Watching from the dugout rail on a rare day off last week, Rangers rightfielder Shin-Soo Choo stared at the field and all but rubbed his eyes. Was that really second baseman Rougned Odor—he of the worst on-base percentage in the game last year—taking two close balls and fouling off three pitches before lacing a single up the middle?
Choo turned to hitting coach Anthony Iapoce.
“He looks like a completely different hitter,” Choo said.
“His focus is so much better,” Iapoce agreed.
“It’s a long season,” they said in unison, then laughed.
Odor, 24, knows that better than almost anyone else. A year after he threw the most famous punch in recent baseball history—a right hook at the jaw of Blue Jays rightfielder José Bautista—he found himself unable to hit anything. Odor had the second-worst batting average, .204, among regulars last season. He swung at the third-most balls in baseball. He scored only 12.2% of the runners on base ahead of him. Texas third baseman Adrián Beltré scored 23.3%. Texas pitcher Andrew Cashner scored 12.5%. Odor hit 30 home runs, but by WAR, he was worth –0.2 wins to the Rangers.
“I always believe in myself,” he says. “I know it’s not how we start, it’s how we finish.”
Still, he knew that a few –0.2 WAR seasons will finish things pretty quickly. So he spent the winter focusing on his command of the strike zone. He spent the spring focusing on his command of the strike zone. And he has spent the summer focusing on his command of the strike zone. The result: through Sunday, a .356 on-base percentage, more walks (33) than last season (32) and two of the last three AL Player of the Week awards.
The transformation is astounding. And Odor credits it to the man on the dugout rail.
Odor was surprised the first time Choo said something nice to him. It was January 2014. Choo was the Rangers’ big-money offseason signing, a $130 million man gladhanding at a fan fest event in Dallas. Odor was a 19-year-old prospect still awaiting a callup to Triple A. And yet Choo went out of his way to introduce himself.
He minimizes the gesture now—“I’m not staying [only] one year,” he says. “I want to know who’s coming to the big leagues”—but the moment stuck with Odor. So when he arrived that spring he stuck with Choo.
Odor seeks advice from many veterans, among them Beltré, shortstop Elvis Andrus and catcher Robinson Chirinos, and he spends most of his time away from the ballpark with utilityman Jurickson Profar, but he still finds himself gravitating toward Choo. Their lockers are four apart at home, and although their uniform numbers are not in sequence, they often roll into visitors’ clubhouses to see themselves at adjacent stalls. They hit in different batting practice groups. They rarely visit the cage together. They never eat dinner together. Choo is South Korean, Odor Venezuelan, so all conversations must be conducted in both men’s second language. And yet when Choo walks into a room, there is Odor, making fun of his bowl haircut. (“If you need more hair, I can give you some,” Choo likes to retort to the shaved-headed Odor.)
They talk constantly. But, Odor admits, their conversations are often the same. “Don’t swing at bad pitches,” Choo reminds his friend. For nearly four years, Odor struggled to understand why. Sure, he was swinging at bad pitches, but he was making contact and having success, so why did he have to change his approach? He tried to be more selective, but he often lost focus and returned to swinging away.
“I used to go there and no matter what he threw me, I was gonna swing,” he says. “So [Choo] used to tell me that two years ago, and I didn’t understand. But this year I understand. Now I’m taking more walks. Now I’m making the pitcher throw my pitch because I’m not swinging at everything. I think that’s why I’ve been feeling much better at the plate.”
Choo, 36, likens their relationship to life with his daughter and two sons. “Parents teach kids, ‘Don’t touch this, because this is hot,’” he says. “But kids touch it. And then it burns their hand and they never touch it again. It’s the same thing. Adrián and Elvis and I teach them, but sometimes guys don’t get it until they get on the field.”
Odor has also benefited from observing. First he watched closely as Choo strung together a 54-game on-base streak from May 12 to July 21. The rightfielder worked counts and fouled off tough pitches until he got something he could drive—or took the walk. Then, moved into the second spot in the batting order, behind Choo, Odor began to watch from the on-deck circle as his friend maintained his focus. Then he would pepper Choo with questions in the dugout. What did the ball do? Where was the pitch? What do you think I should do in this situation? Where are you trying to hit the ball in this situation? Are you trying to use the middle here?
The new attention to detail struck Iapoce early this season. In past years, Odor had a tendency to miss his pitch and hack angrily at the next one. Now he takes a breath and reminds himself to control the zone. Even his willingness to adjust his approach speaks to a new level of maturity.
“There comes a point where guys go, O.K., this is what I need to work on and not be afraid of,” says Iapoce. “We’re always afraid to work on our weaknesses because it gets exposed in the game and it may go backwards. But what Odie was willing to do was take a bunch of steps backwards in order to go forward.”
Before the results showed up, Odor and the team focused on what they call “positive at bats.” Maybe he went 0–4, but did he swing at only two balls in the dirt? Well, yesterday it was three. Maybe he struck out, but did he work the count from 0–2 to 3–2? “Baby steps,” Odor says.
And then the results showed up. Iapoce points to Odor’s five-walk, one-homer game earlier this month. He became the fourth player in history to achieve the feat, after Hank Aaron, Mark McGwire and Edgar Martínez.
“I think when a player does something a certain way, they never see themselves being anybody else,” says Iapoce. “He didn’t think he could do things like Choo does. He’s not gonna walk 78 times like Choo-Choo, cause he’s not that kind of player, but the willingness to understand when to see pitches, when to attack pitches, how to use the whole field, it’s OK to get jammed and hit a blooper the other way for a single and steal second—that’s your double. You can score a run. Baby steps, baby steps, baby steps. Positive at bats.”
Choo is proud of Odor, he says. He praises him when he does well and occasionally reports to coaches when he notices that the young second baseman is making strides. After that five-walk game, Choo said nothing to Odor. They just laughed.
But for all their moments together, Choo admits his lasting memory of Odor will likely be of that punch and the brawl that ensued. Odor is more mature now, though, right? Something like that would be unlikely to happen again, right?
Choo laughs. “Who knows?” he says.
So maybe not a completely different hitter.