One thing I have come to suspect about sports is that the difference between the good and the great has little to do with physical talent.
Like any such claim, the validity of this one depends in part on semantics, so let’s start by defining talent as the mechanical skill required to achieve the tasks set forth in a given sport, separate from purely heritable characteristics such as size and speed. That’s not a perfect definition, but our purposes do not require such a thing, so don’t get hung up on hunting for the counterfactual.
The point, more so, is to preemptively negate any claim that the variable in question is already a function of talent. That variable? Consistency. The ability to transcend variable circumstance and thus deploy one’s physical talent at an optimal level on a continuous basis. Simplified: Reggie Miller in the Garden, vs. Michael Jordan every night.
Today’s topic, though, is baseball, the sport most at odds with the triumph over physiology’s ebbs and flows, with its 162-game schedule, and its limitless games, and its relative insistence on two-way play. A lot of what I have come to believe about consistency was informed by watching Roy Halladay go to work every day for three-plus years, the perfection of his repetition so complete that it could have turned Turing’s worry on its head.
The topicality of these thoughts lie in the Phillies’ centerfielder. For the third straight season, Odubel Herrera is in the midst of one of those stretches that can’t help but make you wonder why he can’t make them last forever. Through the end of May, he was about as bad as a hitter can be: a .218 batting average, .262 on-base percentage, .589 OPS, and 51 strikeouts in 193 at-bats. This, on the heels of an underwhelming finish to 2016.
Yet ever since the start of June, Herrera has been swinging the bat like never before: In the 37 games he’d played leading to Monday’s series opener in Miami, Herrera had tallied, remarkably, 23 extra-base hits in 147 at-bats, far exceeding any rate at which he’d hit them before. (His batting average in those games: a cool .320; his OPS, .897.)
Consider this: At the close of the weekend, major league teams had an average of 32.5 extra-base hits struck by centerfielders through 91.5 games, or 392.5 plate appearances. Over the last month-and-a-half, Herrera has produced 71 percent of that total in less than 40 percent of the playing time.
True, they do not award trophies for 37-game stretches. Perhaps that was the irony in Mike Schmidt’s statements about Herrera: He might have been correct that Herrera isn’t the kind of player an organization should count on to anchor its lineup, but it isn’t because he doesn’t spend his pregame sitting atop a bucket of sunflower seeds dispensing life lessons in florid English. It’s because he is not a consistent enough hitter.
The thing that is easy to forget on a team such as the Phillies is that most players aren’t that kind of player. On a good team, though, they don’t need to be. Not all of them, at least.
The problem with the Phillies isn’t Herrera’s inconsistency; it’s the lack of consistent hitters around him. Those latter-year Phillies teams would have been in a world of trouble if they were counting on guys such as Shane Victorino and Jimmy Rollins to be the steadiest hitters on the team. But with the combined abilities of Chase Utley, Jayson Werth, Ryan Howard and Pat Burrell/Raul Ibanez to grind out at-bats and draw walks and punish mistakes even when their swing/timing/whatever wasn’t optimal, the rest of the lineup was allowed to endure its rough patches in relative anonymity.
On July 10, 2008, Victorino had a .710 OPS. Over the rest of the season, he hit .322/.365/.538 with 14 doubles, five triples and 11 home runs in 283 plate appearances.
The important thing to consider is what Herrera’s hodgepodge of samples suggest, particularly when authored by a 25-year-old player who is less than three years removed from Double A. He might be frustrating to watch. He might look unorthodox inside the box. You might question whether he’ll ever be someone a manager can count on to do something to help his team’s cause nightly. But the numbers are the numbers, and they quantify something real.
There’s an argument to be made that, far from being a lost cause, Herrera might actually be in the process of discovering the kind of hitter he can and should be. His first two seasons featured a point of departure similar to the one that occurred this year between his first 50 and last 37 games. Within his three “hot” stretches is a degree of consistency:
Yet there is also some wild fluctuation:
There might not be any sort of linear trend to latch on to, but there’s a reason for the relative paucity of aphorisms that ascribe such a trait to progress.
From the last part of 2015 through the first part of 2016, Herrera put together the near-equivalent of an entire season in which he drew 62 walks in 667 plate appearances, or 9.3 percent. During that stretch, he tallied 45 extra-base hits. He then put together a nearly yearlong stretch in which his walk rate plummeted (to 6.2 percent), but his extra-base-hit rate remained steady (7.0 percent). Over the last 37 games, his walk rate has undergone another proportionate drop (to 3.9 percent), but his extra-base rate has more than doubled, to 15 percent.
Somewhere in all that is an enchanting hypothetical. Herrera has shown he can go an extended period of time drawing walks at a rate commensurate with the most consistent of players. His most recent sample at least raises the potential that he can do the same with his power. He would hardly be the first player to go three full seasons before putting it all together.
Maybe it never happens, but his career to this date has hardly served such a referendum.