Odorizzi Is the Mostly-Right Pitcher at the Right Time for Houston

The Astros attempted to deal with the fallout of the Framber Valdez injury this weekend by signing free agent Jake Odorizzi to a two-year contract that could be worth up to $30 million with incentives, including a third-year option with a buyout.

Odorizzi took a qualifying offer from the Twins after the 2019 season with the hope of further establishing his value for a possible long-term deal after 2020, when he would no longer be saddled with the loss of a draft pick. Unfortunately, last year didn’t pan out that way, as his season was ruined by a series of injuries: an intercostal strain that bothered him over the summer; a chest contusion from a line drive; and blisters that kept him from taking part in Minnesota’s latest doomed playoff run. Ultimately, he only managed to pitch four games and wasn’t particularly effective, with a 6.59 ERA and 6.12 FIP in 13 2/3 innings.

Odorizzi was reportedly looking for a three-year deal (I heard this as well, and I’m not anywhere near as connected as the tireless Ken Rosenthal). The problem is, only a single free-agent pitcher received a guaranteed three-year contract this offseason: Trevor Bauer. And Odorizzi is not coming off winning a Cy Young award.

The Twins were very careful with Odorizzi, generally pulling him after about 15 batters faced in each game — probably a smart thing given that pitching through an injury can sometimes lead to a different one. Todd Stottlemyre is probably the biggest example of this phenomenon I can think of off-hand: At the end of his career, he tried to pitch through a torn rotator cuff and torn labrum with an altered delivery, hurt his elbow, and then suffered thoracic outlet syndrome while recovering from elbow surgery.

While Minnesota’s plan may have kept Odorizzi healthy, it also resulted in him suffering what was essentially a lost season. To get the difference, let’s look at his 2021–22 projections after the 2019 season and entering this year. Both of these projections are with the Astros.

ZiPS Projection – Jake Odorizzi (Pre-2020)
2021 11 8 3.47 27 27 147.7 118 57 18 48 158 119 3.2
2022 10 8 3.60 26 26 137.3 113 55 17 46 144 114 2.7


ZiPS Projection – Jake Odorizzi (Post-2020)
2021 8 7 4.33 24 24 120.7 112 58 21 41 125 101 1.6
2022 8 7 4.26 21 21 107.7 101 51 17 37 107 103 1.5

The qualifying offer compensation was particularly unfortunate — I hope it’s gone in the next CBA — if you agree with ZiPS on where Odorizzi stood after 2019. The computer saw a lot to like about that breakout campaign: He simultaneously bumped his strikeout rate by 20% and dropped his walk rate by a similar margin to go along with the best velocity of his career. While that season is still in his playing record, it’s now tempered by the injury-ruined 2020. The only saving grace was that the missing time wasn’t due to a shoulder or elbow injury, both of which would have knocked even more off those projections.

The ZiPS projection for a two-year deal for Odorizzi in Houston was for $22.8 million. The guarantee is likely less than that given Houston’s luxury tax situation. We currently have the Astros about $10 million below the luxury tax threshold for 2021, which is especially important as Carlos Correa, Justin Verlander, Zack Greinke, and Lance McCullers Jr. are all free agents after the season. If the team is above the threshold, it gets picks after the fourth round for losing a player who received and rejected a qualifying offer rather than the preferable pick after Compensation Round B. These picks were Nos. 67–72 in 2020; the fourth round ended with No. 131.

The AAV is calculated with performance bonuses only after the triggering event occurs, so it will be interesting to see just how the contract is structured. While an incentive clause that increases future base salaries is technically allowed and doesn’t involve a full recalculation of the AAV for the entire length of the contract — something which is allowed under Article XIII, Section V of the CBA — an arbitration panel can also put the kibosh on that if it’s done to circumvent the luxury tax threshold. In the end, Houston may see the worse draft picks as a reasonable price to pay if it gets 150 healthy innings from Odorizzi (or whatever the incentive is), but the preference is probably not guaranteeing that result ahead of time.

My colleague Ben Clemens wrote about Houston’s post-Framber rotation problem, so I won’t go too deep into that aspect past exploring what the ZiPS projections thought about the effect of Valdez’s injury on the pennant race. The Astros are not the juggernaut of a few years ago, and this division is projected to be a tight race between them and the A’s, with the Angels also plausible contenders. I explored the change in playoff probability based on two Valdez scenarios. It’s still uncertain whether he’ll return or require season-ending surgery on his finger, so I’m projecting the Astros both with Valdez missing a half-season or the entire year.

ZiPS Playoff Probabilities – Houston Astros
Situation Divisional% Playoff% Championship%
Before Valdez Injury 35.5% 49.3% 4.2%
After Valdez Injury (81 Games) 30.3% 42.8% 3.4%
After Valdez Injury (Season) 25.6% 36.2% 2.8%
After Odorizzi Signing (81 Games) 36.5% 50.6% 4.3%
After Odorizzi Signing (Season) 32.3% 45.4% 3.7%

As Ben noted in the piece linked above, Valdez’s injury was a serious concern given Houston’s depth problems in the rotation. Each win is crucial for a team in the Astros’ position, and the high likelihood that Valdez’s innings would be replaced by sub-replacement level pitching resulted in ZiPS projecting fairly significant losses for them in the playoff department. Before Odorizzi signed, in the worst-case scenario that Valdez missed the entire 2021 season, it knocked out nearly a third of their playoff appearances. Odorizzi mitigates the worst result and, in the event that Valdez can come back mid-season, even provides a modest boost to Houston’s October chances.

Of the other free-agent pitchers, only Rick Porcello and Mike Leake would have been close to providing that; options like Aníbal Sánchez, Jeff Samardzija, and Homer Bailey all project at least a win worse. Jake Odorizzi is not a player who can change the course of the season, but in the straits in which the Astros find themselves, he is likely their best choice.

Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.

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1 year ago

The injury bug hitting Houston. Thanks Dan! (not for the injuries, for the article)