The St. Louis Cardinals will have some interesting decisions to make at the trade deadline. Buy or sell or a mix of both? Trade impending free agents or add to them to chase a playoff spot? Add to the pitching staff or subtract from it? All these questions will need answering, but, to me, there’s a more interesting question.
What will the Cardinals do with Ivan Herrera?
The catcher is knocking on the door of the major leagues yet it seems that he has a difficult path to playing time in St. Louis and is on his final option year this season. So, with that said, I want to break down Ivan Herrera’s improvement, the blockers ahead of him, what the Cardinals could do, and why the time to commit to a decision is now.
Ivan Herrera’s Improvement
Ivan Herrera had modest numbers last year. A 111 wRC+ in Triple-A is solid but it’s nothing special. And it was mostly OBP-based, as Herrera had just a .128 ISO but a strong 13.7% walk rate.
I’m not taking anything away from Herrera’s season last year because it’s impressive anytime a catcher can be an above average hitter in Triple-A at the age of 22. And, to make it even more impressive, Herrera was good enough to earn his first MLB call up. Even though he didn’t get on the field much, he still tallied his first big league hit and made it to the show for the first time.
It’s hard not to consider that a successful season even if it wasn’t an outstanding one.
But now it’s 2023 and things are completely different. Ivan Herrera isn’t having modest success anymore, he’s flat out dominating and he only turned 23 years old less than a month ago.
The catcher is walking more, hitting the ball harder, and elevating the ball more and that’s led to a whopping 143 wRC+ so far this season.
Ivan Herrera’s Improvement
|Year||wRC+||BB%||K%||ISO||Avg EV (mph)||Max EV (mph)|
|Year||wRC+||BB%||K%||ISO||Avg EV (mph)||Max EV (mph)|
First things first, I want to thank my fellow VEB writer Adam Akbani for providing the exit velocity data. The numbers are one thing but the exit velocity data really proves that Herrera is indeed hitting the ball harder this year.
Exit velocity data also gives us a point of comparison to major league hitters. His 87.9 mph average exit velocity would rank in just the 26th percentile among major league hitters but his 113.3 mph max exit velocity would rank in the 88th percentile and would be among the the top 75 among all MLB hitters and the top 5 on the Cardinals (behind only Willson Contreras, Taylor Motter, Jordan Walker, and Juan Yepez).
The power is there for Herrera, he just needs to tap into it more frequently. And, while that part of his game still needs work, he’s made progress there too. In fact, Herrera has already hit 8 batted balls harder than his max exit velocity in 2022.
And that’s huge for him. He’s always been capable of drawing high walk rates and he’s typically made a lot of contact but his newfound power is a big reason for his breakout this year. And that’s not only because he’s hitting the ball harder but because he’s hitting the ball harder in the air.
The catcher has dropped his ground ball rate from 50.8% last year to 41.9% this year, and when paired with increased exit velocities, it’s no wonder Herrera’s hitting for more power.
I’m not going to belabor the point - Ivan Herrera is a much better hitter than he was last year. But that’s not the only area where he’s improved.
At Blogger Day, when I asked John Mozeliak about Ivan Herrera, he mentioned his improvement at the plate but he raved about his improvement behind it. In fact, the president of baseball operations said that he felt like Herrera didn’t understand the defensive demands at the major league level last year but has been aggressively learning and improving that part of his game. Mozeliak also noted that he’s getting great reports about Herrera from the coaching staff in Memphis and that the catcher has been taking a lead role in pitcher meetings.
So for those of you tracking at home that leaves us with a catcher who is raking and getting great defensive reviews and just turned 23 years old.
There are just 6 catchers in minor league baseball with an OBP above .400 and a slugging percentage above .500.— Blake Newberry (@bt_newberry) June 19, 2023
The only ones 23 years old or younger:
- Henry Davis (PIT, AAA)
- Andrew Cossetti (MIN, A+)
- Dalton Rushing (LAD, A+)
- Iván Herrera (STL, AAA)
That’s a valuable prospect. But what to do with him? That’s the question. Personally, I would love to see him get an extended look behind the plate in St. Louis but there’s a bit of logjam ahead of Herrera.
Willson Contreras is only in year one of a five year deal and though he has struggled this year, the Cardinals aren’t going to give up on him this early. Nor should they.
Contreras has a measly .291 wOBA which is 56 points behind his xwOBA (.347). Normally that could be considered poor batted ball luck but Contreras isn’t pulling many of his fly balls and, as I wrote recently, that’s the real cause of the gap between his wOBA and xwOBA.
So it’s not just bad luck that’s causing Contreras’s struggles but that doesn’t mean he’s beyond hope.
Contreras will see his numbers improve when he can start pulling his fly balls again and I don’t expect Contreras to maintain such a low fly ball pull rate over the course of the season.
Let me back up for a minute. Contreras is currently pulling just 11.3% of his fly balls, which is a career low by about 4.6% and that previous career low was set in 2020. If we remove that weirdly short season which gave us all sorts of wacky numbers, Contreras’s previous career low was 21.5%.
It’s clear that this year is weird, but what’s causing the weirdness? My first guess would be a diminished bat speed that’s preventing him from hitting the ball out front. And while I don’t have any numbers on his bat speed, we can discredit that theory by virtue of the fact that Contreras is still hitting the ball as hard as ever (91.6 mph average exit velocity) and hasn’t seen a jump in his whiff rate.
If Contreras’s bat speed was lagging a bit, I would expect him to have weaker contact as he hits the ball with less force and I would also expect him to whiff at more pitches as he would struggle to catch up to fastballs which would force him to start his swing earlier and then cause him to be fooled by breaking balls.
That’s not what’s happening as Contreras is posting the second highest average exit velocity of his career and the lowest whiff rate of his career.
I can’t pinpoint a cause as to why he isn’t pulling more fly balls so I don’t expect that to continue. And once he starts pulling his fly balls, he should see better results. With no major red flags in his profile, my level of concern is still low.
That means that the Cardinals shouldn’t be looking for a new starting catcher just yet.
There is another option, though. The Cardinals could work Herrera into the rotation and have him chip away at Contreras’s time behind the plate as he ages.
The problem with this is that the Cardinals seem to like what Andrew Knizner provides from a leadership, work ethic, and team culture perspective. If the team values Andrew Knizner providing those qualities in a backup role, then Herrera may be stuck in Triple-A.
This leaves the Cardinals with 4 options:
- Bench Contreras (or move him to DH/OF) and start Herrera
- Leave Herrera in Triple-A
- Replace Knizner with Herrera
- Trade Herrera
We can already take away the first option because of what I wrote above about Contreras. I’m not a fan of the second option either because there should be a sense of urgency when it comes to figuring out what to do with Herrera.
Options 3 and 4 make the most sense to me, and I’ll argue that the fourth option is the best way for the Cardinals to maximize their value.
Decision time is now. Or, rather, at the trade deadline. But I would like to see the Cardinals make a decision on Ivan Herrera this year.
The situation isn’t going to change much from now but what may change is Herrera’s value on the trade market. Right now, he’s a top catching prospect blocked by a 5-year deal given to Willson Contreras in the offseason and a backup catcher who is what he is at this point in his career.
He’s also a top catching prospect who is still demolishing a level that he’s young for. His trade value is higher now than it will be if he goes into a slump or gets called up to the majors and sits on the bench.
If the Cardinals hold onto Herrera beyond this year, he’s not likely to play much and he’ll be a year older. That means his value will go down. The picture ahead of him isn’t going to change and Herrera has shown that he’s outgrown Triple-A. It’s either time to give Herrera a real shot or trade him when his value is at it’s peak.
It would be a detriment to both him and the organization to do anything else.
There’s a real chance that Herrera turns into a solid starting catcher but it’s okay if he does that elsewhere as long as the Cardinals get something useful in exchange.
The best case scenario in my mind is a good and controllable starting pitcher who can add value this year and fill a gap next year. It would probably take more than Herrera to get that, but using him as the centerpiece of such a deal would be a great starting point.
The other option is to ride it out with the young catcher and let him supplant Andrew Knizner as the second catcher on the roster while creating a succession plan to take over starting duties down the road. This is only a good option if Herrera will get enough playing time to actually settle into a rhythm and get a chance to produce. I prefer trading him because I’m skeptical of that happening.
Plus, if Herrera is going to be a backup catcher for the next 2 or 3 seasons, I’ll argue that he could bring more value back to the Cardinals by being the centerpiece of a trade for an impact major leaguer.
The worst move that can be made is to wait it out and see how things develop. While this gives the organization the chance to pivot in the future if needed, it also potentially greatly limits the amount of value the team will get from Herrera.
Some players add value to the organization directly, by being on the field. Others add it through trade when they are blocked from getting on the field. This is the case with Herrera. It can be tough to watch a former top prospect have success elsewhere but sometimes that’s the best move.
As an alternative, I would be okay with the Cardinals committing to getting Herrera regular playing time next year but, considering that he’s on his last option year this year, he will need to be on the MLB roster anyway. So, the time to decide Herrera’s future is this year. He should either be a key part of the catching rotation next year or he should be dangled at the deadline to help improve the weaker parts of the roster.
Thanks for reading, VEB.