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Better days should be ahead for Yankees second baseman Rougned Odor

Rougned Odor looks improved in the extremely small sample of the early season, in spite of his surface numbers.

MLB: New York Yankees at Baltimore Orioles Mitch Stringer-USA TODAY Sports

The Yankees acquired infielder Rougned Odor by giving up two legitimate prospects to the Texas Rangers. I have to admit I wasn’t a big fan of the move at first, and frankly, I’m still undecided. But I would be remiss if I don’t mention the fact that Odor, small sample size notwithstanding, looks improved.

Sure, you wouldn’t know it by looking at his numbers entering Friday — a .184/.273/.367 triple slash and a 87 wRC+ in 15 games and 55 plate appearances. And, of course, the bar wasn’t very high to begin with, as he has failed to crack the 100 wRC+ threshold since 2016. Heck, he managed to hit 30 home runs and finish with a 56 (!) wRC+ in 2017.

However, there have been some changes in Odor’s statistical profile so far in 2021 that suggest there may be some gains and growth. His numbers went up with a good showing last night, but of course, we’ll need much more than a few weeks of play to know if these changes will last, but it’s interesting to take a look at them, and hope that he can turn the corner a bit.

For starters, Odor has long been a bad-ball hitter. He’s made lots of outs by swinging at pitches out of the zone in his career, as his chase rate is 35.3. In the very small sample we have so far for the 2021 season, he has trimmed it to 25.7 percent. That itself is a noteworthy and significant change that may have an impact on his numbers at the end of the season.

While he isn’t hitting many line drives – his 13.2 line-drive percentage would be the lowest of his career – and still hitting too many popups, he has a steady 40-percent hard-hit rate and is in the 80th percentile in strikeout rate. His 10.5-percent swinging-strike-rate seems to support the notion that he hasn’t had a clear issue making contact.

In his last two seasons, 2019 and 2020, Odor had strikeouts rates over 30 percent, but without extremely high swinging strike rates – 12.7 percent in 2019 and 11.3 percent last year – which strikes me as a pitch selection issue: not capitalizing on hittable pitches and letting too many called third strikes go by.

This year, his strikeout rate has plummeted to 16.4 percent, compared to 31.8 percent last season and 30.6 percent two years ago. In addition to chasing less, he is swinging at the most pitches inside the zone in his career, at 77.7 percent. Basically, he is being more judicious with the pitches he offers at.

Baseball is, theoretically, pretty simple. Swing at pitches in the zone, lay off the garbage, hit the ball as hard as you can. But that is all very, very difficult to accomplish in practice, especially these days when pitchers throw 98-mph heaters, turbo sinkers, air-benders, knee-buckling curveballs, and nasty changeups.

Odor is fighting his instincts and trying to make a habit of not swinging at bad pitches while putting the bat on the ball on the good ones. Again, we can’t possibly know if this is for real or just a mirage in at least a few weeks or months. But the numbers don’t lie, and he is seeing the ball better right now than in the recent past.

By virtue of walking more and striking out less with a solid hard-hit rate, Odor’s expected numbers look way better than his actual ones and suggest he can be due for some positive regression. His batting average is, as of Friday evening, .184, but his expected average, per Statcast data, is .262. His expected slugging (.481) is leaps and bounds beyond is actual figure (.367). With exit velocities up across the majors, many players have had discrepancies between their actual and expected numbers, but Odor’s feature such a large difference that they can’t entirely be waved away.

I’m not saying that Odor is suddenly Ozzie Albies, but it’s possible the Yankees can help him be a better version of who he is: a lefty-hitting flyball hitter that isn’t so vulnerable and can take advantage of his considerable raw power. With luck, he’ll start to put up numbers closer to what his batted ball profile would suggest, and he’ll help the Yankees win some games.