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How a future Hall of Famer might’ve helped remake Phillies enigma Odubel Herrera

For seven weeks, the center fielder worked out at a Miami gym with Miguel Cabrera. The Phillies are counting on seeing a difference when spring training begins.

Odubel Herrera committed to a stricter training program this winter. But will it lead to better results for the Phillies center fielder?
Odubel Herrera committed to a stricter training program this winter. But will it lead to better results for the Phillies center fielder?Read more Yong Kim / Staff Photographer

Joe Ferrer worked with Odubel Herrera before, however briefly, when the center fielder showed up at his gym in November. And although they weren’t well-acquainted, Ferrer knew what needed to be done to fulfill the Phillies' mandate that Herrera report to spring training in better shape.

So, the Miami-based trainer relied on a future Hall of Famer to apply some good, old-fashioned peer pressure.

As Ferrer told Phillies manager Gabe Kapler and strength coach Paul Fournier at the beginning off the offseason, “I know it’s these guys’ offseason. A lot of them want to sleep in. But I think Odubel should 100 percent train with Miguel Cabrera.”

“I thought it would be a positive environment for Odubel,” Ferrer recalled by phone this month.

Cabrera is one of the greatest players to come out of Venezuela, Herrera’s native country. He’s also coming back from surgery to repair a torn biceps tendon. But the 35-year-old former Triple Crown winner has always been what Ferrer describes as “a 7:30 guy,” a reference to the early time when Cabrera usually clocks in at the North Miami location of Bommarito Performance Systems, a training facility used by dozens of professional athletes.

Showing up has always been Herrera’s biggest challenge. Two years ago, he joined Cabrera, Kansas City Royals catcher Salvador Perez, and other Venezuelan players for one week of workouts at Bommarito Performance before the World Baseball Classic. Herrera returned last year, but only for about three weeks in November.

The Phillies demanded a change this winter. At the end of last season, in which Herrera was among the best players in baseball for six weeks before fading into oblivion for four months, Kapler publicly criticized his conditioning and challenged him to “come into camp in better shape in 2019 than he came in 2018.” Kapler doubled down last month, saying he will “accept nothing less” than Herrera reporting to spring training “in the best condition of his career.”

To Ferrer, achieving that goal required greater commitment from Herrera. And so, almost every day for seven weeks in November and December, he encouraged Herrera to join Cabrera in the 7:30 a.m. workout group, which also included free-agent shortstop Alcides Escobar.

“Miggy’s so consistent and trains so much — he’s pretty much ‘been there, did it’ his whole career — that it helps hold each other accountable," Ferrer said. "If one of them doesn’t show up, they’re getting texts from five other guys: ‘Why aren’t you here?’ Odubel was in consistently the entire time. Our main thing was just to work on his linear speed, his change of direction. He also wanted to put an emphasis on losing weight, like a lot of guys do.”

Herrera weighed 223 pounds in early November, Ferrer said. When he left to spend the holidays in Venezuela, he was inching closer to 212, a weight that Ferrer said represented the Phillies' goal.

Herrera returned to Florida last week, and nearly a month before pitchers and catchers are due in camp, he reported directly to the Phillies' spring-training facility in Clearwater, per the team’s instructions. Team officials believe that indicates a renewed mental focus in addition to the physical improvements.

Ferrer’s program for Herrera included footwork and upper-body workouts on Mondays, linear speed and lower body training on Tuesdays, a recovery day on Wednesdays, lateral movement and upper-body exercises on Thursdays, and conditioning and lower-body exercises on Fridays. He described Herrera as “much more focused” than in previous years.

But the Phillies didn’t take Ferrer’s word for it. Kapler and new outfield coach Paco Figueroa dropped in on Herrera in early December and kept in regular contact with Ferrer for the last two months.

Herrera "was certainly inspired when I spent time with him,” Kapler said last month. “He was certainly committed.”

Said Ferrer: “I actually talked to Gabe a lot. He was just like, ‘Look, let’s get this guy into spring training in the best shape of his life.’ The best thing about Odubel, the positive, is that he came every single week, which was a little bit of the problem before. I was impressed with him. He did his runs, his lifts; he committed to everything. So, I think you’re going to see a better-in-shape, better-head-on-his-shoulders Odubel Herrera this time. I do believe that.”

The Phillies are betting on it. They signed the former Rule 5 draft pick to a five-year, $30.5 million extension before the 2017 season and have resisted trading him this winter despite his wildly erratic hot streaks and cold spells, the likes of which were never more evident than last season.

Through May 19, Herrera ranked with the top outfielders in baseball, batting .353 and slugging .558, with a .420 on-base percentage and seven home runs in 156 at-bats. From there, he batted .216 and slugged .365, with a .264 on-base percentage and 15 homers in 394 at-bats -- numbers that put him among the game’s worst hitters.

But general manager Matt Klentak prefers to look at Herrera’s overall body of work. In four seasons in the majors, Herrera has posted an OPS between .730 and .781 and played 138 to 159 games a year. Regardless of how Herrera gets there, he winds up in nearly the same place every year. And he has the ninth-highest OPS (.763) among regular center fielders since 2015.

“I understand it’s not game-to-game, week-to-week, month-to-month, and he is prone to both hot and cold streaks," Klentak said. "But, from year-to-year, this guy is producing at a pretty consistent clip.”

At this point, then, Herrera is, more or less, what he is. But Kapler believes improved workout habits can lead to better results.

“The only thing I don’t know is, when he went to Venezuela, did he continue on with his program?” Ferrer said. “I wouldn’t think he’s going to do that much work and then just shut it down when he goes home. Hopefully, everyone in Philly will be going to get the player that everyone’s been expecting.”

Based on initial reports filed by the Phillies' Florida-based staff, Herrera did keep up with his work. But when camp opens in less than a month, the Phillies will begin finding out for sure.