All year long at Double-A Bowie, Ryan Fuller — one of the Orioles’ new co-hitting coaches — preached that hitting the ball hard and in the air was the main goal. So, he drilled his players’ swings toward hitting pitches they can drive.
Matt Borgschulte, hired from the Minnesota Twins to join Fuller on the Orioles’ coaching staff as co-hitting coach, is steeped in modern-day pitch recognition training and all the ways players can benefit from technology on that front.
It makes sense, then, that the first major league free agent the Orioles signed this year, infielder Rougned Odor, is a hard-contact specialist who could stand to clean up his approach and focus on pitches he can hit hard.
Odor represents the latest in a long line of bargain infielders to come to the Orioles for an opportunity to show they can still play every day.
His making the most of it would be a reflection of the Orioles knowing what they’re looking for, especially when it comes to hitters.
Since the beginning of 2018, 132 hitters have at least 1,500 plate appearances. Odor ranks in the top quarter of them in hard-hit rate (41.4%), according to FanGraphs, but only six players have a lower line drive rate than his 17.6%. He hits the ball in the air pretty consistently but hasn’t been able to turn his hard contact into extra bases instead of outs.
His chase rate — how often a player swings at pitches outside the strike zone — of 34.3% is also in the highest quarter in the league in that span, and he makes decent enough contact. Still, there’s clearly potential there, and with Odor still owed $12.3 million from the Texas Rangers as part of the six-year deal he signed in 2016, the Orioles are presumably taking a low-cost opportunity at helping him improve.
Such endeavors are part of the reason they’ve brought the hitting philosophy they’ve seen some success with at the minor league level up to the big leagues with Fuller and Borgschulte now on manager Brandon Hyde’s staff.
The Orioles aren’t handing out the tens of millions of dollars necessary to sign the top free agents that other clubs are at this point in their rebuilding process, and they still have plenty of other holes to fill by the time the season starts.
But the same way they’ve targeted pitchers whose underlying data could work in their system (a la Matt Harvey), so too should the hitting program start to fill out the major league roster with potentially productive players who can supplement the prospect core that should be in the majors soon.
Odor also has some ancillary benefits in being a left-handed batter on a team that boasts exclusively right-handed infielders, though his splits have been erratic in recent years.
With Ramón Urías, Jorge Mateo and Kelvin Gutiérrez all able to play second and third base, the Orioles could ensure plenty of playing time for each, even if there’s a veteran shortstop out there who can take that baton from José Iglesias or Freddy Galvis.
Odor’s signing might be underwhelming considering other teams that have been living at the bottom of the league in recent years like the Rangers and Detroit Tigers are shelling out nine-figure deals to shortstops Corey Seager and Javier Báez, respectively.
The Orioles were always unlikely to be involved with the top free-agent shortstops, but signing a player with a career .720 OPS who is several years removed from his best baseball is hard to compare with that.
It was a low bar for the Orioles to clear to get through Tuesday without releasing a player who could make them better in 2022 or possibly beyond, but they did. Adding a player like Odor who has the markers of someone they believe they can work with is only a bonus as the Orioles prepare for Thursday’s expected lockout.
And with 37 players on their 40-man roster, Odor’s addition is a blueprint for the types of hitters the Orioles could look to add in the remaining time before transactions presumably freeze for the time being.
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There’s always a place for stable, reliable major leaguers, and the Orioles will presumably continue to monitor that market. But adding players with some kind of upside in free agency is a diversion from their usual hole-plugging player acquisition strategies that could prove worthwhile.