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If there ever was a legitimate debate about Odubel Herrera, it's over

 

By Tim Kelly, Sports Talk Philly editor 

For the past three seasons, the Philadelphia baseball community has engaged in a faux debate about Odubel Herrera's place in the Phillies long-term future. Herrera made an All-Star team, graded out as the fourth best fielding center fielder and received what will likely amount to a seven-year extension in his first three major league seasons. It's evident how the organization feels about the former Rule-5 Draft pick. Still, his first three seasons haven't come without some mental lapses and ice-cold streaks at the plate. It's divided Phillies social media into two different camps: those who are "Produbel" and those who are well, whatever the opposite of "Produbel" is. 

At the beginning of the 2018 season, there did appear to be at least a chance that things would go south for the 26-year-old. He dealt with a minor shoulder injury in Spring Training and appeared to be carrying a few extra pounds. With four starting-caliber outfielders, Herrera didn't start on Opening Day. Instead, Aaron Altherr played in center, with Nick Williams in right field. Herrera, without creating an early season distraction, admitted that he didn't like being omitted from Gabe Kapler's first regular season lineup. 

There's always a debate when Rule-5 Draft picks have immediate success at the major league level about whether they will be able to sustain their production. Herrera, who the Phillies selected in the 2014 Rule-5 Draft, seems to have to deal with this debate even more than prior Rule-5 success stories, like Shane Victorino and Dan Uggla. (To be fair, Victorino did have a 36-game stint with the San Diego Padres in 2003 before being acquired by the Phillies.)

After coming to the Phillies as a second baseman without a natural position, the Phillies shifted Herrera to center field. In his first year in center field, Herrera posted a 9.9 dWAR, an 8.1 UZR and 10 defensive runs saved. At a position that he didn't have extended experience at, he graded out as a better fielder than Mike Trout and Kevin Pillar. Some wondered if that was sustainable, but he followed his 2015 season up with back-to-back impressive years in center field. 

Herrera batted .297 with 30 doubles, 41 RBIs, 16 stolen bases, 111 weighted runs created and an 8.9 oWAR in his rookie season. Given that he has a funky (for lack of a better term) leg kick and his approach is extremely timing-based, some wondered if his offensive production was sustainable.

In July of 2016, when Herrera hit just .227 and struck out 27 times, there was a sense from some that the magic had run out for Herrera, who had represented the team at the All-Star Game that same month. He responded to that by hitting .282 in August of 2016 and .319 in September of 2016. When Herrera had the worst month of his career in May of 2017 - he hit just .183 and struck out 30 times in a month where the Phillies went 6-22 - the "Antidubel" crowd raised their voices again. Herrera bounced back from a disappointing first half of the 2017 season by slashing .323/.378/.551 with 17 doubles after the All-Star Break. 

 

So perhaps it shouldn't be a surprise that Herrera has responded to some potential early-season adversity with a scorching-hot start to his fourth season. 

Following a bullpen meltdown in Washington D.C. Sunday, the Phillies bounced-back rather incredibly Monday defeating the San Francisco Giants - who had gone 7-3 in their previous 10 games - 11-0. They were led by Herrera, who posted his second multi-home run game of the season, while racking up a career-high five RBIs.

After not starting on Opening Day, Herrera has responded by slashing .341/.401/.537 with five home runs, seven doubles and a .938 OPS through his first 123 at-bats of 2018. Phillies color commentator and Wall of Famer John Kruk recently called Herrera, who plays on a team that employs Rhys Hoskins, the team's best hitter on NBC Sports Philadelphia's postgame show. Jimmy Rollins, the franchise's hits king, said on Monday's telecast that Herrera, who he never played a game with, is the team's best player right now "by far." 

It's Herrera's fourth year, and with the exception of a few months during his first three seasons, he's been extremely productive. The organization rewarded him with an extension prior to the 2017 season. And yet, there's still a feeling from some that eventually, the bubble is going to burst. Eventually, he's going to burn out. Eventually someone internally is going to prove to be a better option for the Phillies. But given his start to the 2018 season, the more likely scenario seems to be that Herrera will be in Washington D.C. on July 17, representing the Phillies at the All-Star Game for the second time in three years. 

Thinking back, it's hard to recall any baseball player - Phillies or otherwise - that has been as immediately successful as Herrera, but regularly talked about as though he's on the cusp of losing his starting job. That's not to say that Herrera hasn't displayed a tendency to go ice-cold when his timing is off at the plate - he has. It's also not to say that some of the mental lapses he's had haven't set the Phillies back in individual games. But while Herrera occasionally taketh with his mental lapses, he much more frequently giveth with his production.

So while some have tried to push a narrative for three plus years with Herrera that his bubble is about to burst, the only bubble that really appears to have bursted are the takes that his vocal minority of extreme critics push when he has a mental lapse or goes into a slump at the plate. He's been a Gold Glove caliber fielder since he entered the league and has hit .330 since the 2017 All-Star Break. His bat will go cold at some point this season. He may even mix in a few mental lapses. But it's important to remember that in the increasingly large sample size he has at the major league level, those negative moments have been the exception, not the rule. 

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