Tampa Bay Rays P Jake Odorizzi has switched up his pitching repertoire this season, and he's reaping the benefits.
Jake Odorizzi had a reputation long before he was a regular in the Tampa Bay rotation. The Brewers drafted Odorizzi with the 32nd pick in the 2008 amateur draft, and they sent him to Kansas City to acquire Zack Greinke in December of 2010. After two years in the Royals’ organization, he was part of the oft-lambasted James Shields-for-Wil Myers swap, a trade that actually ended up working out pretty well for both teams. Before he was 23 years old, Odorizzi had been traded for two different aces. The expectations were always going to be high once he made it to the majors.
Odorizzi spent all of 2014 in Tampa Bay’s rotation, and put up decent number for a 24-year-old in his first full major league campaign. He posted a 4.13 ERA, 3.75 FIP, 3.90 xFIP, 1.28 WHIP and 174 strikeouts in 168 innings. His 8.2% walk rate was right around league average, and his 8.7% HR/FB ratio was a bit better than league average. By all measures Odorizzi was a good, but not great pitcher in 2014. But he has been even better in 2015.
While Odorizzi’s strikeouts are down, his 20.9% strikeout rate is nothing to dismiss. At the same time, his ground-ball rate is up, his walk rate is down to an elite 3.8%, and he has surrendered just two homers in 53 1/3 innings. Odorizzi’s hard-hit rate of 25.9% has him tied with Felix Hernandez and just barely behind Matt Harvey. Odorizzi may not be striking out as many hitters as last year, but his whiff rate is identical, and he has been much harder to for hitters to square up. That likely owes to a few tweaks he made to his repertoire.
Last year, Odorizzi used his four-seam fastball 56.5% of the time. The only other pitch he threw more than 10% of the time was his splitter. That is not the case this season, as you can see in this pitch usage table from Brooks Baseball.
Odorizzi is throwing the splitter even more frequently this season, as it checks in at nearly one-third of his total offerings. It’s the cutter, however, that has experienced the most dramatic increase. Odorizzi threw a grand total of 127 cutters all of last season. He has already thrown 158 this year, meaning nearly 20% of his pitches have been cutters. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that they’ve been his two most effective pitches this year.
Opposing hitters have a .169 batting average and .265 slugging percentage against Odorizzi’s splitter. The pitch has a 17.6% whiff rate and 56.7% ground-ball rate. As you may have guessed, he hasn’t been taken deep on the pitch. He has also commanded it really well, keeping it at the bottom of the zone and being sure to miss down if he misses at all. Just like a pitcher with a good changeup, one who relies on his splitter can get into a ton of trouble if he leaves it up in the zone. Odorizzi has not done that this year. The evidence is below.
Odorizzi uses the splitter primarily as a weapon against lefties, and it has had the desired effect this season. The following is from his May 10 outing against the Rangers. Odorizzi was actually supposed to take the ball the night before, but was scratched because he had the flu. It was clear in this start that he wasn’t at 100%. He took more time between pitches to catch his breath, especially when he had to field his position. That didn’t take away from the command he had over his stuff, however. Here’s an 0-1 splitter he throws to Leonys Martin.
Odorizzi spots this pitch exactly where he wants it, and he gets Martin to chase. The beauty of the splitter is that it can be both a chase pitch and one that he throws in the zone for a called strike. That allows him to throw it in any count. He offered it to Martin in a plus count to get ahead 0-2. In the following GIF, he throws it as the first pitch to Prince Fielder. The pitch looks like it will be elevated and something that Fielder can drive, but the downward action induces a routine grounder to short.
Odorizzi may have still been a bit under the weather, but he allowed just one run on seven hits, fanning seven batters in 6 2/3 innings. He took a no-decision, but it was the fourth time that he went at least 6 2/3 frames while allowing one run or fewer.
Odorizzi’s cutter hasn’t been nearly as good as his splitter, but that isn’t a knock on the former pitch. Hitters have a .205 batting average and .341 slugging percentage against the cutter. Its whiff rate is 8.9%, while its ground-ball rate is 40%. The cutter has replaced his slider as a primary out-pitch against righties, and they haven’t been able to touch it. Odorizzi has limited same-siders to a .171 batting average and .293 slugging percentage against the cutter. Here’s his zone profile on the cutter. As you can see, he lives on the outside corner with the pitch when he has the platoon advantage.
On May 4, Odorizzi held the Red Sox to one run on seven hits in seven innings. He struck out six batters in that start and walked none. He also threw his cutter 31 times, 17 of which went for strikes. The Red Sox put his cutter in play five times, getting just one hit on it.
The following is from Xander Bogaerts’ second at-bat of the game. The first time he came to the plate, he drilled a run-scoring triple off an Odorizzi four-seamer. He would have no such luck this time. Odorizzi started him off with a cutter that caught a bit too much of the plate, but Bogaerts took it for strike one. He doubled up, coming right back with it in the 0-1 count. This time, it was located perfectly on the outer third.
Odorizzi would send Bogaerts down swinging two pitches later. From that point forward, he allowed just one more hit, earning his third win of the season.
Through eight starts and 53 1/3 innings this season, Odorizzi has a 2.36 ERA, 2.49 FIP, 3.54 xFIP and 0.96 WHIP. The strikeouts are not in the same abundance they were last season, but there’s no doubting that he has been a better pitcher this year than he was when he was fanning more batters. Moreover, the improved command of, and confidence in, his splitter and cutter provides a much greater foundation for future success than did his reliance on the strikeout, especially since he does not feature an overwhelming fastball. Do not assume Odorizzi is a sell-high pitcher. He can continue to be a top-20 fantasy starter for the rest of the year.