Rougned Odor Has Changed, but Can He Improve?

As far as breakout years are concerned, Rougned Odor did a bang-up job in 2016. His 33 home runs as a 22-year-old regular gave his baseball card a hefty amount of pop, but not as much as he gave Jose Bautista during their infamous run-in at second base.

I am not generally a fan of fisticuffs on the field, but this incident was and remains a touchstone for the 2016 season. However, in becoming so it may have, to the casual fan at least, reduced what was a solid season for one of the league’s youngest players to no more than a single moment. But Odor has, in fact, done more baseball things since that fateful afternoon, and the past couple of seasons paint a fascinating picture of a player who may not have improved overall, but one who has changed a whole lot and could very well have his best years ahead of him.
Over the past five years, he’s become a fixture at second base for the Texas Rangers, never appearing in less than 114 games during that span and accumulating a total of 7.2 fWAR. Save for his abominable 2017 campaign, which resulted in -1.2 fWAR, his career, despite no shortage of deep slumps and hot streaks, has been shockingly consistent: he’s totaled exactly 2.5 fWAR in three of the past four seasons. His career has played out much more interestingly than those identical numbers suggest, however, namely in that each campaign has played out quite differently (part of the fun of WAR!). The most pronounced changes, however, have occurred since that breakout 2016.

Though he posted identical fWAR totals in 2015 and 2016, the latter year was his first with at least 600 plate appearances, which helped him make quick work of his career-highs in the fan-favorite counting stats, namely home runs (33), RBIs (88), and stolen bases (14). A healthy-yet-not-unsustainable .297 batting average on balls in play (BABIP) anchored a solid .271 batting average, and 70 extra-base hits made for an impressive .502 slugging percentage. A paltry 3% walk rate kept his on-base percentage below .300 (.296), which limited his overall offensive production and kept his wRC+ at 103 (the league average is set at 100.) The 6.1 offensive runs above average remain a career high, but despite being 2.5 runs better than average on defense in the year prior, his -3.5 mark in 2016 remain a career low.

The good outweighed the bad in 2016, especially given that being even a slightly above-average major league player during an age-22 season is an accomplishment in and of itself. However, whatever momentum had been built ground to a halt in 2017, when Odor’s offensive production fell off a cliff. He managed to reach 30 home runs again, but his slash line was a horrendous .204/.252/.397, good for a .609 OPS that was sixth-worst in baseball (so was it actually “good for” anything? Probably not.). There was some bad luck involved as his BABIP dropped 73 points to a distant career-low of .224 despite making just marginally worse contact than the year prior, but the fact of the matter is that a player with a strikeout rate in the low-to-mid 20s (24.9 in 2017, 21.3 for his career) and a sub-5% walk rate (4.9 in 2017) is going to struggle if they can’t hit it where they ain’t. A not-insignificant improvement in the field (-3.5 runs above average to 2.7) did all it could to put some shine on his fWAR, but a -1.2 can only look so good.

Had 2017 not gone so poorly, another 2.5 fWAR season in 2018 may have felt like a bit of a letdown, but it was instead one of the few bright spots of a brutal 67-95 campaign for the Rangers that will likely be remembered only as the farewell tour of Adrian Beltre’s Hall of Fame career (which, for the record, is still a pretty memorable season). Playing in just 129 games all but ruled out any chance of once again reaching that 30 home run mark, but his 76 runs scored were notably just three shy of the 79 he scored in 162 contests the year prior. That can be chalked up in large part to the most notable difference in Odor’s 2018 offensive profile: an 8% walk rate. That still fell below league average for the season (8.5%), but it was a marked improvement for a player whose previous career high of 4.9% seemed like it could forever be an impediment to any potential improvement. As a result, he set a new career high in on-base percentage (.326) that was right around league-average. His 22-point drop in ISO (.193 to .171) was among the few regressions from the year prior, and it put him 60 points below the .231 mark from 2016 that was well above league average (.162) and had ranked 10th-best among second basemen.

My first instinct when noting this drop was to think that he had sacrificed some pop in his swing in exchange for a more patient approach, but that was not necessarily the case. As a matter of fact, his hard-hit rate of 45.2% and soft-hit rate of 15% were career highs and lows, respectively. His HR/FB rate fell a bit to 13.7%, which is a few ticks above league average but actually doesn’t reach the mark he has established for his career thus far (13.9%) and represented his lowest since 2015. His 39.3% fly-ball rate was the 38th-highest last year in a league being taken over by rising launch angles, which is once again still encouraging in a vacuum, but it also fell short of his career average of 40.2%. Perhaps those minuscule drops can account for the slight drop in his home run rate (he was still on pace to hit 28 in 600 at-bats), but all-encompassing stats like wRC+ account for that sort of thing. So what else was keeping his wRC+ of 97 at a below-average level?

I attempted to find an answer by peeking into his swing profiles with the help of FanGraphs. Ironically, it is his lack of swings that stood out most. After spending a couple of seasons hanging out with the league’s most frequent swingers, Odor dialed it back quite a bit in 2018:

The assumption that I made when seeing this graph was that Odor had become a more patient and selective hitter, but looks can be deceiving. When checking to see if the swing rates in and out of the zone (Z-Swing% and O-Swing% respectively) had improved, the result was disappointing:

His overall Swing% was lower, his Z-Swing% was lower, and his O-Swing% was lower. Odor wasn’t necessarily swinging at better pitches, he just wasn’t swinging, period. In fact, the largest drop from 2017 to 2018 came on pitches in the strike zone, which he swung at 9% less often (73.6% to 64.6%)! While that is a somewhat troubling trend, it doesn’t do much to explain this decline. The less-frequent swinging had no discernible correlation with his contact rate stats, as you can see below:

When combined with the previously noted increase in hard-hit rate, it seems that Odor’s swing profile is not as much a culprit as it is simply a philosophical adjustment that has resulted in marginal change.

Fortunately, a different FanGraphs tool was able to draw the curtain a bit on what exactly went gone wrong: pitch values. Odor’s effectiveness against most pitches has only fluctuated slightly since 2016, but that is not the case for the four-seam fastball:

After logging 9.7 runs above average against the four-seamer in 2016, Odor dropped 13.9 runs all the way to -4.2 the following season. His values dropped for each pitch except the splitter in 2017, but the non-four-seam pitches improved by an average of 4.1 runs come 2018. Meanwhile, what was once the most dangerous pitch to throw him had become the one he struggled against most at -4.0 runs.

To add some color to that, his slash line against the pitch in 2016 was .295/.333/.665. That is quite good! It pains me to not be able to round the resulting OPS to 1.000, but the .998 figure is impressive nonetheless. At the conclusion of the 2018 season, his slash line sat at .240/.336/.372, and his OPS at a much less imposing .708. His slugging percentage was a whopping 293 points lower, falling from an elite number to a well-below average one that all but pacified his status as a power threat.

There is not one definitive stat that explains this drop, but the following combination does as good a job as any I could find. His fly-ball rate is almost a full eight points worse in 2018 than in 2016, going from 47.9% to 40.2%. Most of those percentage points were moved to ground-ball rate (31.4% to 36.3%), which is a definite detriment to his power potential (there is plenty of reading around on why exactly that is, but Jeff Sullivan’s piece on Francisco Lindor is a good place to get the gist) despite the slight uptick from 20.7% to 23.5% in line-drive rate. His HR/FB rate predictably fell from a wicked-but-unsustainable 25.4%, but the resulting 9.8% still fell well below his career mark of 16.7%. The cherry on top can be found in his swing profile against just the four-seam fastball, specifically in his O-Contact% and Z-Swing%:

Odor swung at fewer four-seamers that were outside of the zone by a fair margin, which is not inherently bad. What is bad for his production is a sizable leap in contact made on those same out-of-the-zone pitches, since that contact tends to be weaker on projected balls than strikes. With that said, it is just as troubling that Odor swung less frequently at fastballs in the strike zone, limiting his ability to take advantage of opportunities to make hard contact and deal major damage.

I’ve written “2.5 fWAR” a lot already, but it has been awhile so I’ll bring it back one last time. Odor reached that mark in 2018 despite contributing -1.8 runs above average on offense. Where did those wins above replacement come from then? The field, of course! The aspect of the game that had long anchored Odor’s overall value instead buoyed it last season. His 8.5 defensive runs above average was fourth-best among qualified second baseman, and his 6.9 UZR ranked third. A deeper dive into how his defense has improved is warranted but that deserves its own article, which could accompany the work SportsDay’s Evan Grant has already done on the subject.

As encouraging as those defensive metrics are, the question of whether Odor’s hit tool will ever again clock in at an above-average value looms over his future prospects. A lot has changed for him on offense in a short amount of time, but if the best of all of his rate stats were able to click into place at once, he could very well have another breakout. If they never do, and his defense stays the course, he will still very likely have many productive seasons to come. That 2016 bout with Bautista seems like it was ages ago, but it is easy to forget that Odor is still just 25 years old. He is without question a talented ball player, and if the best parts of his career can ever coalesce, he could very well wind up with a couple of All-Star appearances to his name before he calls it a career.

This article also appears under the same title at Mike’s blog, “Words by Delayo.”

Mike is a contributor to The Hardball Times, FanGraphs Community Research, and SB Nation's The Bird Writes.

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