Wednesday, August 13, 2014


It's precisely because baseball is as close as it gets to a pure meritocracy that the game's marginal players are so interesting. And that brings us to the saga of Elian Herrera, who managed (against long odds) to get himself into the baseball record book a month ago.

Herrera, now 29, has only a little bit of pop in his bat, mostly doubles, and it took him five years to get out of Class A ball after being signed out of the still-burgeoning Dominican baseball factory back in 2003. The Dodgers didn't even put him into rookie ball until 2006. It became clear that Elian's only path to the big leagues would be as a jack-of-all-trades type, so the natural second baseman quickly volunteered his way into playing the outfield. Over the next four years, the Dodgers would move him all around, providing him with enough polish at six defensive positions to make him into a viable utility man.

He finally made it to Albuquerque (AAA) in 2012, and the Coors-like conditions at his home field proved more  than congenial: Elian hit .400 at home and found himself up with the big club in early May.
God bless him...Elian Herrera is STILL struggling out there
in the outfield.

For about thirty games, it looked like it might be a Cinderella story for Herrera, who was not only hitting over .300, but was getting on-base at greater than a .400 clip. But reality set in at that point, and Elian went into a major tailspin. He struggled in the outfield and at the plate, and the Dodgers sent him back to Albuquerque in early July.

After Elian spent another year there in '13, the Dodgers opted for Justin Turner as an upgrade at utility player, and Herrera found himself on waivers. Former Dodger organization man Ron Roenicke, now manager of the Brewers, tipped off his club that Herrera was worth a flyer, and so Elian got a chance to discover life in the Midwest.

That path of discovery began in Nashville, and has proved to be a veritable roller-coast ride so far. Elian has been up and down between Nashville and Milwaukee four times in '14, operating as the 26th or 27th man on the Brewers' roster. It was his most recent return to the big club, though, that permitted him to get into the record books.

Just how did he do that? Why, by slapping out five hits in one of his rare starts. On Sunday, July 13th--"getaway day" for the All-Star break--Herrera collected four singles and a double, scoring three times and driving in two as the Brewers clomped the Cardinals, 11-2. While there are likely close to three thousand players who've had five or more hits in a game (the total at Forman et fils, going back to 1914, stands at 2220), it's still an elite accomplishment for a major leaguer.

The wrinkle for us here is not just the mundane magic of a man on the margins. It's located in the spot in the batting order in which Elian managed his feat. Herrera was batting eighth in the Brewer lineup on  7/13 when he rapped out his five hits.

So that leads us to wanting to know just what the distribution of 5+-hit games looks like when we apportion them across the batting order.

And the answers can be found in the chart at left, where you'll see what likely makes perfect sense. There is a clustering effect at the top of the batting order, with a high preponderance of these games in the #1 and #2 slots.

Makes sense, yes? These guys are the likeliest to get a fifth or sixth chance to bat in a game. So even though they may not be the best hitters on their team--and often it's not close--the vagaries of small sample size distribution and the innate structure of the game works in their favor.

The chart also tells us that Elian Herrera is one of just fourteen players to slap out five or more hits in a game since 2000 while hitting eighth in the batting order.

Of course, it's even rarer to pull this off while batting ninth (just 20 times in one hundred years). And, prior to the DH, we are talking about virtually non-existent. It has happened a total of six times since 1914. The last pitcher to slap out five hits in a game? Mel Stottlemyre, who did it on September 26, 1964.

That's nearly fifty years ago. And it's likely to be another fifty before a pitcher does it again.

But let's not let that distract us from a kindly nod in the direction of Elian Herrera, who found a way to take advantage of his second chance in the big leagues.