Odubel Herrera’s star turn is no surprise to the Phillies official who discovered him

Day after day, week after week, the sun rises and sets. And somewhere in between, Odubel Herrera reaches base.

It has been this way now for 41 games — four at the end of last season, 37 at the beginning of this one. Only three players in Phillies history have had longer on-base streaks than Herrera, and two — Mike Schmidt and Chuck Klein — are in the Hall of Fame.

But Jorge Velandia has seen this from Herrera before.

Velandia was the general manager of La Guaira, a winter ball team in Venezuela, when Herrera played for him in 2014. In 58 games, Herrera batted .372 with a .432 on-base percentage, 14 doubles, three triples and six home runs. He was named MVP of the Venezuelan Winter League.

And so, as Herrera turns into one of the finest all-around center fielders in baseball right before our eyes — a development that even Phillies first-year manager Gabe Kapler labeled “an incredibly pleasant surprise” — Velandia might be the only person who can get away with saying he expected this.

“What he’s doing right now,” Velandia said by phone Monday, “It’s something that we’ve always thought he was going to be capable of doing. It was just a matter of time.”

Herrera, 26 and in his fourth big-league season, had reached the double-A level with the Texas Rangers in 2014 when they left him unprotected in that winter’s Rule 5 draft. Velandia, a special assistant for player personnel with the Phillies, recommended they scoop him up. Never mind that Herrera was switching positions from second base to center field. Or that the Phillies would have to keep him on their big-league roster throughout the 2015 season or offer him back to the Rangers.

“I told all our staff, our front office, ‘Listen, this is the guy that we need to pick.’” Velandia said. “I said, ‘I wouldn’t be surprised if he ends up being an everyday player within the first year because of his ability to hit.’”

That’s exactly what happened. Herrera played 147 games for the Phillies in 2015 and batted .297 with a .344 on-base percentage. A year later, he was an all-star. He looked like a solid player, if not one who seemed more concerned with the style of flipping his bat than the substance of hustling out of the box.

But there was also a sense that Herrera was as good as he was ever going to get. Kapler even left him out of the opening day lineup because he didn’t like the matchup against Atlanta Braves starter Julio Teheran.

Seven weeks later, Herrera’s name is written in permanent marker in the No. 3 spot on the Phillies’ lineup card. At .360, he’s the National League’s leading hitter. He ranks second in hits (50), third in on-base percentage (.430) and fifth in OPS (.992).

You can explain Herrera’s improvement any way you want, including the fact that he has swung at only 32.5 percent of pitches out of the strike zone, down from 40 percent last season. To Velandia and Phillies pro scouting director Mike Ondo, Herrera has simply grown up after learning on the job for the past three seasons.

“He’s maturing as a player,” Ondo said. “He came to Philadelphia straight from double-A, went right to the big leagues and more than held his own. But he’s in Year 4 now and just has confidence that he belongs and that he’s a good player.”

Velandia never doubted it. Before he left Venezuela to attend the 2014 winter meetings, he told Herrera, “I’m going to pick you in the Rule 5 draft. Don’t tell anybody.” Ondo still recalls Velandia’s insistence that the Phillies take a flier on Herrera.

“Jorge basically said, ‘I’m going to bet you right now that this guy will hit,’” Ondo said. “What he was able to piece together was what Odubel looked like in the outfield. We hadn’t seen him at any point in the outfield. The fact that he was playing it every day in Venezuela and Jorge was right there, that really helped solidify whether he could stay out there.”

Herrera still has 15 games to go before he matches Mike Schmidt’s franchise record of reaching base in 56 games in a row. And even if he gets there, it won’t be comparable to Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak. Herrera has gone hitless eight times during his streak but reached base instead via a walk or hit by pitch.

But you don’t get on base every day for almost seven weeks by accident. Clearly, Herrera is reaching a peak that is higher than anything he did in his first three seasons in the majors.

“Openly, you never say, ‘Oh, this guy is go to go out’ — unless they’ve done it for several years straight — ‘and he’s going to hit .350 or have an OPS off the charts,’” Kapler said. “Did we think he was a very good offensive player? Yes. Does he have a track record of being a good offensive player? Yes. So is this some sort of shock? No. But certainly it’s been an incredibly pleasant surprise.”

Unless you were in Venezuela in the winter of 2014-15.

“He’s out to prove to the world that he’s a good player, man,” Velandia said. “It’s beautiful to see him growing and becoming one of the best players in the big leagues.”

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