Jake Odorizzi heads into the postseason on the heels of a career year. In his second season with the Minnesota Twins, the 29-year-old right-hander has a 3.51 ERA, a 3.36 FIP, and 178 strikeouts in 159 innings. If won-lost records are your cup of tea, Odorizzi boasts a snazzy 15-7 mark going into Saturday’s presumed start against the Yankees in ALDS Game 2. (There’s an outside chance he’ll be held back for Monday’s Game in Minneapolis.)
An uptick of velocity on all of his pitches has played a role in Odorizzi’s success. That’s especially been the case with his heater, which former FanGraphs colleague Sung Min Kim — hired recently by the KBO’s Lotte Giants — called “The best fastball of 2019” back in June.
What was behind Odorizzi’s increased velocity and the improved performances that came with it? I asked him that question when the Twins visited Fenway Park in early September.
David Laurila: You’re having your best season. To what do you attribute that?
Jake Odorizzi: “I did a new training program this past offseason. I worked with a gentleman in Plant City, Florida named Randy Sullivan. That was at the Florida Baseball Ranch. Kyle Gibson used him last year. Justin Verlander has done some work with him, as well..
“I’d felt like I was out of whack mechanically. Health-wise I was good, but I needed to get more out of my body, maybe use my mechanics a little bit better, a little bit smoother. I did some weighted-ball stuff; I did a mobility program. I kind of unlocked some more torque in my body. I was able to separate my upper half from my lower half instead being like a one-piece — everything goes at once, and it’s stiff.
“With the changes I made, I have consistent velocity that’s about two, two-and-a-half, miles per hour harder than what I’d normally thrown. Going from 91 to 93 has caused a big difference in my results this year. Hitters have to respect the change in velocity, plus it plays well with the rest of my pitches.
“Going there is something I’m really glad I did. I wouldn’t say it was a leap-of-faith kind of thing. It’s just that while I know myself, I needed somebody to kind of change my thought, if that makes sense. I needed someone to maybe give me some different drills, and unlock some different things. We were able to do that.”
Laurila: Can you elaborate on what you meant by “separate my upper half from my lower half”?
Odorizzi: “Along the lines of a kinetic-chain, it all goes from the ground up. You always hear hitters talk about getting their foot down but having their hands and upper body back. It’s the same for a pitcher. When I hit, I want my front foot to hit, my back leg to still be flush, with my hips kind of going already — this is going in this direction, but I want my chest going this way. I’m created that rubber band effect, that tension.
“On the mound, as I’m letting all that energy forward it’s going to go straight to the catcher. That’s opposed to how when you’re one piece, this is closed, this is closed, and you rotate — you’re pitching rotationally as opposed to pitching down through the ball. I want to get through the baseball and finish toward the plate. That’s what you want. You’re storing up the energy with keeping it all back, and then letting it all go with that rubber band effect. The farther you pull it, the more separation you get, the more energy you’re able to create.
“Now that I’m able to do that, I’m not spinning off balls. Balls are being more true. They have more carry to them, because the spin rate is up. That’s all because of being a little more flexible, where I’m getting down and still staying back. In a way, it’s maybe kind of a twisted one-piece. Your bottom side is down, and your top side is coiled up in back.”
Laurila: Basically, it’s all about timing up your delivery and exploding forward.
Odorizzi: “Yes. You always hear the buzz words: ‘Stay back.’ ‘Finish.’ ‘Get through the ball.’ Well, ‘stay back’ is such relative term. You can’t stay back and still get yourself down the mound. You want your lower half to ride down the mound, controlled, but you want your upper to stay back to create that stretch. Then, once it’s ready to go, it’s going to go where you want it to go.”
Laurila: You’ve been in pro ball, receiving high-quality coaching, for just over 10 years. Why did it take until now to make such a meaningful change?
Odorizzi: “Pro ball and offseason programs are completely different in the sense of… the time to do this kind of work is the offseason. Obviously, you still work during the season — you try to tune up your mechanics — but it’s really hard to make adjustments like the ones I did. It took me… I went to see Randy at the end of October — the day before Halloween — and would go over there twice a week, every week, until spring training. So I had three months — November, December, January — and it took me all of a month and a half, two months, to get to where I felt like my mechanics were where I wanted them.
“Basically, you’re working on drills in a controlled environment, so you can really break down your mechanics. I had high-speed cameras. I had guys who were watching me, helping me break it down. I could see what I was doing. I could feel it, and I could see it. It’s one of those things that’s almost impossible to do during the season, because at the end of the day your mechanics… you’re out there to get outs and a win a game. Your body is going to go with what it’s most comfortable with, and if you’re out of whack, it’s going to go back to that. So it’s about breaking bad habits, and you need time to do that.
“I wish I’d heard about Randy earlier. I’m just really fortunate to have been traded here, and talk to Gibby about him. And as luck would have it, he just happened to be a 40-minute drive down the road from where I live. It was a perfect storm. Everything lined up. And it worked out for me. There was always a chance that it wouldn’t work out, but it did.”
Laurila: What role did [pitching coach] Wes Johnson, and the Twins organization as a whole, have in your offseason training?
Odorizzi: “Funny you asked that, because Wes, Randy, and [Astros pitching coach] Brent Strom all work together at the Texas Baseball Ranch. All three of them know each other, and the program. The program I was doing with Randy, Wes had been doing at the college level. So he was very familiar with the stuff I was doing, and he actually brought it into spring training for a lot of other guys to do. Basically, I had a three-month head start on what he was trying to teach our pitching staff — and it’s helped out a majority of our guys this year. Wes getting hired as our pitching coach while I was already working on this stuff was part of the perfect storm.”
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.