First off, let’s wish Odubel Herrera a happy birthday. He turns 25 years old tomorrow.
** Clap clap clap clap Happy birthday, Odubel! clap clap clap clap **
This is surely an extra special birthday for Herrera, who just a couple of weeks ago signed a contract that took him from “wealthy for his age” rich to “set for life” rich. Hopefully he’s bought himself something nice. And yet, even with all that new cash in his bank account, Herrera still probably agreed to a deal that was well below his value to the Phillies on the field.
But what Herrera sacrificed in dollars, he made up for in security. He was still years away for being able to negotiate with anyone but the Phillies anyway, and by signing a still-lucrative contract now, he was able to mitigate the risk of either a decline in performance or injury. No player ever gets his full value in a pre-arbitration extension, and Herrera was no exception. He’ll be a Phillie until at least 2021, making the kind of average annual value a player a quarter as valuable as he’s been in his two full seasons would make on the free market.
So with that last sentence fresh in your mind, it may seem strange that a player very similar to Herrera would look at that contract, call up his agent and declare “Get me that Odubel Herrera money.” But that, apparently, was Ender Inciarte’s approach, as he signed for the same five years and $30.5 million Herrera got just a couple of weeks prior.
The arguments for why Herrera signed his team-friendly deal are very similar to what you’d say about Inciarte, who is just 14 months older. Namely, he presumably wants long-term security now, and his value is heavily tied to his defense, which is likely only going to decline as he gets older.
So that begs the question: While both deals look very team-friendly, does either offer substantially more value than the other? Let’s dive into the numbers and see if we can reach any conclusion besides, “Nah, not really.”
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To start, we should note that while the guaranteed years and dollar figures in both contracts are basically identical, Inciarte’s deal includes just one team option ($9 million at age 32) while Herrera’s contract includes two options ($11.5 million at 30, $12.5 at 31). And while 2022 is a long way away, that extra year of team control is a factor in comparing these two deals.
Both players figure to be on the decline by that point, but even if they are half as valuable in those years as they were in 2016 (3.8 fWAR for Herrera, 3.6 for Inciarte), that’s still going to be very cheap, especially once you factor in inflation. That’s a point in favor of either the Phillies or Inciarte’s agent, depending on where you fall on the corporate admiration scale.
Now, let’s look into what’s made these two players successful major-league center fielders thus far. In that piece on Herrera’s contract I linked to above, I wrote a lot about the improvements he’s made as a hitter since being called up from the minor leagues. To summarize, after being a high-average, no-power minor leaguer, Herrera has been good at almost everything as a big-league hitter. He’s even shown the ability to adjust and improve, as he showed significantly more power in year two than year one, while also improving his plate discipline.
And if you believe the numbers, he’s made the transition from Double-A second baseman to MLB center fielder look easy, grading out as a positive defender in both of his seasons with the Phillies.
Inciarte offers a similar all-around skillset, if tilting a bit more toward defense than Herrera’s profile. By the metrics, he was probably the best center field defender in the National League last year. Despite having good defensive numbers, there are lingering questions about Herrera’s route-running and instincts in center; there are no such questions about Inciarte.
However, we already know that defense generally peaks early. That’s especially true for center field, which is more dependent on speed and range than any other position on the diamond — and few, if any, players get faster or see their range expand as they hit their late twenties. There’s a good chance we’ve already seen Inciarte’s best defensive seasons.
Still, Inciarte is not so much older that you would expect Herrera to significantly outperform him on defense at basically any point over these two contracts. Inciarte is the better defensive player now, and barring injuries, he figures to be the better defender when these contracts expire early next decade.
But while Inciarte has the advantage over Herrera on the defensive side, Herrera has thus far proven to be a more dynamic hitter. Though he’s had the same OPS+ (111) in both seasons as a big leaguer, Herrera made crucial adjustments that allowed him to maintain that productivity in 2016 after his rookie-year .387 BABIP predictably fell to a more reasonable number.
This past season, he walked more, struck out less, and hit for more power. He gave every indication that even if his defensive stats are as fluky as some think, he is still an extremely valuable bat to have patrolling center field. Combine that with the fact that he’s younger and presumably has more room for improvement than Inciarte, and it’s clear which of the two you’d rather send up to bat, all things being equal.
That is not to say that Inciarte is a bad hitter by any means. You know exactly what you’re going to get from him: few walks, very few strikeouts, not much power, and an incredible contact rate. He’s the stereotypical leadoff man in many ways — a guy who’s going to do whatever it takes to put the ball in play and then do damage with his speed when he does.
It’s just that Herrera offers more upside with the bat. He hits the ball harder and gets on base more often, and, in yet another area these two players’ skillsets overlap, Herrera had the exact same speed score (6.3) as Inciarte last season, so Inciarte can’t claim a clear advantage on the basepaths to make up for that lack of pop.
Because of his youth, his hitting ability and the improvement he showed from year one to year two, I think I personally would rather have Herrera for the duration of these contracts, and the numbers generally back that up. Factor in that extra team-option, and I think the decision becomes even more clear.
But if someone wanted Inciarte’s defense and reliability — something about Herrera’s meteoric rise still makes him seem risky — I wouldn’t put up much of a fight. Both are excellent players now signed to well-below-market deals that will take them through their prime years.
It’s rare that we see two players with such similar profiles sign for almost the exact same terms in the same offseason. Both teams look like they’ve gotten a steal, and it will be fun to watch them go head-to-head in the NL East for the next five-to-seven years to determine which club got the bigger one.
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Joe Clarkin is a featured writer for Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @Joe_Clarkin.