Baltimore Orioles: The Rougned Odor Dilemma at 2B
Why does Rougned Odor continue to play every day for the Orioles despite his struggles?
After a four-run top of the sixth inning which saw a throwing error by Orioles second baseman Rougned Odor followed by a 3-run homer by Bo Bichette, the O’s trailed 5-3 last night heading into a rain delay that lasted more than an hour. Things looked bleak for an O’s team that has played well recently, but with the rain delay combined with the overuse of the bullpen, seemed to be waving the white flag by having Louis Head and Nick Vespi come into pitch, neither of whom are often used in high leverage situations.
The O’s trailed 5-4 going into the bottom of the eighth inning with the bottom part of the order due up and only a 30% chance to win the game, according to Baseball-Reference. Austin Hays led off the inning with a bloop single and Odor once again came to the plate, and Orioles fans know how the story ends. Odor hit a mammoth home run into the Baltimore sky to give the O’s a 6-5 lead and they would win by that score. The homer increased Baltimore’s win probability by 48 points from 39% to 87% and continues a frustratingly inconsistent season for the O’s second baseman.
Odor came to the Orioles this offseason as a cheap plug-in free agent for a team that did not seem to have many middle infield options. The O’s had struggled to find players to plug in up the middle after Freddy Galvis was traded to the Phillies in July last year, so the move made sense at the time to bring in a solidified veteran who could lead a young infield without much expectations to make a playoff push.
However, the team has exceeded even the wildest expectations and is 58-52 and only half a game out of a playoff spot with just over 50 games left with guys like Jorge Mateo and Ramon Urias emerging as solid everyday infielders. The O’s have also seen the emergence of young infield prospects such as Terrin Vavra and Gunnar Henderson who have pushed themselves to MLB readiness before most people would have expected. Despite all this success, Odor has struggled this season at the plate to the tune of a .196/.259/.376 slash line and 79 OPS+ and the defensive metrics all suggest that he has not had a great season at second base.
The lack of defensive prowess combined with how often he commits silly errors, like the two throwing errors he had last night, is particularly concerning because he was brought in mostly as a defense-first player who would not add much offensive value. Since neither the offense nor the defense has been valuable for the O’s, it leads many fans to wonder why Rougned continues to see his name in the starting lineup most days even as the O’s continue to win despite his struggles. That leads us to the Rougned Odor dilemma: surely Vavra and Henderson are both more valuable to the O’s at this point in time and yet Odor continues to play.
The biggest Odor advocates will point to his veteran leadership as a reason that he continues to stick around. For instance, Monday night when the O’s had a 7-4 lead over the Blue Jays in the ninth inning, closer Felix Bautista was struggling with his command and allowing the Jays to have new life in a game that felt like a sure win for the Orioles. In the midst of these struggles, Odor came over to Bautista and gave him a heated pep talk before Adley Rutschman could come to the mound to calm things down. After this pep talk, Bautista immediately found his command and closed the door in victory.
The Orioles have had veteran leaders in the infield throughout their rebuild; most notably Jonathan Villar, Jose Iglesias, and Galvis. It’s clear that having veteran leadership adds value to a team that cannot be quantified and that was clear on Monday night when Odor took control of a tough situation and helped his team to victory. It’s also clear that teammates love Rougned. After the clutch home run last night, the team went berserk in celebrating with him. Robinson Chirinos and Ryan McKenna also showed this appreciation by giving him a Gatorade bath during his postgame interview. There is something to be said for having a guy in the clubhouse who is universally beloved and a great leader. However, it should also be noted that the O’s had two other guys in Jorge Lopez and Trey Mancini who were also universally beloved and were valuable on-the-field players who the O’s had no issue with letting go of despite the playoff push. With Odor’s contract expiring at the end of the season, one would think that Elias and Hyde would be willing to part with him for the development of the whole franchise.
Some may also argue that Odor’s defense has been more valuable despite what the metrics suggest. Using the eye test, he has had some strong defensive plays this season and has consistently shown at least decent range and good arm strength. While this certainly isn’t known, most would agree that Odor is more valuable defensively than Vavra who has started his MLB career strong at the plate but has mostly been the DH with Odor at second. Fellow Birds Watcher contributor Rolando Medina recently made the claim that Vavra could also be inserted at third base with Urias moving over to second if the team chooses to move on. While Terrin is an on-base machine, he lacks the power that Odor has and that could hurt his chances of being inserted as an everyday infielder. So far in his big league career, Vavra is batting .348/.448/.391 in a small sample size of ten games and only one of his eight hits has gone for extra bases in a double.
The next aspect of the Rougned Odor dilemma is the emergence of Henderson. Gunnar came into the year as a well-regarded prospect who may still be a couple of years away from Baltimore but has absolutely destroyed the minor leagues this season and has become the number one ranked prospect in all of baseball, according to Baseball America. The biggest knock against him making his big league debut is his age. He just turned 21 recently and is 5.4 years younger than his average Triple-A counterpart. Despite this, he has hit .303/.430/.553 in 94 games between Bowie and Norfolk this season. This includes 17 home runs and 6 triples.
Calling up a guy as young as Gunnar is rare but it is certainly not unprecedented. Of course, ten years ago the O’s made a very similar move by calling up young phenom Manny Machado straight from Double-A for the playoff push, and the move paid off as Manny hit well to end the season and the O’s beat the Texas Rangers in the first-ever American League Wild Card Game. Neither Juan Soto nor Ronald Acuna was old enough to drink alcohol (legally) when they were rookies in 2018 yet they both turned into immediate superstars. It’s not only superstars who make an immediate impact in the majors when they are still young enough to be college students. The Rangers also called up a middle infielder in 2014 at 20 years old who became their everyday second baseman for the next six years. That second baseman? You guessed it: Rougned Odor.
Ultimately, Odor does add some value to a young team and not all of that value is quantifiable, but his veteran presence and leadership should not outweigh the struggles he has had, especially with Gunnar so clearly ready to take the next step and become an everyday player for the O’s.