“Odubel Herrera is tough to deal with because he’s just a different kind of guy and I appeal in different ways to him,” former Philadelphia Phillies manager Pete Mackanin told Angelo Cataldi on the SportsRadio 94 WIP morning show in June of 2017. A day later, Larry Bowa, then the Phillies bench coach, joined Mike Missanelli on 97.5 The Fanatic and didn’t seem opposed to Missanelli’s suggestion that it would be beneficial for the Phillies to send both Herrera and Maikel Franco to Triple-A. These were two brutally honest public assessments of Herrera, with the center fielder less than a year removed from being the Phillies lone All-Star representative. And it’s one that probably didn’t sit well with Herrera, who the Phillies had signed to a long-term contract extension just months before.
In fact, Herrera, who will turn 27 in December, admitted that being publicly criticized by the previous coaching staff didn’t help him to become a better player.
“It’s really nothing against the other coaches from the previous years, but I feel like before they would throw you under the bus,” Herrera said to Meghan Montemurro of The Athletic. “You would try to play for them and do your best, but if it wasn’t enough, they didn’t really tell you. They would tell the media. I would find out from the media, not from a coach. That’s not the best way to find out.”
Under Gabe Kapler, the Phillies seemed to be more selective with the battles they picked with Herrera. Despite coming in carrying some extra weight in Spring Training, Kapler told the collective media that Herrera was “presenting beautifully.” That, coupled with a shoulder injury that he dealt with in Clearwater, didn’t stop Kapler from using Aaron Altherr as the starting center fielder over Herrera on Opening Day. But when Herrera started the second game of the season, he already had a one-game on-base streak dating back to the 2017 season. He would ultimately extend that streak to 45 games, the fourth longest streak in franchise history.
Herrera, who says he struggled to handle teammates that were always “on top of him,” says that he feels more comfortable in Kapler’s clubhouse.
“Definitely I feel more free now and I feel like I can breathe again,” Herrera told Montemurro. “Don’t get me wrong, I still appreciate what some coaches did for me in previous years because you need to be taught certain things. But it feels good to be yourself, to be able to be you, to do your own things.
Of course, the obvious retort to either of these quotes that Herrera gave would be to say that perhaps even if he didn’t like receiving public or internal pressure from coaches and teammates, 2018 was the worst season of his four-year career. Sure, he had the 45-game on-base streak that made him an early National League MVP candidate. But his numbers plummeted after the streak was snapped in mid-May. Herrera had cooled down enough by July that he wasn’t selected to his second All-Star Game in three years. After the All-Star Break, he slashed .214/.279/.342 with an OPS of just .622. Roman Quinn regularly pushed him out of center field – either to a corner outfield spot or the bench – in the final two months of the 2018 season.
In previous years, Herrera’s defense in center field was his saving grace when his bat went cold. Between 2015 and 2017, his first three years as a center fielder, Odubel Herrera graded out as the fourth best fielding center fielder in baseball. In 2018, his defensive metrics fell off a cliff, with him turning in -11 defensive runs saved just three years after posting 10 defensive runs saved. Some of that could be chalked up to the Phillies adjusting his starting position in center field and defensive metrics still being a work in progress, but it’s too drastic of a drop to altogether write off.
The Phillies are at a crossroads with Herrera. Frankly, they are at a crossroads with a bulk of their outfield, which only complicates things further. It’s entirely possible the Phillies trade Herrera this offseason, acknowledging that despite his talent, his approach will never be consistent enough for him to be relied upon by a contending team. At the same time, he’s due just $5.35 million in 2019. Even in a disappointing 2018 season, the former Rule-5 Draft selection was worth $7.5 million, per FanGraphs. In his All-Star year of 2016, he was worth $30.2 million. The Phillies are the opposite of cash-strapped, so trading Herrera now would seem to be selling low on an immense – albeit sometimes frustrating – talent.
It may be that there isn’t one strategy that will get Herrera to be hyper-focused for 162 games. It’s evident that the public tough-love approach exhibited by Mackanin’s coaching staff didn’t sit well with Herrera. But while he may have appreciated Kapler handling things behind closed doors and bringing a different clubhouse culture, his mental lapses didn’t subside. The talent, that’s still there and evident. General manager Matt Klentak will be left to evaluate this offseason whether his talent will be conducive to helping the Phillies win a World Series.
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