THE BEST HITTER in the Phillies' lineup has yet to find a home. Odubel Herrera's first two seasons in the majors have seen him log more than 50 plate appearances in five of the top eight spots in the batting order, the most memorable of them coming during that long stretch he spent batting leadoff over the first couple of months last season. But when the Phillies open the season in Cincinnati on Monday, Herrera will be occupying the slot where manager Pete Mackanin has long suspected his talents will one day ultimately play best.
"Basically, although the analytics show that certain places in the lineup come up more with runners on base or in key parts of the game," Mackanin said Sunday, "if we are in the bottom of the ninth inning and we need to win a game, I want a No. 3 hitter who with nobody on and two outs has the ability to hit a double or home run."
While Mackanin cautioned that the only thing definite about his lineup is its subjectiveness to change, the batting order the Phillies will roll out today at the Great American Ballpark is more or less the one he's had in his head since the final weeks of the offseason, with Herrera preceded by Cesar Hernandez and Howie Kendrick and then followed by Maikel Franco, Michael Saunders, Tommy Joseph, Cameron Rupp and Freddie Galvis.
For those curious about the upside of this Phillies lineup, it exists there in the center, where Herrera, Franco and Saunders at least have the potential to give the Phillies their best 3-4-5 since 2010, when Chase Utley, Ryan Howard and Jayson Werth were still in their prime. That year, they got OPS's of .805 out of No. 3, .841 out of No. 4, and .944 out of No. 5. Since, they haven't had a season in which even two of those slots finished produced an OPS of more than .800, and over the last three seasons not one of them has.
OPS of 3/4/5 spots in Phillies lineup:
Whether that changes this season might have more to do with the two guys behind Herrera. Saunders posted an .815 OPS and hit 24 home runs for the Blue Jays last season, but he finished the year in a horrendous slump, while Franco followed up a rookie half-season in which he posted an .840 OPS with a disappointing .733 OPS in 2016, albeit with 25 home runs.
The group's ceiling might exist in the power potential of Saunders and Franco, but Herrera remains very much on the upswing of his career. The 25-year-old's sophomore campaign produced significant improvements in his home-run, strikeout and walk rates, all of which were on display during his electric start to the season, when his presence atop the order gave the Phillies' lineup an identity that it had long lacked.
But in his last 55 starts, Herrera hit leadoff twice, spending most of his time in the two-hole before spending the last two weeks of the season in the third spot in the order. This was partly due to the ascension of Hernandez, but also due to a pronounced skid that Herrera entered into in late May that saw him hit just .237 with a .289 OBP over 49 games. In his first 47 games, he'd been the primary reason for the Phillies' surprising competitiveness, hitting .329/.439/.465 in 205 plate appearances.
"Early in the season he was taking a lot of pitches, he looked like he was more disciplined, and then, for whatever reason, during the course of the season he lost that approach and began to get a little more aggressive and show a little more power," Mackanin said. "But the key is, on a daily basis, you want quality at bats. You want somebody to be consistent on a daily basis. That's probably the last thing to come, especially for him, and I think he's gonna get it."
Herrera's splits by batting-order position aren't nearly substantial enough to warrant any conclusions. He hit third in 23 games last year, hitting 27-for-88 with three home runs, two doubles and a triple, a .307 average, .378 on-base percentage and .455 slugging percentage in 98 plate appearances. It was a small sample, with the vast majority of his work coming at leadoff, where he hit .285/.359/.417 with 21 extra-base hits, nine of them home runs, in 340 plate appearances.
He struck out once every 5.3 plate appearances and drew a walk every 10. At the three-hole, those numbers fell to once every 4.5 and once every 10.9. Same power, higher average, more strikeouts, fewer walks. But, again, small sample. In his first 23 games in the leadoff spot last year he hit .375/.462/.511 and drew 15 walks against 12 strikeouts. And the Phillies went 16-7.
As a rookie he posted a .677 OPS and 38 strikeouts in 118 plate appearances at No. 3 and an .845 OPS and 28 strikeouts in 118 plate appearances at No. 1.
Regardless of the numbers, Mackanin has long been an advocate of Herrera's swing. Look past the noise he incorporates into his stance and you'll find a smooth, level stroke that spends a significant amount of time in the zone. That's been Mackanin's point of view since Herrera first arrived. Now, he's hoping he'll make the No. 3 spot his home.