Blaming Odubel Herrera for Wednesday Night’s Loss is Simply Wrong

Photo Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

If the Phillies decided to designate Odubel Herrera for assignment today, you wouldn’t hear me complain.

If the Phillies have Odubel Herrera in the starting lineup today, I wouldn’t complain either.

I like to think it’s because I am able to take a step back, look at the big picture, and assess what is happening with a team a bit more rationally and not in the moment.

Which is why, after the Phillies lost to the Washington Nationals 3-2 yesterday, wasting another fine pitching performance from Aaron Nola, I found myself in the vast minority when I tried to suggest on Twitter that Herrera was not to blame for the Phillies loss.

I understand that there is a segment of the fan base who doesn’t think Herrera should even be employed after his domestic abuse issues a few years ago. I understand and respect that opinion.

But, because he is allowed to continue playing, I can’t let his despicable actions off the field in 2018 be a reason to adjudicate his actions on the field. One has to be separate from the other.

As such, if Herrera is hot at the plate, makes a great diving catch, or otherwise is playing inspired baseball, I find it fair to say the guy is playing well.

In turn, if he is struggling at the plate, makes a defensive or baserunning gaffe like he is wont to do from time to time, I find it fair to criticize his play.

But what I don’t find fair is scapegoating – and that’s something we do all too often in this town with our athletes. There are guys, who, for varying reasons, draw the ire of the fan base who get absolutely torched and held responsible for their team’s failings, even when they aren’t the primary culprit or even a culprit at all.

Herrera happens to be one of those players.

So, on Thursday, when a double from Luis Garcia is hit over his head and is seemingly misplayed at the wall, allowing two runs to score, the usual collection of virtual torches were lit, and the digital pitchforks were brandished, and the blame was purely set on the centerfielder for botching a play that cost the Phillies the game.

But did he botch the play? And if he did, was that the reason the Phillies lost?

The answer to the first question is clearly debatable. The answer to the second is clearly no.

Let’s start with the fly ball. Here is the play:

If you just look at the end result, it looks like Herrera botched this by taking a bad angle. So, I understand the immediate reaction.

However, manager Rob Thomson defended Herrera on the play, saying it’s a tough ball because of how hard it was hit and it tailed on him after he started back on the ball.

And before you say Thomson was just defending his player and wouldn’t throw him under the bus, consider this play from earlier in the game:

Thomson didn’t defend Castellanos on this ball. He said that one should have been caught. It plated a run, too. So why would the manager protect one player, arguably a less important one, and not another? Doesn’t make sense unless he’s being, gulp, honest with us. Imagine that!

Either way, I didn’t see any fans blaming Castellanos for the loss though (which also would have been wrong, but we’ll get to that shortly).

Back to Odubel…

According to Baseball Savant, the ball hit by Garcia had an exit velocity of 104.3 MPH and a launch angle of 24 degrees while travelling 401 feet. That’s a rocket. No wonder Nola said after the game he thought it was a home run off the bat, also admitting he made a bad pitch there.

Defensively, the Phillies had Herrera playing a little shallow on Garcia, trying to take away a single, first and foremost, and secondly, even if there is a single, maybe being able to get to the ball more quickly and prevent the tying run from scoring from second.

So, Herrera has to run further for the ball than usual to get to the wall, it’s traveling at a higher rate of speed than most fly balls a centerfielder will see in a given year, and on top of that, as Herrera turns back to see if he’s going to get under the ball, it tails on him.

This is not an easy catch. If the catch is made, Statcast would have considered it a four-star catch, which has a catch probability of less than 50 percent but more than 25 percent.

But, you know, it was Odubel, so automatically, we should be throwing stones at him.

In the ninth inning, Herrera made a really nice grab on a sinking liner in center and then makes a perfect throw to home plate to prevent Washington from adding an insurance run.

This is hardly an outstanding play, but it was a good one on a sinking line drive with not a lot of oomph behind it (just 85.3 MPH off the bat and a launch angle of 20 degrees, and it only went 264 feet). But the throw was also on line and held a pretty decent baserunner in Cesar Hernandez at third base.

I questioned whether Twitter would credit Odubel with a good play here, and you would have thought I shot poison arrows into the eyes of Phillies fans.

The reaction was visceral. It was medieval. But most importantly, it was wrong.

It was wrong because the majority of responses were geared toward blaming Herrera for the loss. As if the fact that he didn’t make a catch that more than half of major league centerfielders also wouldn’t make was the reason the team came up short against the woeful Nationals.

It’s times like these that make me wonder just what the hell some people are watching.

The Phillies lost to Washington because aside from Kyle Schwarber, who had three hits, including two more solo homers, upping his league-leading total to 27 this season, the rest of the lineup was 1-for-26 with two walks and 15 strikeouts. Schwarber actually struck out once, too, making it 16 times they went down swinging in the game against Washington pitching.

That’s why the Phillies lost. Plain and simple.

Was Herrera part of the problem on offense? Yes, he was. But only about 12.5 percent of it. Darick Hall wore the golden sombrero after the game. J.T. Realmuto struck out three times. Castellanos had the only other hit, but that was negated by two strike outs and a weak inning-ending double play in the bottom of the eighth when they really needed him to come through.

With the exception of a great grab by Ehire Adrianza on a line drive by Bryson Stott in the seventh inning, every other plate appearance by a Phillie was either a strikeout, a pop out, a can of corn, or a throwing error on a weak tapper back to the mound.

The Phillies didn’t hit. Period. If they even hit a little bit, they win the game.

As for Herrera, according to Baseball Savant, he ranks tied for 18th among all outfielders in Outs Above Average (OAA) at +3. He actually makes two percent more plays in the outfield than expected (92 percent vs. 90 percent). He doesn’t have any five star catches (less than a 25% chance), and he only has caught 40 percent of his 4-star chances (between 25-50 percent) But on every ball hit to him that has a 50 percent chance or better of being caught this season, he’s caught it. It’s why the Phillies are comfortable putting him in centerfield as much as they do. He’s actually not a statistical detriment.

Where he is hurting the Phillies currently is at the plate. As of June 15, he was one of the Phillies most productive hitters with a .277 batting average and an .811 OPS. Since then, he’s been terrible.

In the last 14 games, he’s slashing .133/.188/.321 with no extra base hits and just three RBIs. That’s not good enough. Not even for a platoon. Not even for a guy who is better defensively than most people think.

But, if you are Dave Dombrowski and you need to identify the Phillies greatest need, it’s not replacing a bottom of the lineup platoon in centerfield. Instead, you want to add to the rotation, maybe a bullpen arm, and positionally, an upgrade at shortstop is more crucial.

If you can do all that AND improve centerfield too, then by all means go ahead. I’m not trying to protect Odubel Herrera.

But it also shouldn’t be priority No. 1.

Nor should he be your scapegoat whenever it’s convenient.