Jake Odorizzi arrived in the Tampa Bay organization with a slew of breaking balls, a decent fastball, and questions about his changeup. After more struggle with the change, he reached out to teammate Alex Cobb, who had once had a similar issue. Cobb taught him the grip for his splitter, and Odorizzi’s game took off.
The interesting thing, though, is that Odorizzi’s pitch is different — despite having the same grip. For two pitches that they’ve nicknamed Thing 1 and Thing 2, these aren’t the indistinguishable twins from The Cat in the Hat.
Once upon a time, the Rays took the splitter away from Alex Cobb. “I tried every changeup, and I just couldn’t do it, I couldn’t get rid of the velocity,” Cobb said of that trying time in the low minors. He’s not bitter about that time at all, though. “I think the fact that I wasn’t really developed at 18, 19, they were trying to take it away from me just thinking it had a lot of forearm strain — it wasn’t that great a pitch for me back then anyway.”
Then he got to Low A three years later and his coach Bill Moloney showed him the splitter grip. “I looked at him and asked him if I could call it my changeup,” Cobb remembers of that giddy moment.
Because the release is so much like his two-seam fastball, Cobb considers the pitch a heavy two-seamer. The similarity with the fastball is the key to the success of the splitter, he felt. “It stays in the strike zone for so long, so they have to respect the fastball,” he said before a game with the Athletics. “At the point where they have to commit as a hitter, it’s still in the zone.”
Odorizzi never got any guff from the Rays about throwing the pitch, though — “They encourage you here, if it’s good, and it doesn’t bother you, why not throw it?” He also echoes many of the same comments that Cobb has about the pitch, even referring to it as a heavy two-seamer. “You think fastball and it’s hard to adjust when you start your swing to drop your swing path as you’re going,” Odorizzi said of the pitch that has the same arm speed as his fastball, but a completely different finish.
In fact, the splitter has made Odorizzi’s fastball better. “It seems like it has more ride to it,” he said. Once the hitter has that splitter in his head, he starts to miss the fastball high in the zone — right now, Odorizzi is getting a 10% whiff rate on his fastball, which is well above average for a four-seam fastball.
But it’s not like Odorizzi has become a Cobb clone. Their two splitters aren’t even the same. Our PITCHf/x numbers say that Cobb’s has three inches more drop, and that fits what the players say. “Cobb’s more straight down then mine,” said Odorizzi. “I have the tilt and the run a little bit.”
Take a look at Thing 1 and Thing 2 right next to each other (Odorizzi on the left, Cobb on the right):
The difference is all in the release point, according to the pitchers. Odorizzi pointed it out first: “He’s very over the top, and he’s very on top of everything…. he’s got not choice but to go down.” Take a look at their release points next to each other, with Odorizzi on the left and Cobb on the right:
Perhaps instead of looking at release points by themselves, we should be looking at release points relative to heads. Because look at how Odorrizi’s head pulls off the ball, meaning his release point is, relative to his head, more sideways despite looking more over the top. Cobb’s head stays more upright. Take a look at each pitcher at the moment of release to see their relative angles (Odorizzi on the left, Cobb on the right):
In any case Cobb might have anticipated the difficulty in seeing his release point for what it is. “It’s hard to see on the video,” he admitted.
But going over the top has become very important to him over time. “With the failures of certain pitches, I’ve realized in order to be successful I have to have that high arm slot,” Cobb said. “That’s when the ball drops out, and the curve ball is more twelve-six and the two-seam darts down, when I’m high — that’s my best arm slot.”
Of course there are more differences. Cobb’s been throwing the pitch longer, so it’s not surprising to hear Odorizzi admit that the pitch is unpredictable to him sometimes. “Sometimes it cuts on accident — you never know what you’re going to get,” he said. “His is more consistent.”
Looking at the movement on each pitch, it certainly looks like Cobb’s movement is more centrally clustered, but it’s hard to tell. It’s a crazy pitch.
Cobb is getting to the point where he’s now starting to actually command the pitch — his 22% ball rate according to Brooks Baseball is almost half the rate of your typical split finger. He did point out that he almost never throws it for a strike, and also that the low ball rate was probably just because he got so many swings and misses on it, though — it’s not an easy pitch to command with all that movement.
But Odorizzi is fortunate, of his own admission. As is Cobb. “I have such lax joints and fingers that it really doesn’t hurt” Cobb said of the grip. “My genes, up and down the ladder, are just very flexible.” Cobb told the story of a roommate, a good friend of his in the minors, that was “jealous of the pitch and he didn’t have a changeup.” Cobb tried to show him the grip, but his friend’s fingers couldn’t stretch far enough. “Some people can’t do it,” Cobb shrugged.
These two Rays, though, had the fingers for the grip. And though their mechanics have led to slightly different versions of The Thing, they’ve both found great success with the splitter. They’re both in the top 30 for swinging strikes among starters this year, and they can thank two pitches that are about as devastating as two creatures let loose inside on a rainy day.
With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.