Odubel herrera’s star turn is no surprise to the phillies official who discovered him – philly la gastronomia


And so, as Herrera turns into one of the finest all-around center fielders in baseball right before our eyes — a development that even Phillies first-year manager Gabe Kapler labeled “an incredibly pleasant surprise” — Velandia might be the only person who can get away with saying he expected this.

Herrera, 26 and in his fourth big-league season, had reached the double-A level with the Texas Rangers in 2014 when they left him unprotected in that winter’s Rule 5 draft. Velandia, a special assistant for player personnel with the Phillies at the time, recommended they scoop him up. Never mind that Herrera was switching positions from second base to center field. Or that the Phillies would have to keep him on their big-league roster throughout the 2015 season or offer him back to the Rangers.

“I told all our staff, our front office, ‘Listen, this is the guy that we need to pick,’” said Velandia, who since has been promoted to special assistant to the general manager. “I said, ‘I wouldn’t be surprised if he ends up being an everyday player within the first year because of his ability to hit.’”

That’s exactly what happened. Herrera played 147 games for the Phillies in 2015 and batted .297 with a .344 on-base percentage. A year later, he was an all-star. He looked like a solid player, albeit one who seemed more concerned with the style of flipping his bat than the substance of hustling out of the box.

Seven weeks later, Herrera’s name is written in permanent marker in the No. 3 spot on the Phillies’ lineup card. At .360, he’s the National League’s leading hitter. He ranks second in hits (50), third in on-base percentage (.430) and fifth in OPS (.992).

You can explain Herrera’s improvement any way you want, including the fact that he has swung at only 32.5 percent of pitches out of the strike zone, down from 40 percent last season. To Velandia and Phillies pro scouting director Mike Ondo, Herrera has simply grown up after learning on the job for the past three seasons.

Velandia never doubted it. Before he left Venezuela to attend the 2014 winter meetings, he told Herrera, “I’m going to pick you in the Rule 5 draft. Don’t tell anybody.” Ondo still recalls Velandia’s insistence that the Phillies take a flier on Herrera.

“Jorge basically said, ‘I’m going to bet you right now that this guy will hit,’” Ondo said. “What he was able to piece together was what Odubel looked like in the outfield. We hadn’t seen him at any point in the outfield. The fact that he was playing it every day in Venezuela and Jorge was right there, that really helped solidify whether he could stay out there.”

Herrera still has 15 games to go before he matches Mike Schmidt’s franchise record of reaching base in 56 games in a row. And even if he gets there, it won’t be comparable to Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak. Herrera has gone hitless seven times during his streak but reached base instead via a walk or hit by pitch. (He entered the opening-day game as a defensive replacement and did not bat.) Ted Williams holds the major-league record by reaching base in 84 consecutive games in 1949.