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Unpacking the Odubel Herrera conundrum

Odubel Herrera is hitting .375/.437/.672 since July 3. He’s brought his offensive numbers, which were once well below average, very close to league average. Beyond that, he’s shown higher defensive skill this season. For all intents and purposes, Herrera is a valuable player.

And then Tuesday happens.

On Tuesday, in the sixth inning, Charlie Morton threw a third-strike pitch in the dirt to Herrera, evading catcher Evan Gattis. As the ball scooted away and Gattis grabbed it, Herrera was cl- no, he didn’t run, he barely left the box, he was out, easy as can be.

Manager Pete Mackanin then removed Herrera from the game. Why?

“Eh, it had something to do with it,” Mackanin said to reporters Tuesday. “I’m going to talk with (Herrera) tomorrow.”

And so it goes. Herrera has struggled this season, but he’s playing far better over the last month and is nearly back to his typical output. But he still doesn’t hustle all the time. He still makes mistakes. He still flips his-

Okay, let’s talk about this one.

Herrera socked a Morton pitch deep to center field in the first inning Tuesday. It looked good. Herrera emphatically flipped his bat, sensing a shot to kick open the door and put the Phillies up 3-0 early. But Derek Fisher got to the ball, caught it against the wall and ended the inning with a thud. And his Astros teammates laughed and mocked the bat flip, according to reports.

Therein lies the conundrum with Odubel Herrera. He’s very talented, a good-contact hitter with sneaky power and a developing eye for the strike zone, plus an improving defensive stalwart at a position he hadn’t played three years ago. He’s 25, jumping from double-A to the big leagues and becoming the best offensive player on a very bad baseball team. He’s still developing, going through struggles and enjoying positive outcomes sometimes simultaneously. It can be maddening to watch, since he’s one of about six offensive players and five pitchers going through the same thing at the same time. But he’s probably the best offensive player on the Phillies.

And then he sometimes doesn’t run balls out. He tends to instruct the umpires as to when a pitch is a ball. He gets called out on the basepaths by making really poor decisions. And he flips his bat, a lot, which frustrates a sect of fans. He’s not for everybody, and when a team is as brutally bad as the Phillies, his freewheeling play can be even more maddening to watch.

One problem with all of this is that the Phillies, as currently constructed, have far more problems to deal with than Herrera’s wacky antics. Cameron Rupp may be good at handling the clubhouse as constructed, but that clubhouse isn’t talented in comparison to other clubhouses, and a .228/.316/.713 hitter with reportedly poor major-league pitch-calling instincts is probably not a good idea long-term. Tommy Joseph is average at best at a position that demands consistently above-average play. Maikel Franco can’t figure out how to have good at bats most of the time. Freddy Galvis exhibits great leadership and plays great defense, but his offense is hollow. And no pitcher besides Aaron Nola has performed even admirably. Moreover, veterans have been hurt and aren’t valuable enough to get elicit great returns, the front office could turn much of the team over to prospects, but then what? Can those guys become good major leaguers together?

Herrera, being the best player of this group, and being the guy who got the extension, is thus the only person we fans can look to as “the future.” And “the future” isn’t a favorite of some portion of the fanbase, which finds his bat flipping and various mishaps confounding, frustrating, annoying and tiring.

Herrera belongs on the Phillies long term, and he’s the only offensive player who’s shown that he truly does. There may be arguments for others (Franco, Galvis, Joseph), but you can pick plenty of holes in those arguments. The only real holes in the Herrera argument is “he doesn’t hustle all the time” and “he makes some dumb mistakes.”

The need for hustle

We want hustle. We love hustle. Pete Rose, Larry Bowa and Chase Utley are among favorite all-time players for countless Phillies fans, partly because they never stopped hustling. (Of course Rose hustled in more ways than one, Bowa historically can’t keep his temper in check and Utley hustled to the point of chronic injury.) Players who don’t hustle as much are easy targets in a city where work is hard, pay is small and respect has to be earned through the work put in, not the reputation or the talk put out. Bobby Abreu was roundly criticized by fans for his habit of pulling up short on fly balls to the warning track, and to this day fans will say the Abreu trade in 2006 (in which the Phils received figuratively nothing in return) was a turning point for the franchise.

Abreu hit .303/.416/.513 over nine years with the Phillies. Let me repeat that: .303/.416/.513. Those are insane numbers. Those are Hall of Fame numbers. That said, is it possible that the Abreu trade was the turning point? Some would say it allowed players like Utley to take over the reins of the team. Some would say it got rid of a player who didn’t seem to be playing for the team, but for himself. I’m not so sure about that. Baseball isn’t basketball, where a single player can literally shoot his team out of a game. Abreu may have shortened up on some fly balls, but a .303/.416/.513 mark in nearly 6,000 plate appearances tells me the guy was doing a heck of a lot for a team that – with the pitching staffs the Phils employed – probably had no business even sniffing the wild card.

The point is this: Herrera helps the team more than he hurts them. He’s valuable. He’s not Abreu (how I’d kill for a guy to put up those numbers right now), but he’s the one offensive player who looks valuable for a number of years going forward. He is the one “future” we have.

That doesn’t mean he’s immune to criticism for not hustling. He should hustle more. If other starters hustle more than Herrera, he shouldn’t be excused from it. And Herrera probably should learn to dial back the called balls while at the plate, not because it’s disrespectful, but because it’s an easy thing to do to lessen the probability that a pitcher aims at his head, and if Herrera is injured from any pitch aimed at his head (or back, or neck or whatever), that could be a real problem for the Phillies.

The bat flips? I’ve always been for bat flips. They’re personal celebrations and can be wildly fun. But what’s the risk-reward of a guy like Herrera, the best offensive player on a very bad team, flipping his bat every time he hits something that he thinks has the distance? Again, there are too many pitchers out there who don’t like bat flips and may retaliate. Charlie Morton (a progressive and thoughtful pitcher, funny enough) even aimed one a little in Tuesday after Herrera’s big first-inning flip. What if Morton didn’t have full control of that pitch? What if it hit Herrera and took him out for a considerable period of time? That’s the risk. When you’re this bad and you have one really good offensive player, the flip probably isn’t worth the risk.

Herrera is an enigma. He’s also highly skilled. He just happens to be the one guy that plays really well on a team of otherwise replacement-level talent. It’s not his fault that we’re here, but while we’re here, he can probably do a few things to help himself out.

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