Herrera's season a rare feat among Rule 5 rookies

092815-herrera-odubel-1024
Phillies center fielder Odubel Herrera.

The signature moment of one of the best Rule 5 rookie seasons in baseball history came on a windy July afternoon at Wrigley Field in the form of a catch replayed countless times in the hours that followed. Odubel Herrera overran a Kris Bryant fly ball, slipped as he turned back and mystifyingly still recovered to haul in the final out of Cole Hamels' no-hitter.

After he picked himself off the warning track at Wrigley Field that day, Herrera flashed the same smile he seemingly always wears, whether walking around the Phillies' clubhouse or strolling into second base for one of his 27 doubles.

When Herrera was a kid in Venezuela, his favorite player to watch was Jose Reyes because of the way he always appeared to have fun on the field. Herrera tries to play similarly.

Herrera's performance on the field has surely made those in the Phillies' front office smile from time to time throughout this dismal rebuilding season, which is likely to eclipse 100 losses before its conclusion on Sunday. Not only has Herrera emerged as the team's biggest surprise of the season, he has also been its most valuable all-around player at only 23 years old.

This despite never before having played at a level more advanced than double A, despite learning outfield play on the fly, and despite knowing little about the pitchers he faces on a daily basis.

"I think it was a very good year but I believe I can be better," Herrera said through a translator. "I would like to be better."

'El Torito' emerges

Herrera speaks minimal English. The language barrier has made it difficult for fans - and even his teammates - to learn much about his background.

Herrera hails from San Jose de Heras, a three-street town in the Venezuelan state of Zulia and about a four-drive from the state capital of Maracaibo. He began playing baseball when he was a "chiquito" and doubled as a big-hitting volleyball player until it came time to focus on baseball.

His father nicknamed him "El Toro," meaning "the bull," but the moniker has since evolved to "El Torito" or "little bull." After key hits he throws his hands up near his helmet to mimic a bull's horns, a celebration the Phillies adopted this season. Even Chase Utley once took part after a game-changing double.

Over the summer, Herrera helped move his parents from Venezuela to his apartment in the city so they could watch him play. Without a driver's license, he often rides a taxi to Citizens Bank Park. "Papi" is his go-to name for many around the clubhouse.

"It's been fun because I've been able to learn a lot about his culture," outfielder Jeff Francoeur said. "[Like] what his favorite food is. We're trying to figure out what exactly it is he's talking about, but the fact of the matter is it's been fun to get to know him. He's got a great heart. He really does."

Moving to the outfield

The Phillies' offseason shift from contenders to rebuilders afforded them the opportunity to lend playing time to an unknown like Herrera. Their scouts had seen him in general coverage through his years in the Texas Rangers system, so his name was familiar when it surfaced on the list of unprotected players for the Rule 5 draft in December.

The key to the Phillies' landing Herrera, though, was a member of their player personnel department. Jorge Velandia is the front office's eyes and ears in the Venezuelan winter league, not heavily scouted from the outside. The 40-year-old former major-leaguer is the general manager of Tiburones de La Guaira.

Velandia's roster last season featured a glut of second basemen, so he moved Herrera from second base to center field to get his bat in the lineup. Herrera had played only 11 games of left field the previous season with double-A Frisco, but his athleticism and arm showed enough potential that he played 41 games there over the winter.

Velandia flew to San Diego for the annual winter meetings in December and made his pitch to Phillies director of professional scouting Mike Ondo. He touted an exciting player with athleticism and "plus makeup." He raved about his bat while noting he had much to learn in the outfield and on the base paths. Juan Samuel, the Phillies' first-base coach and outfield coach, would work well with Herrera, Velandia thought.

"He's absolutely surpassed what our expectations were," said Ondo, who has run the Phillies' Rule 5 drafts since 2004, when they selected Shane Victorino. "Especially in year 1, so soon."

'A lot of energy'

Phillies bench coach Larry Bowa has heard comments intimating Herrera is a bit of "a hot dog." Bowa, 69, and about to cap his 50th year in baseball, doesn't believe that's the case.

"He brings a lot of energy. l like that," Bowa said. "I just think that's his personality. He has fun out there. When he walks, he claps his hands like, 'Let's go. Let's get some runs.' "

It's understandable how Herrera's actions on the field might rub opponents the wrong way. He has gotten himself in trouble on a few occasions this season.

The most notable incident occurred Sept. 20 in Atlanta when manager Pete Mackanin benched him for "pouting." After a fourth-inning fly out, Herrera flung his bat toward the on-deck circle, nearly hitting Francoeur, and didn't hustle to first base.

Herrera said his emotions got the best of him and insisted he learned from the incident. Before the team's next game, he apologized to Mackanin. In the clubhouse, he assured Francoeur it wouldn't happen again: "Papi, no more throw bat," he said.

Mackanin, who last Tuesday had his interim tag lifted, feels the incident and ensuing lesson will benefit Herrera down the road.

"Odubel, you're going to be a hell of a player for another 10 or 12 years," Mackanin said he told Herrera. "Let your bat and your glove do the talking. Don't draw attention to yourself. Fight. Don't feel sorry for yourself. . . .

"I appealed to his sense of professionalism, and I think at his young age this is a time to do it. . . . I think it's important for him to learn that, and hopefully it will carry with him the rest of his career."

Work in progress

Herrera's season ebbed and flowed as pitchers adjusted to him and he adjusted back in the never-ending chess match that occurs in baseball. Although he has slumped since his average peaked at .302 on Sept. 2, Herrera enters the final six games of the season on Tuesday sporting a team-best .287 batting average.

If there are downsides to his year, they are his abundance of strikeouts and the need to refine his baserunning. His defense has been the biggest surprise. Defensive Runs Saved, a statistic compiled by the Fielding Bible, regards the Phillies as by far baseball's worst defensive team. But despite a minus-93 team statistic, Herrera is a plus-10, sixth among major-league centerfielders.

Veteran utility infielder Andres Blanco, who played against Herrera in Venezuela and has helped mentor his younger countryman, marvels at Herrera's improvement since the winter.

"If you saw when I saw him in the beginning, when he never had played that position before, until now, you're giving a Gold Glove. Wow," Blanco said, smiling. "Every time you had a chance to make him run side to side, 'Oh, I got a double.' "

It would be premature to deem Herrera the Phillies' centerfielder of the future. Prospects Nick Williams and Roman Quinn are still developing in the farm system and either could claim the job once he is ready. Perhaps Herrera will move to a corner outfield spot. Velandia, who joined the Phillies coaching staff when Mackanin took over in late June, plans to sprinkle in left field in winter ball this season to increase Herrera's versatility.

But the fact that Herrera is in the conversation as an organizational building block is incredible in itself.

"I love the energy that he brings," Velandia said. "If I were to say one word to describe Odubel Herrera it's confidence. . . . It doesn't matter who's pitching. He's going out there and trying to fight every pitch, every at-bat."

kaplanj@phillynews.com

@jakemkaplan