A Whiff of Failure: The Texas Rangers and Rougned Odor

Rougned Odor had a disastrous 2017. Yes, he played all 162 games, which is not bad, and he hit 30 homers, which is not bad, but everything else was really, really bad. His slash line (.202/.254/.397) looks like that of an aging backup catcher. He was dead last in wRC+, behind even Jose Peraza. Behind even Dansby Swanson. Behind even Alcides Escobar, for God’s sake.

There have been 258 player-seasons where the player was in the lineup for all 162 national anthems. Odor’s was the eighth-worst as measured by bWAR (-0.2); in only 11 of these seasons did the player “achieve” a negative number. Most of these were either light-hitting middle infielders (players like Neifi Perez, the guy Alcides Escobar wanted to grow up to be) or aging diplodocuses (diplodocii?) like Pete Rose, still munching palm fronds (but no longer hitting much) at age 41. There are, however, two young power hitters among those 11, the 22-year old Ron Santo and the 25-year old Matt Kemp. Those with stock in Odor, Inc. will look to these seasons for inspiration, but they provide only limited hope.

Take Santo first. His poor 162-game season (at age 22) came a year after his first full year in the majors in 1961, a successful year in which he hit 23 homers, had an .841 OPS, and a wRC+ of 119. In 1962 Santo seemed to (very uncharacteristically) lose the plate. His walk rate dropped, his strikeout rate spiked, and his power plummeted. He hit only six fewer homers in 1962, but his ISO dropped by 60 points. (One can almost hear the retrograde Cubs coaches of the time telling Santo he needed to swing more and to stop being so patient.) The power would return in 1963, and the patience in 1964. Santo would never again have a walk rate below 10% until his depressing denouement with the White Sox in 1974.

Kemp’s career followed a somewhat similar path. The Bison had already assembled two effective offensive years before taking a long stride backward in 2009, his age-25 season. A far different player than the patient Santo, Kemp was always more of a close-eyes-and-swing-hard type, but the Ks really overwhelmed him in 2009, as his strikeout rate jumped almost 5% to 25.4%, the highest he would ever have in a fully healthy season. Some of Kemp’s retreat, however, could also be attributed to bad luck, however; he had the lowest BABIP of his career that year. And to be fair, other advanced metrics are not as harsh on him as bWAR — fWAR gave him a nice round zero that year, while his wRC+ checked in at 106, hardly encouraging for a supposed power-hitting outfielder, but hardly disastrous either. Kemp would go on the next season and win the MVP not win the MVP because Ryan Braun would — by assembling similar offensive rate stats as Kemp in 60 fewer plate appearances while playing poorer defense. With Kemp coming off a severely disappointing season and Braun not yet coming off his steroid exposure, this is perhaps more evidence that MVP awards are indeed path-dependent.

But I digress. The topic for today’s class is Rougned Odor, and one can see some similarities between his career track and those of the two power hitters just described. He’s coming off two solid years as a regular, and at age 23 is still young enough to turn things around and build a successful career. His team, i.e. the people who should know the most about him, thought enough of him to keep running him out there day after brutal day for the whole season, never benching him or sending him down. Chicks and everyone else dig the long ball, and like Santo and Kemp he’s clearly got that.

Not all the auguries are pleasant, however. Odor lacks even Kemp’s patience: his walk rate went up in 2017 to a still Rhode Island-sized 4.9%. Odor has the eighth-worst walk rate among active major leaguers. Odor’s career strikeout rate of 20.9% is better than Kemp’s, but his strikeouts ballooned to over 25% in 2017. Only Javier Baez, who recently filed a patent application on the letter “K”, had a higher rate among qualifying second basemen last year. This could be a good thing, though, in the sense that both Santo and Kemp had strikeout spikes during their bad years, which they both corrected, and Odor could too. Like Kemp, Odor also had a bad BABIP year, 50 points below his career number. Some of Odor’s next season, assuming he plays, will be a dead cat bounce; however bad Odor is, he’s almost certainly not as bad as the 2017 Odor.

But the lack of walks leaves him little room for error. And his minor-league track record is less impressive than those of Santo or Kemp, both of whom amassed an OPS of over .800 in the minors, and proceeded to do the same in the majors. Odor’s career minor-league OPS is .784, which is good but not great. Admittedly the statistical analogy is imperfect, but Whit Merrifield OPS’d at .784 in the majors at the keystone this year, good for ninth among second-base qualifiers. Advanced metrics yield a similar conclusion: Odor had a 106 wRC+ in his best season (in 2016). That’s Yangervis Solarte’s career mark, placing YS 16th among active second basemen. The signs, such as they are, don’t point to a Santovian, or even Kempian career, but rather a player whose upside is that of a first-division starter rather than an All-Star.

The Rangers would probably take that. They don’t have an obvious replacement for Odor at second, with Jurickson Profar’s career now a tire fire and Willie Calhoun apparently not fit for purpose at second. Hanser Alberto? No, probably not. Odor has shown he can strike out less, and indeed in the minors his strikeout to walk ratio was just a little over 2:1, much better than the 5:1 rate he’s shown at the majors, a rate that has washed out players like Wilin Rosario and Will Middlebrooks. If Odor can hold or build on his gain in patience (albeit from a very low base), lower the whiffs back to at least his career rate, and get some balls in play to go his way, he can return to his playable previous form.

And yet. It wasn’t long ago that the Rangers looked like a hotter, humider version of the Dodgers: a very good major-league team that could stay very good for a very long time by retooling on the fly rather than having to tank and rebuild. Remember these guys?

Baseball America’s Top 10 Rangers Prospects, 2012

  1. Jurickson Profar
  2. Martin Perez
  3. Mike Olt
  4. Leonys Martin
  5. Neil Ramirez
  6. Cody Buckel
  7. Jorge Alfaro
  8. Christian Villanueva
  9. Rougned Odor
  10. Matt West

To use a colloquialism I am given to understand is occasionally employed in Texas, that’s a lot of dry holes. Perez has become a serviceable league-average starter. They turned Alfaro (and most of what is now the Phillies farm system) into Cole Hamels. They gave Matt West the opportunity to explore the ancient and mysterious wonders of Japan. But that’s about it. Odor may yet break out and become a superstar — the Matt Kemp future is not completely out of reach. But the Rangers’ more achievable goal is to turn Odor into Yangervis Solarte. There are, to be fair, worse possible outcomes.

But, once upon a time, there were also better ones …

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