties him for the National League lead. Since the All-Star break, Herrera is hitting .383/.450/.692 with six home runs and 11 doubles, good for a 194 wRC+. Add in roughly average baserunning and above-average defense in center field, and that’s good enough to tie him with The Mighty Giancarlo Stanton for the post-break league lead in fWAR—even after Herrera sustained a minor hamstring injury that’s kept him out since Monday.
This might come as a surprise to those of you who remember his .256/.292/.393 slash line in a first half saturated by controversy. Herrera’s become a polarizing figure among Phillies fans for several reasons.
The first is that for some reason, when a team is bad, the best player tends to get blamed. I don’t know why, but it’s happened to Joe Mauer and Joey Votto in the past few years, and a little further back in time, Bobby Abreu and Scott Rolen have paid the price for their Phillies teammates not being better. That’s not to say Phillies fans are wrong to be frustrated by what will be, by season’s end, five straight seasons of 89 losses or more, particularly against a citywide sports landscape that borders on desolate.
But Herrera, specifically, is an easy target because he stands out. Celebratory hand gestures are fairly common in MLB, and Herrera has one of his own: the bull’s horns, in honor of his own nickname, “El Torito.” Herrera’s batting stance is sort of Bagwellian, and when he does make contact, he’s prone to flip his bat—even if the ball doesn’t clear the fence. Sometimes, he’ll flip his bat even if he draws a walk. Here’s a supercut of Odúbel Herrera bat flips from the past three seasons. It’s eight minutes long.
It still might shock some of you, but players with a signature touchdown dance, a cool nickname, and a little joie de vivre aren’t always universally beloved. Whether or not you hate fun, there is a good reason to find Herrera a little frustrating: his somewhat eccentric approach to baserunning.
Lots of Phillies mistakes here but...— Marc Farzetta (@MarcFarzetta) August 13, 2017
Odubel is gonna Odubel.
In an article about Herrera’s latest baserunning error, Philly.com’s Matt Breen listed four other baserunning transgressions this season, ranging from a lack of hustle to a blown stop sign, that had gotten Herrera either chewed out or benched. The ugliest incident came in early June, when Mike Schmidt said Herrera wasn’t fit to be a team leader because he didn’t speak English. (Never mind that more than a third of the Phillies roster, as well as third-base coach Juan Samuel, is Latin American, and that manager Pete Mackanin speaks Spanish, or that Herrera does, in fact, speak English, though he gives interviews through a translator.) And while policing hustle often comes wrapped in insinuations regarding race and culture, Herrera’s hustle is apparently an issue within the Phillies clubhouse.
But here’s something else that showed up in Breen’s article: “[Herrera] has the third-highest WAR since 1968 among Phillies players through their first three seasons.” That’s despite hitting like Drew Butera through mid-July, and despite still having six weeks to go in 2017. That’s more than Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins, Juan Samuel, and Pat Burrell, among others. At the moment, Herrera trails only Rolen and Schmidt, and both by less than a win. By year’s end, he could easily be first on this list.
Herrera is the first great success story of the Phillies’ rebuild. He was signed out of Venezuela by the Texas Rangers in 2008, at a time when GM Jon Daniels and his international scouting director and later assistant GM, A.J. Preller, were pumping South American prospects directly into their veins: They signed Martín Pérez out of Venezuela in 2007, Herrera’s now-teammate Jorge Alfaro out of Colombia in 2010, and Rougned Odor out of Venezuela in 2011. Because of that influx of talent, Herrera found himself on the wrong side of a 40-man roster crunch in 2014, and the Phillies scooped him up in the Rule 5 draft.
Since then, this cast-off is 34th among MLB position players in bWAR, just ahead of Evan Longoria and Yoenis Céspedes. He’s been phenomenally consistent (111 OPS+ in 2015, 110 in 2016, 109 in 2017), and most importantly, he’s the only position player on the team who’s been good over the past three years. Since 2015, Herrera’s 10.9 bWAR is more than all but one pair of his teammates (Jerad Eickhoff and César Hernández) put together.
The front office recognizes Herrera’s worth: This past offseason, GM Matt Klentak gave him the first long-term contract extension for this generation of Phillies, a deal with $30.5 million in guaranteed money that could keep him in Philadelphia through 2023.
Herrera’s not perfect, and no matter how high his wRC+ rises, he should probably check to make sure the base ahead is open before he tries to advance on an errant throw, but he and right-hander Aaron Nola are the only major league building blocks the Phillies have right now. He’s fun, he’s good, and he’s going to be around for a long time. Just let the man live.