Watching an All-Timer Emerge
I am convinced Rougned Odor could not have played in the 1950s.
Not for the reasons you might think – despite their paucity, there were Latin players in baseball, somehow allowed to skirt around the bigoted rules that kept black players out of the first 75+ years of the game’s history.
Not because of his size. At 5’-11″ and 195, Rougned would have reasonably been considered, much like Joe Morgan a quarter-century later, the strongest pound-for-pound player of his day. (He’ll soon reach that ranking in 2016, but that’s for later.)
No, the thing that would have kept Rougie from playing would have been the paucity of batting helmets. What helmets there were – and most were worn by revolutionary teams like the Dodgers and Pirates – were little more than caps with reinforced liners. This would never have done for Rougie. His exceptional hip rotation would have been staunched. His speed out of the box would have been broken – no Ranger this side of Delino Deshields leaves the box thinking extra bases more often than Rougie.
And his mad dashes around the bags would have seen him out by 10 feet at second. Why?
Because there were no flaps on the helmets. And with Rougie’s ears, he would have essentially been running with windsocks on his head.
Alas, aerodynamics would have destroyed one of the great potential careers. What a line drive up the box did to Herb Score’s amazing pitching, what wet grass did to the amazing Steve Dalkowski’s 103+ MPH arm, and what outfield walls did to once-upon-a-time MVP Pete Reiser, wind resistance would have done to our dear Rougie.
Now that you’ve indulged that levity, I’ll try to reward you with a tip: bet high on those ears, because the brain between them was made for baseball, and everything below them screams perennial All-Star. For that reason, I’ll make this prediction—far from simply making us forget about Ian Kinsler, Alfonso Soriano, or Julio Franco, Rougned Odor will do something far more.
Within a year, he’ll be considered the best all-around second baseman in baseball.
By 2020, he’ll have established himself as a perennial All Star.
Assuming we do what’s needed and lock him up after one of the most team-friendly contracts in baseball expires, by 2025 he’ll be light years ahead of any Rangers second baseman in history.
I would argue that the man has the hitting skill set for Cooperstown, if they play out, except that his position has been historically hard to elect – except for obvious candidates, and even with some exceptions there. Craig Biggio took multiple ballots, and he’s an all-time doubles leader and a 3,000-hit man and perennial all-star who showed he could play multiple positions at average to above-average levels, hitting everywhere.
Mentioning Cooperstown. Wow. Even I’m a bit taken aback, and I wrote it.
Why, you ask, am I so high on Odor? Because he passes the test of The Cardinal Way. Let me explain.
There is a great new book out that I highly recommend for any fan of building a team, called “The Cardinal Way”, by Howard Megdal. I’ll disclose I’m not fully through the book, but the first chapters are interesting because, in exploring the Cardinals history, he paints the picture of a franchise that I think reflects very much the Jon Daniels Rangers, albeit with a much deeper and more successful history, not to mention the fanbase-altering radio signal that was the 1940s-1960s KMOX broadcasts of Dizzy Dean to Harry Caray.
But the crux of the Cardinal way is not wholly traditional baseball – scouting, “feel” for the game, good body, and intangibles. Nor is it purely analytics – measurables, metrics, and anything that can be plugged into an algorithm. Rather, it is a team that has endeavored to perfectly balance the see-saw of baseball trends between the old school and the new. The Cardinals first began embracing data – as far back as the late 1960s, with an ahead-of-the-curve peak with Whitey Herzog in the 1980s (with the exceptions of Earl Weaver in Baltimore and Tony LaRussa in Chicago). But they never lost sight of the intangibles, as measured by their continued reliance on sacrifices and stolen bases, despite the analytics community’s constant refrain hat these are as antiquated as Buckingham Palace décor.
I tell you all that to tell you this: however you want to measure him, Rougie stands out.
Let’s give the new school its due first and look at the man’s analytic breakdowns. Here’s Rougie’s 2015, both in total and then, later, his after his career-changing demotion to Round Rock and recall from the minors in mid-June:
2015 Season Totals:
He had too few plate appearances to qualify for season leadership (502 required, 470 for Rougie), but if you look past that technicality, here’s where he sits among all 2B in baseball: First in triples and slugging percentage, 7th in HR and OPS, 16th in Total Bases, and 12th in RBIs. The reason I list “counting statistics” rankings – HR, 3B, RBI, TB – is because of how impressive they are given than he was really only a partial season player. But one of the ratios I like about Rougie – because he drives the ball very well – is that he had a fly ball percentage of 39%. Rougie is at his best hitting the ball into the gaps and elevating. Don’t get me wrong – with his heavy bat and aggressive pull stroke, he gets great topspin to take balls hard through the infield, but you want to see backspin and drive from him. That’s what we got last year, and that’s the approach he learned to take in his AAA demotion last year. Here are his June and post-All Star Game totals, and rankings:
June 15 onward:
Post-All Star game, he led in isolated power and was 2nd in slugging and 6th in OPS, while 1st in triples, 3rd in HRs, 10th in 2B. He was 8th in WAR. What I like, again, is that he’s 2nd in fly ball percentage (just over 42%) and ranked at least slightly above average in most defensive metrics, coming in as a +WAR player.
The other thing I love about this is how balanced Odor is lefty vs. righty starters, which is key when he’s a huge contributor in a lefty-heavy lineup. Just how balanced is shown below:
His spray charts show us what we’d expect, but that’s a good thing: his hits, especially for extra bases, are largely up the middle and pull, but he’s distributed enough to avoid too much of a shift. His best approach comes when he stays back and spins hard on the ball, and we see the result here:
The most important stat for Rougie, on defense, is going to be consistency. He plays beside a good 1B, but Moreland’s value is in digging throws, not digging grounders to his right. Moreover, he’s playing alongside a SS who is not aging well, in terms of range and especially arm. The more ground he covers, the more he makes up for those two areas. The unfortunate lasting image of Rougie’s defense in 2015 will be a bloop single over his head that should have been caught in THAT 7th inning versus Toronto, but that wasn’t indicative of 2015. For the 2nd half, Rougie’s defensive metrics were basically a push.
In almost every metric measured by Fangraphs, he was average, and in overall defensive value, he was 13th. The two things he can improve upon the fastest, with the most focused work, will be fundamental (footwork) and intangible (reading hitters). The former is a product of repetition. The latter is really based on games played, but he could do worse than bending Mark McLemore or Mike Young’s ear, especially with the latter being a recent retiree. Not to mention the guy playing just to his right every day, once his confidence is back; the question wouldn’t hurt that confidence, to be sure.
(A primer, for anyone who wants it: Reading the hitter is an choice skill for every player, especially the guys up the middle. You want to study a master, watch Cal Ripken. Knowing the hitters tendencies, the pitch being thrown, and the situation, you can shift your weight one way or another. It’s a lot like a hitter guessing, but the more subtly done, the better. Hitters like Tony Gwynn and Rod Carew would use it against you if you broke early, but 1) nobody alive is either of those two, in terms of bat control and 2) if you get a reputation for doing it, offenses can use it against you, so subtlety is key.)
So enough with numbers; what about what our eyes tell us? Well, here’s the scouting report on Rougie, from a couple years ago, both on offense and defese (note, when he was 5’11, 170 and a SS, so with muscle added to 195 and different position, his range is down a bit from this):
The Scouting: Odor is a hitter, first and foremost. His bat-to-ball skills are well above average and he combines that with impressive bat speed and a plan at the plate. With “elite baseball instincts” Odor projects to be at least above average with the stick, with a chance for plus-plus potential. At a listed 5-foot-11 and 170 lbs., Odor has some surprising pop in his stick and can drive the ball into the gaps with ease. The over-the-fence power isn’t quite there yet, but at physical maturity it could play to league average.
On defense, Odor has the tools to handle shortstop, with an above-average glove and enough arm to make it work, but at times he can be a little wild with his actions and make it harder than it needs to be. Second base seems to be his best position going forward (he’s played there all year in Double-A). The plays will be a little easier there and he can slow the game down, and that is where he’ll be starting in Texas.
So what jumps out? Well, first is the “elite baseball instincts” usage in that second sentence. When you hear that from guys paid to scout for a living, it carries weight. Last season, he was everything and then some in terms of offense after being recalled, with more power than this projects. On defense, I’d say he was basically what you’d expect. What you want from Odor is a lot more Craig Biggio, less Robbie Alomar. He won’t win (or need to win) Gold Gloves. You just want consistency on the plays he should make and some surprises here and there.
The guy to his right still has the range to cover for some of what he won’t, especially as long as Beltre shades towards the hole with the frequency he does. That’ll cut back as the months and years go on, and Elvis will shift further towards third. That’ll be where reading the hitter comes in. By the time we see Gallo at 3B full time, Rougie should be established at 2B and able to team smartly with Elvis or whomever is holding down shortstop.
As the Indians of the mid-1990s can tell you, the key is not a great at one position or the other, but how well one compliments the other. Strengths and weaknesses balancing out make a huge difference.
I can’t honestly say whether Rougie goes better to his left or his right – although with his being a former SS, I trust his backhand to be above average up the middle. The key is, if he’s a break-even defender, he can be a perennial all-star, first backing up Robinson Cano and then taking over the starting spot on his own, assuming he’s not battling Jose Altuve every year – and that’s a big assumption, although it’ll be a push for the Astros to lock up the triumvirate of Carlos Correa (a lock to happen), Altuve (likely, although at a premium by 2018) and George Springer (probably the odd man out if they had to decide today).
Here’s a shot I love to watch because the mechanics are almost perfect, as the result shows. Rougie’s weight is back and centered over his body, ready to be launched AGAINST, not onto, the front leg, but none of the forward shift has started yet. The bat is at launch position and set up for a slightly upper launch angle, versus a flatter angle at this point on a snapshot in May, where he was getting long trying to keep the bat in the zone longer than is actually possible. From here, his leg is going to come down and the weight will go against it, meaning he’ll rotate hard against it (again, not on it) with the pivot point the center of his body, not his back leg, which you’d have seen early in the season when he was trying to stay back so long he literally robbed his lower body of power. (I’d pull a screenshot, but nobody keeps highlights of weak grounders to 1B on 1-1 counts in April).
Here’s the exit velocity readings, courtesy StatCast:
As you can imagine, any exit velocity over 110 MPH is really saying something, as it means the ball is leaving considerably faster than it came in. That, as I covered in an earlier column on Ian Desmond, is the Rosetta Stone for finding great hitters.
You’d actually like to see the launch angle a bit higher. If this were at 20 degrees, rather than 16, it’s 400 feet. Twenty-five might get you 450. But the key is, he had enough power to turn a David Price fastball into a line drive that had to have looked like a flyout at best, double at worst, but sounded like something off Giancarlo Stanton’s sweet spot.
It shouldn’t surprise you that, according to Statcast leaderboard, no second baseman hit a ball harder than this all year.
Let me break down what I love about this swing: In the video, or mostly any Rougie AB, you’ll see that classic twirling of the bat, but you’ll see he slows to a coil before the pitcher breaks the set position. He gets to the leg kick early and keeps it up for longer than most hitters that kick, but his extreme balance and leg power (much of that 195 pounds is below the waist) allows him to do this and get tremendous lower body drive. Here’s a shot of this sequence:
Here you can see his weight starting to shift back, but again, as earlier, there’s an angle in his back leg, as he’s ready to launch off it, rather than sit on it. You can tell this because his head and hands are still well forward of his back foot, centered as part of the pole running down through his body that he’ll rotate perfectly against:
This is a great shot to show predictive hand action. From a high launch angle, he’s using a lower hand position and strong wrists and forearms to rotate the bat from a lower angle into a 15-25-degree launch angle. In order to keep from shattering the bat, he has to get tremendous hip rotation from here. In order to keep from popping up, he has to bring his top hand through with a strong left forearm slamming the bat barrel for what “feels” like a level or downward swing, but what the upper body and hip rotation combined with the starting position will make almost ideally up. Because of that rotation and hand speed/strength, this is neither a broken bat nor a popup. It’s a bomb.
(As an aside, this is the “translation error” that I think happens between the “rotational” school of hitting endorsed by Ted Williams and the “off the front foot” hitting school of Charlie Lau. They both can see all they want to see in identical swings, with identical results, and both are right. It’s a translation error. But that’s for a book, not a column. Just trust me. Genius is genius, and both Lau and Williams are geniuses of hitting. Are you really going to argue about who has the better artistic process, Michelangelo or Da Vinci, when your comparison cases are the Sistine Chapel ceiling and the Mona Lisa? Just enjoy the fundamental greatness between the two. The results are beauty. Thus is hitting. The fundamentals are the same, and the end result, when done well, is beauty. Williams and Lau would BOTH see their fundamentals in Rougie. I know, because I’ve studied each of their books – all of them, by both men – and there are fundamentals of both all over these screenshots.)
So we see Rougie about to rotate into position.
Now, this is almost a perfect power shot.
His weight HAS to be centered at contact, not on his front or back foot, because he’s not overly balance on either. He’s almost throwing himself into the ball, with his belly button to bat barrel the center of a powerful lever spinning off against his front leg.
The classic finish is pure Rougie – pivoted, leaning off the back foot, hands like a golfer having just nutted a drive dead off the screws:
Put it all together, and you get this beauty:
String together enough swings like this, and you’re talking All-Star. String together enough of those seasons, and you’re an all timer.
The last half of 2015 made me a believer in Rougned Odor for a Rangers All-Time team, and then some.