Romancing the Rangers Rougned Odor: Who’s the real Roogie?

After an abysmal 2017, can Rougned Odor rebound and become the cornerstone player the Rangers need him to be?

As a child, growing up in Texas, I spent most of my time either playing baseball, or “playing” baseball; the latter, meaning, my friends and I would assume the identities of professional baseball players, and presume to know what their day-to-day lives looked like.

Mostly this meant staging fence-scaling robberies and diving catches in the park, playing home run derby, and enjoying a “postgame soak” in the rain barrels (“hot tubs”) my friend Paul had set up next to his home. We’d hop in and say things like, “Boy, Junior, you saved the game today with that catch at the wall,” and, “Ah, no way Kenny, not the way you were throwing!” (Being that I’m left-handed, I often chose between Kenny Rogers, Randy Johnson, and Tom Glavine, with the occasional “left-handed versions” of Nolan Ryan and Greg Maddux. Obviously.)

One of the most wonderful things about baseball is how well it ages. Whether you’re eight, or eighty, baseball seems grow alongside you. When a person is young, baseball is all fastballs and home runs; it’s stolen bases and a brushback pitch and mischievous excitement that a little brew-ha-ha might be coming.

Baseball is marveling at Juan Gonzalez and Frank Thomas, and having real-life, actual nightmares about Albert Belle. Then, one day you’re older, and baseball  is suddenly OPS and WAR and SwStr% (yep, that’s a thing), and yet, even then, the magic of the game is still as evident as it ever has been.

A few days ago, I was talking to a friend about Rougned Odor, the Rangers, uh, “polarizing” second basemen. He said to me, “it sucks, because he’s every 12-year-old’s favorite player.” I chewed on that for some time — what it meant, what it implied, and whether or not it was a good — because my friend is entirely correct.

Odor has literally everything that a young baseball fan wants to see: a lightning-quick bat, loads of pop, and a boom-or-bust approach to hitting. Additionally, he is forever etched onto the Mount Rushmore of baseball brawlers, which surely scores points with the adolescent crowd. 12-year-olds want, by and large, a home run every at-bat. So, too, it seems, does Rougned Odor.

But what about to non-youths? What about the stats and analytics nerds? What about to Rangers fans who want to compete for pennants again? What kind of ballplayer is Rougned Odor, really?

Who is the real Rougned Odor?

Odor made his Rangers debut in May of 2014, just three years removed from signing out of Venezuela. In 114 games with Texas, the second baseman put up a respectable .259/.297/.402 line with 100 hits and 30 extra-base hits. Factor in that he was just 20 years old at the time, and it’s easy to see why the club was excited about his future.

His star seemed to brighten with each season, as in 2015 and 2016, his offensive numbers increased almost across the board. 2015 saw Odor raise his on-base percentage by twenty points, and his slugging by more than sixty — surely the kind of progress Texas hoped they might see.

2016 was a breakout season, as he slugged over .500 and led the Rangers in home runs (33), doubles (33), and total bases (304). His batting average rose again for the third consecutive year (up to .271), and though his OBP fell back under .300, Odor was rewarded for his big year with a six-year, $49.5 million contract — surely a steal for a 22-year-old second baseman with an OPS hovering around .800.

The Rangers were a playoff-caliber team, securing their young talent, and surely positioning themselves to compete for several seasons to come. Odor, undoubtedly, was at the center of all of this.

And then came 2017.

In a season during which he was supposed to be a crucial piece of the Rangers puzzle, Odor was anything but reliable. He played in all 162 of the Rangers’ games that season — perhaps the only bright spot — and hit a Mendozan .204, striking out 162 times and collecting just 124 hits (30 of which were home runs). His .252 OBP was dead last in baseball among qualified players, by a wide margin.

Add in the 19 errors at second base, and the -0.2 WAR, and it’s not a reach — at all — to say that Rougned Odor was the worst everyday player of 2017.

It seems strange to suggest that, right? That a guy who hit 30 homers and drove in 75 runs would be a bad player? After all, those numbers are more than Kris Bryant, Yasiel Puig, or Will Myers put up in either column last season. If I were, say, a home run-loving adolescent, I would have loved watching Roogie slam home runs and drop into that cool, nonchalant home run trot.

But, I’m not a kid anymore. Maybe I’m harder to please as an adult, I don’t know. But, I mean…a .204 average? With a .252 OBP? For our newly-extended second baseman, who is potentially blocking some young guys with potential? Eesh.

I should say, here, that I’m a die-hard Rangers fan, and an Odor fan, too. I don’t believe in booing my own players, and root for every Ranger, every time, in every situation. Odor hustles; he never dogs it, and he’s got heart. The truth is, though, that he just plain stunk last year, purely looking at the numbers.

Factor in that the Rangers are running out of chances with former top prospect Jurickson Profar (already a superior defender with better on-base skills), and it’s no sure thing that a couple of months of poor production in 2018 will allow Odor to stay in the starting lineup over an improved Profar. He was just that  bad last year.

Breaking down the numbers:

The primary issue, plain and simple, is that Odor just can’t seem to get his ass on base. If it’s not a hit, most of the time, it’s an out, as Roogie walked a whopping 33 times — five of which were intentional — in 607 plate appearances last season (Joey Votto walked 35 times last August, alone). Surely Votto is an unfair comparison, but the point is that only about 5% of Odor’s at-bat’s resulted in a free pass. Aaron Judge walked in nearly 20% of his plate appearances, to give you an idea of how great this disparity is.

Other players in Odor territory, OBP-wise? Alcides Escobar, Tim Anderson, Maikel Franco, Carlos Beltran, and Albert Pujols; or, in other words, a defense-first shortstop, a former top prospect still trying to find his footing in the majors, a similar player to Odor (albeit one playing a premium position and striking out significantly less), and two future Hall of Famers playing in and around their 40’s.

Not one of these players struck out more than Odor did, and every single one of them had an average significantly higher than his .204 mark. All except Beltran (a role player last year) had more hits, and in significantly fewer at bats.

Odor’s plate discipline also went out the window in 2017 — particularly with runners in scoring position. In 138 at-bats w/RISP, he struck out 43 times and carried a .188 average. The issue here isn’t just that he wasn’t able to drive those runs in; the issue is that his lack of discipline hindered his teammates’ abilities to pick him (and those runners on second and third) up. In an 0-1 count in 2017, Odor’s batting average sat at .167. At 0-2, it fell to .142. I believe the official term for this in baseball is “easy out.”

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How important is a player’s on-base percentage?

The harsh reality is that OBP is a fairly telling statistic. MLB history is littered with successful players who struck out a lot, or didn’t hit for power, or didn’t hit for average, etc. In one way or another, there are ways to offset particular deficiencies, given a player’s skill set. Defense goes a long way, as do stolen bases, drawing walks, situational hitting, and so on. Harmon Killebrew is a 60+ WAR Hall of Famer with a career .256 batting average; in fact, the longtime Twin never hit above .288 in any full season. What he did do, though, was get on base: Killebrew led the league in free passes four times.

Looking for a Hall of Famer with an OBP matching Odor’s career .287 mark? Sure — that would be Indians great, Bob Lemon…you know, the left-handed pitcher who won 208 games in his career? (The lowest OBP for a position player in the Hall belongs to another second baseman, Bill Mazeroski, at .299. Let the record state that Maz also won eight Gold Gloves in his career, no doubt aiding his very respectable 36.2 WAR.)

While it’s tough to argue that a player can not get on base, and still be an effective player, there are a handful of guys who have made a career for themselves with consistently low OBP. Mark Trumbo and Chris Davis come to mind in today’s game. I’ll let you decide for yourselves if those are guys you want to depend on when a game is on the line.

That’s the thing with Odor — it’s not as if he’s our ninth-best player. Certainly some teams can have a guy like him, plug him in the bottom of the order, and let the other guys make up for his failures. That Rangers, though, aren’t that team. Like it or not, the Rangers need Odor to be great. Or they need him not to cost them $50 million through 2023. Whoops.

For players — like Odor — to center their games around their power, some things have to come together for them outside of just launching baseballs into the seats. Baseball is a smart game; weaknesses are quickly exploited.

It’s not as if all power hitters have to hit for a high average, and hell, not all power hitters have to cut down on their strikeouts, either. People think that every power hitter should be Barry Bonds or something, and, my god, what a disservice to Barry Bonds to think of him solely as a power hitter. Barry’s power was somewhere down the line behind his plate discipline and bat speed. Watch this if you want a demonstration. (Keep in mind, as well, that this was a 40-year-old Bonds.)

We can look at a guy like Aaron Judge to make sense of this, and place Odor in proper context. Judge struck out 208 times in 2017, or, 46 more times than Odor did. On the surface, that’s a nod towards Odor.

But.

Judge was also second in the game in walks (127), third in OBP (.422), third in SLG (.627), and second in OPS (1.049). In other words: Judge was an absolute force at the dish, who also happened to be prone to the strikeout. These are the kinds of compromises a team is willing to make with a power hitter and, like it or not, this works in today’s game.

Some other hitters who struck out more than Odor: Chris and Khris Davis, Justin Upton, Trevor Story, and Giancarlo Stanton, to name a few. Are all of these players dominant the same way Judge was in 2017? Definitely not. Did all of these players produce at a better rate than Odor, in every standard offensive category? You betcha.

It’s that compromise, again. Ask yourself, honestly, how many of those players are players you’d want to rely on. (I count two, one of which I would only want if I had impossibly deep pockets.)

Guys like Odor are exciting, plain and simple. He’s the kind of kid anybody wants in their clubhouse; a little guy by baseball standards, fearless, with a big, big heart. He’s the first guy out of the dugout when a teammate crosses the plate. I like the kid.

Hell, spot the Rangers a nine-run lead, and I’ll enjoy every single (piss poor) at-bat of his, dead pull, swinging for the nine, each and every damned time.

But, romantic as these things are, that’s not baseball.

Baseball is one out and a runner on second, and Odor’s job is to put the ball in play (not send it into orbit). And, of course, not only does he not put the ball in play, but, often times, he fails to put the ball in play while swinging at three garbage pitches in a row outside of the zone. (Perhaps predictably, Odor swings at more pitches outside of the zone than almost anybody in the game. He also makes less contact on those swings. In other words: bad, and bad.)

Baseball is Rougned Odor needing to get on base so that Adrian Beltre or Nomar Mazara have an opportunity to produce runs, so that the Rangers can help their pitching staff, so that they have an opportunity to win ballgames, so that the they can make (and win!) playoff games. The goal is the same every year, right? To win that damned World Series.

For Rougned Odor, 2017 seemed mostly to be about Rougned Odor trying to do everything, all at once, every at-bat.

Is there hope for 2018?

It’s very plausible that 2018 will be a bounce back season for Rougned Odor. His .204 batting average was a major outlier compared to his averages at any point in his professional career, and even though he’s never shown promise of being a high on-base guy (his minors OBP was .329, which, in the Majors, would put him alongside guys like Kyle Seager and Jay Bruce), he certainly offers more promise than he gave last season.

Unsurprisingly, much has been said about Odor in these first few games of Spring Training. He’s seeing more pitches than one might expect, keeping his swings down, and — gasp! — taking walks.

Odor recently told Dallas sports reporter T.R. Sullivan, “I’m just looking to swing at my pitch…[T]hey didn’t throw me anything I like to swing at, so that’s why I took two walks, because I’m working on that. Just go there and hit my pitch.” Rangers skipper Jeff Banister said, similarly, that Odor is embracing a “one pitch, one zone” approach.

Certainly, he has nothing but time on his side, and nowhere to go but up. And I’ll be the first one to say that the ability is there, and then some. There are many, many great ballplayers whose game consisted of lots of swinging and missing. Names like Reggie Jackson, Jim Thome, and Alex Rodriguez sit atop the all-time strikeouts list in MLB history; I think anybody would be happy to have either of those guys anchoring their lineup.

Odor can be a productive, and maybe even great, baseball player for the Rangers — Jeff Kent’s 377 home runs (most ever by a second baseman) even seem within reach, assuming he can turn things around and be an everyday player for the next decade or more. “One pitch, one zone” is a wonderful thing to preach during Spring Training, but come June, during a 1-20 stretch, what then? Can he stay within his approach? Move the runner over from second? Go opposite field on those away pitches he’s previously been so dead set on pulling?

This week, the Texas signed Tim Lincecum to a major-league contract — an exciting move in some ways, and a frustrating one in others. Is he a “could be” signing, or a “has been” one? The excitement of moves such as these can wear off in no time at all (think Tyson Ross in 2016), and, come June or July, Rangers fans could find themselves looking for some excitement in the lineup on a day-to-day basis.

Certainly, a reinvented Rougned Odor could go far in assuaging an otherwise difficult season. It’s premature to say that this is a “make or break” season for him, but with the Rangers abundance of high-ceiling infielders (Profar, Andy Ibanez, Isiah Kiner-Falefa) seemingly ready to push up to The Show, time might be more of the issue than in year’s past for Rougned Odor.

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