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The case for Chris Herrmann

The struggle has been very, very real recently for the Swiss Army knife of the roster.

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Arizona Diamondbacks v Los Angeles Dodgers Photo by Harry How/Getty Images
  • Chris Herrman’s last hit was three weeks ago, on July 18
  • His ongoing streak of 11 games without a hit is the longest by an Arizona position player since Sean Burroughs went a dozen in 2011. It’s Herrmann’s second 11-game hitless streak of the year.
  • Since that last hit, he is 0-for-22, dropping his season average to .157, the lowest for a season by any D-back who had 150+ PAs. And it’s not even close - the next worst is 36 points better, Stephen Drew’s .193 average from 2012.
  • With almost fifty games to go, Fangraphs WAR already ranks Herrmann in the top 10 worst seasons by an Arizona position player, at -1.1 fWAR. [bWAR is slightly kinder, at -0.9, but still has him in the bottom 25]

Certainly, fandom has its daggers out. There are three things which are certain in life: death, taxes and complaints on Twitter, whenever Torey Lovullo includes Chris Herrmann in the starting line-up. The following selection appeared, just during his last start, on Sunday afternoon:

Yet there is another side. Most obviously from a sabermetric view, his batting average on balls in play is just .167. No-one else on the team with even a hundred PAs has a BABIP below .294. That’s especially startling, because virtually no-one on the team has been blasting pitches like Herrmann. Among 14 regulars (min. 100 PA), Herrmann ranks third for hard-hit percentage, behind only Paul Goldschmidt (natch) and Yasmany Tomas. [For comparison, Ketel Marte, well-known as BABIP cursed, has a hard-hit rate of 31.6%, yet a BABIP almost 100 points higher, at .265.] When you barrel the ball up better than 40% of the time, it’s incredible that you only get a hit, one time in six.

Some on Twitter do appear to have noticed this:

Torey Lovullo is also in this camp, saying late last month: “I see him working counts. I see him getting his pitch. I see him having the type of at-bats we want our guys to have. Despite the fact the average is not what he wants, he’s not changing or rushing to get the at-bat over with. Typically what you see when guys are struggling offensively they think they have to swing at the first thing around the zone. He still is hunting for the pitch he wants which has been very impressive.” Though Lovullo did add a note of caution, saying that at some point the production has to be there. “It will come to us putting our best nine out there to win a baseball game.”

Part of the problem is - and I freely admit this - Chris sucks coming off the bench. In 43 games where he didn’t start, Herrmann’s OPS is just .376. And that’s actually an improvement on last year, where in 19 such games, it was .296. His career line as a substitute? .147/.221/.157, for a .378 OPS, in 114 plate-appearances. This is an issue, because as a utility player, you are inevitably going to be called upon to pinch-hit. But it does make Herrmann’s overall numbers look worse. As a starter this year, his OPS is .641, about which you’d expect from the last man on your bench - and that’s despite the horrendous BABIP (.161 as a starter).

So it’s ironic people complain when he starts - because that’s by far when he does best! But a slice of Herrmann’s value to the roster comes when he doesn’t even play. Because he is a third catcher, this means the team is able to pinch-hit for Jeff Mathis in the late innings. They are then able to insert Chris Iannetta behind the plate, and still have credible coverage in the event something happened to Iannetta. We’ve seen Mathis be lifted before the end of a game 14 times this season. And there really aren’t many players who have started at catcher, first-base AND both corner outfield positions for their team this year. That positional flexibility is worth having.

Herrmann is out of options, and that positional flexibility makes it very unlikely he would make it through waivers. But even his critics have relief coming: the expansion of rosters in a little over three weeks, will likely see the arrival of John Ryan Murphy, to give the team even more flexibility behind the plate. As we’re now in the fifth month of the season, it’s increasingly unlikely that Herrmann will be going away anytime. So it’s probably best for everyone, rather than wishing ill on him or Torey Lovullo, to hope Chris’s BABIP regresses to what it should be.