Rougned Odor might not be an awful baseball player, but he has been historically awful this season. And he isn’t alone.
If I could put one memento from this home run era into the time capsule, it would be Rougned Odor‘s line from June 30.
Odor, the Texas Rangers’ second baseman and No. 5 hitter that day, homered in the fourth inning with a man on base. It was his 13th long ball of the year, which used to be a lot. In 1988, the most formative year of my own baseball fandom, 13 home runs would have led American League second basemen for the entire season. Homers might not be as rare as they used to be, but they’re still the most valuable thing Odor could have done 13 times.
In that game, he also grounded into an inning-ending double play with the bases loaded, flied out, popped out and struck out. According to run-expectancy estimates, Odor’s bat actually cost the Rangers runs on a day he hit a two-run homer. This was a very Rougned Odor accomplishment: He closed June with a .207/.244/.376 slash line. He had been baseball’s second-worst-hitting second baseman.
Things haven’t gotten much better or — if you’re counting dingers — much worse. Depending on your filters, Odor has demolished previous Worst Season With Most Homers fun facts. Before this season, no hitter had hit more than 26 homers with an OPS+ lower than 80 (which is to say, an OPS lower than 80 percent of the league’s average). Odor has already hit 29 homers, with an OPS+ of 67. He has actually been worse than that, since OPS undervalues OBP, and Odor seems to also undervalue OBP. His .208/.251/.405 line through Sunday, adjusted for his hitter-friendly ballpark, makes him the third-worst qualified hitter in baseball, according to FanGraphs. Eight starting pitchers have outhit him.
A rising home run tide tends to lift all boats, but a few archetypes become most emblematic of each era. In the live-ball 1920s, it was the superstars redefining offensive limits; in the steroids-fueled 1990s, it was the middle infielders with suddenly thick forearms doubling their career highs; in the analytics era of the mid-2000s, it was the super-patient plodders with terrible defense but keen eyes. This era’s avatar: the home run hitter who is terrible.
Odor — who might not actually be terrible but definitely has been this year — is my favorite example. There’s Mike Napoli, who has hit 29 home runs while batting .193/.285/.428. Maikel Franco has hit 20 homers with a .233/.286/.402 slash line. His teammate Tommy Joseph: 21 homers, .236/.287/.427. Matt Davidson: 25 homers, .223/.267/.462. Albert Pujols, arguably the worst everyday player in baseball this year, has hit 22 homers.
There is really no precedent for this routine merger of home runs and offensive incompetence. Three players come closest: In 1983, Tony Armas hit 36 homers with a .218/.254/.453 line. In 1986, Dave Kingman hit 35 homers with a .210/.255/.431 line. In 2003, Tony Batista hit 26 bombs and .235/.270/.393. The first two seasons came in low-offense eras, mitigating those OBPs somewhat. The last one was probably the most Rougned Odor season before Rougned Odor; Batista had a 73 OPS+.
But if seasons such as Odor’s have some precedent, the prevalence of them in the past two years is striking and makes for a fun game of Try Telling Somebody From 1988 That. …
- Try telling somebody from 1988 that the guy who led the National League in home runs (Chris Carter, 41 with Milwaukee in 2016) wouldn’t have a starting job the next Opening Day.
- Try telling somebody from 1988 that a hitter with 25 home runs in 112 games (Ryan Howard) would go unsigned as a free agent and end up in Triple-A.
- Try telling somebody from 1988 that an infielder with 34 homers in 142 career games, including 14 in just 165 at-bats this year, would be demoted to the minors by a fourth-place team and not called up again, not even in September. That’s Ryan Schimpf, who managed those 14 home runs while hitting just two doubles.
Or try telling somebody from 1988 that a good defensive second baseman with 30-plus home runs wouldn’t be named on a single MVP ballot or make the All-Star team. Since 1925, only 35 second basemen have hit 30 home runs. Last year, Odor joined Dan Uggla as the only ones to get neither an All-Star selection nor an MVP vote. And this year’s version of Odor is far worse than last year’s. The worst of those 35 second-base seasons produced 1.6 WAR, and the median 30-HR second baseman produced 5.9 WAR. Odor’s WAR this year is -0.2.
Here’s another way to look at it: If you were to take away Odor’s home runs, his batting line would be .166/.214/.212. If you were to do that for every hitter, every season since 1988, Odor would have the 14th-worst OPS by any player with 300 plate appearances in three decades.
He has company. Napoli this year is fifth-worst, Luis Valbuena and Davidson are 11th- and 12th-worst, Austin Hedges is 18th-worst, and Brandon Moss is 27th-worst. Six of the 30 worst non-HR-production seasons of the past 30 years happened this year. (Ryan Howard, last year, would have the very worst.)
Of course, we don’t take away their homers, which brings up the question of whether Odor’s absolute inability to do anything but homer is an indictment of those homers or a vindication of them. Twenty-nine of his plate appearances have single-handedly kept him in the majors. Those 29 plate appearances have been enough to keep him in the lineup every day — he leads the American League in games played — and presumably make him more valuable to the Rangers than any other option they have. Those 29 plate appearances are carrying a lot of weight and perhaps a career.
Hedges is the strongest example of this position. Hedges is an elite defensive catcher whose bat was questionable for most of his minor league career. He hit .225/.272/.314 in Double-A, then .168/.215/.248 in 56 games in his rookie season. “Although defense will always be Hedges’ calling card and should keep him around for a long time, he’ll need to start hitting if he’s to become more Brad Ausmus than Jeff Mathis,” Baseball Prospectus wrote in its 2016 preseason annual.
He has, and he hasn’t. Compared to 2015, Hedges has greatly increased his fly ball rate (from 36 to 46 percent), and his launch angle has literally skyrocketed from 11.3 degrees to 17.6 degrees — from roughly league average to 90th percentile. He swings at far more pitches in the strike zone (from 65 percent to 70 percent), and the fact that he whiffs on more of those pitches in the zone (79 percent contact rate, down from 85) suggests that he is swinging harder at them. His whiff rate on two strikes is up, suggesting, as well, that he isn’t shortening up and protecting with two strikes.
Those changes have consequences. He has struck out even more this year, his walk rate remains one of the worst in baseball, and he has hit a lot more infield popups. Fly balls that stay in the park rarely land for base hits, and infield popups virtually never do; his batting average on balls in play ranks him 215th out of 227 major league hitters (min. 350 PA) this year. Hedges’ .172/.222/.211 homerless line this year is even worse than Mathis’ career homerless line (.181/.242/.229 line).
But those changes also have benefits: He has 17 homers, including seven with two strikes. An extra dozen or so times a year, he manages to do the very best thing a hitter can do. His actual, with-home-runs line — .211/.255/.393, for a 70 OPS+ — is, indeed, closer to Brad Ausmus’ career (75 OPS+) than Mathis’ career (52).
Clearly, there are good hitters who added loft to their swings, changed their approaches, took advantage of the live ball and became superstars: J.D. Martinez, Justin Turner, Josh Donaldson and others. There are also bad hitters who did all this and became more productive, despite their limitations, such as Hedges.
On the other hand, the approach that leads to more home runs might come at a cost for some hitters. Odor’s strikeouts are way up from his first two seasons in the majors. He hits a lot of fly balls — 27th-most in baseball, among 149 qualified hitters — but the rest of his batted ball profile is terrible. Only eight hitters in baseball have hit more infield popups, and only five have hit fewer line drives.
If I were Odor’s hitting instructor, I have no idea whether I’d advise him to keep swinging for the fences — keep doing the one good thing he can do on offense — or change everything because this isn’t really working. That’s one of the challenges of playing in a league in which home runs are suddenly cheap, but hitting is otherwise as complex and difficult as ever.