In a way, this is all Ian Stewart‘s doing. After spending the beginning of spring training on the shelf, he opened the season in abysmal fashion, hitting .074/.138/.074 through his first 29 PA. Of course, anything can happen in 29 PA, but Stewart was getting nothing done. He either struck out or hit the ball on the ground in 20 of his PA, and hit no line drives. He might have been out of whack, having missed the start of spring training, so the Rockies optioned him on April 19th. But by then he was hardly playing anyway. That’s at least in part because Jonathan Herrera was capturing Colorado’s attention.
During the spring the Rockies had a horde of options to play second base, though none was particularly inviting: there was Eric Young, whose tantalizes with the speed but not much else; Jose Lopez, who didn’t hit well enough to stay in Seattle; Ty Wigginton, whose defense at second is spotty at best, and Herrera. For some reason, Herrera didn’t receive a ton of consideration, despite his admirable fill-in while Troy Tulowtizki was on the shelf last year (.284/.352/.342 in 257 PA). The Rockies ended up starting Lopez at second, with something of a platoon with Wigginton and Stewart at third. But that changed pretty quickly.
In the team’s fifth game, manager Jim Tracy apparently decided that a change was in order. Herrera took over at second base, while Lopez started to take some at-bats away from Stewart at third. Since then Tracy hasn’t had to contemplate many changes. Herrera has been on a tear since earning the starting job, hitting .311/.433/.432 in his 92 PA. Clearly the power isn’t there, and it will probably never come. But he has shown superb discipline, which has led to not only his 16 walks, but also to better contact, since he’s laying off poor pitches.
Two aspects of Herrera’s plate discipline numbers stand out. First is his O-Swing%, 15.9%, which is fifth lowest in the league among hitters with 90 or more PA. Laying off those pitches has certainly helped him attain a 17.4% walk rate. I’m not completely sold that he can continue this O-Swing%, even though swing rates become reliable at this point. But if he can keep up something close to it, he’ll help himself out plenty this season.
The other standout is his contact on pitches within the zone: 96.6%, which is good for 14th highest in the majors. I’m not sure this is a necessarily good thing, since there is such a thing as bad pitches within the zone — i.e., each hitter will have trouble with certain pitch types and locations, even if they’re within the standard strike zone. But the ability to make contact on those pitches, combined with the ability to lay off pitches out of the zone, will likely lead to more solid contact. That’s what Herrera is experiencing now, as his 23.8% line drive rate puts him near the top of the league.
Of course, it is unrealistic for a light-hitting second baseman to maintain a .433 OBP. There will be a certain level of regression to come for Herrera as we get deeper into the season. How greatly will it affect his numbers? For that we can look to his .344 BABIP and say that it will tumble and he will suffer because of it. But we need a benchmark, something that we can regress it to. Using an xBABIP calculator, he currently profiles for a .319 BABIP. If we substitute that for his actual BABIP, he’s left at .284/.402/.405. That’s still far better than many second basemen in the league, and would certainly keep Herrera entrenched at second base.
(At this point in the season the difference between a .344 and .319 BABIP for Herrera is two hits, just so I’m absolutely clear about the fickle nature of this sample. To be further clear, I’m not saying this is what we should expect from Herrera going forward, but rather what his numbers would look like, approximately, if his actual current BABIP equalled his current xBABIP.)
From a pile of mediocrity has risen not a star, but a serviceable player for the time being. Herrera is no one’s definition of a world beater, but when given the opportunity he has taken full advantage. It started last year when he took over at second base during Tulowtizki’s absence, and has continued this year when the Rockies suddenly had a spot for him at second. He won’t keep up this pace all season, but if he continues looking at pitches out of the zone and making contact on pitches within it, he’s going to make some noise in the NL 2B leader boards. The Rockies really couldn’t have asked for anything like this heading into the season.