Jake Odorizzi Is Probably an Adjustment Away

Last March, I approached Jake Odorizzi in the Tampa Bay Rays’ spring-training clubhouse to learn more about the cult of the high fastball he was leading among the club’s pitchers.

The Rays led baseball in 2016 by the volume of four-seamers thrown up in the zone. The reason: to negate the effect of swing planes more and more designed to damage pitches lower in the zone. The Rays were again one of the dominant high-fastball teams last season, ranking second in the sport by volume and percentage of fastballs located in the upper third and above the zone according to Statcast data via Baseball Savant. (They ranked 14th in spin rate.)

Odorizzi explained that, while other organizations had tried to change him, to have him establish his fastball down in the zone, the Rays had the right-hander embrace his high-spin fastball. While the pitch does not possess an elite spin rate, it’s better than average by that measure. The right-hander, for example, ranked 247th in spin rate among 660 pitchers to throw at least 100 four-seam fastballs last season (2,287). The pitch ranked 282nd out of 615 pitches (2,268 rpm) in 2016, according to Statcast data via Baseball Savant.

“When I was with Milwaukee early on, and with Kansas City in the lower minor levels, I was never really a lower-in-the-zone type of guy,” Odorizzi said. “When I was in Milwaukee, they kind of told me in a roundabout way ‘Well, if you don’t learn to pitch down in the zone, you’ll never make it to the big leagues.’ This was in 2008, 2009 which was, shoot, nearly 10 years ago. Pitching up in the zone consistently, purposefully, was unheard of. You pitch down in the zone, you get ground balls. I could pitch down in the zone, but I had more conviction when I did not consciously think about it and let [the fastball] do its own thing, let it take off a little bit.

“It was comforting for me to finally have an organization [the Rays] say ‘We like what you’re doing. .. So many pitchers have been down in the zone that hitters have started to adjust over time. It’s a product of being down there so long that hitters have made the adjustment… [Mike] Trout will hit balls that are shin-high 450 feet like it’s nothing.”

As you’re probably aware, Odorizzi is no longer a Ray. He was traded on Saturday evening to a Minnesota club attempting to bolster one of the weakest rotations among potential contending clubs. The Twins rank 23rd in projected WAR from starting pitchers (8.3 WAR). The Rays seem interested, as is typically the case, in reducing payroll. Odorizzi, who had recently won an arbitration case against the club, will earn $6.3 million in 2018.

The cost of acquiring Odorizzi for the Twins, beyond his salary, is shortstop prospect Jermaine Palacios, who may not stick at the position.

While it seems to be a relatively low-risk add for the Twins, the deal could have significant value if Odorizzi can return closer to his 2014-16 form, when he ranked 44th in WAR (7.0) among starting pitchers and produced a 95 ERA-.

His production fell across the board last season, including career worsts in FIP (5.43), FIP- (127), and WAR (0.1).

What happened? His 21% strikeout rate remained steady, in line with his marks from the previous three seasons (21.5%, 21.4%, and 24.0%). His split-change was as effective as it had been the previous season, generating whiffs at a rate of 22% per swing. While his fastball velocity was down a half mph from 2016, the velocity (91.9 mph) was in line with his career average (92.0 mph), too. While his walk rate inched up, he held batters to a career-low BABIP .227.

What happened? The issue was the batted balls that did not count toward BABIP:

Odorizzi allowed a career-high 30 home runs last season in just 143 innings. (He missed time with a back strain.) While Odorizzi might have been adversely affected by a juiced ball and his back, he might have also have been too committed to his elevated-fastball approach. He became the cult leader of the high four-seamer.

In each of the last three seasons, Odorizzi has increased the average height of his four-seamer.

Jake Odorizzi’s Pitch Heights at Plate
Season Avg. Height Four-Seamer (ft.) wOBA vs. High Four-Seamer Avg. Height Splitter (ft.)
2015 2.96 0.311 1.69
2016 3.07 0.288 1.84
2017 3.17 0.368 1.78
SOURCE: Statcast via Baseball Savant

Among pitchers who threw at least 100 four-seam fastballs, Odorizzi tied Darren O’Day for the highest average height of four-seamers upon reaching the plate at 3.17 feet.

Odorizzi allowedan MLB-high 11 home runs in the upper third of the zone and just above the zone, according to Baseball Savant. Only Drew Pomeranz also reached double-digits (10) by that same measure.

But Pomeranz, like Rich Hill, pairs his elevated four-seamer with a big-breaking curveball he can throw for strikes both below the zone and up in it. Odorizzi’s swing-and-miss pitch is the split-change, which he tries to keep below the zone. It’s possible he is losing some tunneling effect as he creates greater vertical separation between his fastball and split-change. Also, pitches left up in the zone are still those most easily driven out of the park by major-league hitters. And hitters perhaps better understood that Odorizzi would be pitching up in the zone. Maybe Odorizzi was simply too predictable.

Consider his average fastball pitch location last season:

Perhaps there’s a case for Odorizzi to better mix-up his fastball location, as opponents appeared to be better zero-ing on his elevated fastballs. Consider slugging per pitch in 2016:

And consider slugging per fastball in 2017:

Moreover, Odorizzi’s vertical release point had also changed, which could have been telling of injury or unnoticed mechanical change:

What’s encouraging is that Odorizzi might be a simple adjustment away from getting back to his 2014-16 level and being one of the 50 best pitchers in the game, a quality mid-rotation option for a team with postseason chances. For the Twins, it’s worth the acquisition cost paid to find out.

A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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6 years ago

Between this and Anibal Sanchez, the Twins must figure that either those hr/fb rates are just noise or they have an idea how to fix them.