Herrera and Kapler

Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Kapler: Herrera must be in 'best condition of career'

Tim Kelly
December 12, 2018 - 8:47 am

Perhaps the most noteworthy quote that Gabe Kapler has given as Philadelphia Phillies manager was when he said in Spring Training that Odubel Herrera was "presenting beautifully." Though Kapler may have appreciated the blonde that Herrera added to his dreadlocks and facial hair, he also pointed out that Herrera was in "incredible athletic condition."

Related: Phillies rumors: Trade for J.T. Realmuto coming?​

Here's the thing: Herrera wasn't in incredible athletic condition. He looked to be carrying some extra weight, and a sore shoulder in Spring Training didn't help him to make up for any additional pounds the Phillies hoped he would burn off before the start of the season. It was perhaps why Aaron Altherr started in center field over Herrera, seemingly healthy, when the Phillies played the division-rival Atlanta Braves on Opening Day.

Herrera would start in center field on the second day of the season, and get hot immediately. He reached base in each of his first 44 games in 2018, adding onto the final game of the 2017 season, allowing him to post the fourth-longest on-base streak in Phillies history.

By now, though, you know how this story ends. By the All-Star Break, Herrera’s average—which peaked at .361 on May 17th—had plummeted to .275. After the All-Star Break, Herrera hit just .214 with a .622 OPS.

With an acknowledgement that Herrera didn't enter Spring Training in 2018 in acceptable shape, Kapler said this week that he's appealed to Herrera for that not to be the case in 2019.

"We're going to demand that (coming into 2019 in better physical shape) of Odubel," Kapler told the collective media at the MLB Winter Meetings. "One adjustment that I'm prepared to make—he has to come into camp in the best condition of his career."

Kapler said that he recently spent time with Herrera, who he described as inspired. He also mentioned running into his agent at the MLB Winter Meetings, who echoed those same sentiments (of course, that’s what an agent is paid to do). 

There is something frustrating about Herrera, but he gives you enough to keep you intrigued about what he could be if he ever puts together a full season. When things are going bad, Herrera often looks mentally checked out. He puts together at-bats during cold streaks that may literally make him the least effective player on the 25-man roster. But when things are clicking, he may be the best player on the 25-man roster.

Herrera, rather obviously, hinted at being micromanaged by Pete Mackanin’s coaching staff, along with veterans Freddy Galvis and Andres Blanco, when speaking to Meghan Montemurro of The Athletic in October. Kapler says that the key to unlocking Herrera, who will be 27 later this month, will come somewhere in between micromanaging and letting him do his own thing.   

"I always think bringing the best out of a player is not one or the other. It's not leave him alone and it's not stay on top of him," the second year manager said of Herrera. "It's trial and error until you find the sweetspot. And I think that's still a work in progress. Like how do we motivate an especially talented individual that for six weeks was one of the best players in baseball? How do we get that result for the entirety of a season? Because then you have an elite level baseball player."

From some, however, there was a sense during the waning weeks of the 2018 season that Herrera is what he is. His bat—and approach to the gave overall—may always be bipolar. That doesn’t necessarily mean that he can’t be on the next Phillies team to reach the postseason— he’s only due $5 million in 2019—but perhaps that the organization can no longer bank on him one day putting together six months of consistent baseball. After all, 2019 will be his fifth year in the league.

Kapler, however, remains hopeful that Herrera will be part of the solution in 2019, as the Phillies look to reach the postseason for the first time since 2011.

"I think that there are players that are winning players in one year and not winning players in other years," Kapler admitted. "I don't think somebody is a winning player or not a winning player. The direct answer to your question is that there's variability year-to-year.”