Rangers Go Bargain Shopping for Pitching With Trade for Jake Odorizzi

Jake Odorizzi
Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

The Rangers spent more than half a billion dollars in new free-agent contracts last year — by far the largest outlay in baseball — and wound up losing 94 games anyway. But while it was not a successful year by any stretch of the imagination, many of those long-term deals set the foundation for the roster as Texas attempts to exit a long rebuilding cycle. And with a solid, if expensive, core to build the lineup around, it isn’t hard to see where the major holes on the roster are: the pitching staff. Last year, the Rangers allowed 4.59 runs per game, 23rd in the majors, and their starters put up ERA- and FIP- marks of 119 and 111, respectively. With Jon Gray essentially the only established option written in pen for the rotation, they have a lot of work to do this offseason.

To that end, the Rangers acquired Jake Odorizzi from the Braves in exchange for Kolby Allard on Wednesday. Atlanta will be covering $10 million of Odorizzi’s $12.5 million salary in 2023 after he exercised his player option prior to being dealt. The unique two-year deal that he signed with Houston in 2021 included a number of performance bonuses and escalating clauses that pushed his player option from a base of $6.5 million to the current $12.5 million salary the Rangers will pay. Those escalators also increased the size of the buyout on his option from $3.25 million to $6.25 million. By meeting all of the thresholds and maxing out his potential salary, his decision to exercise his option became an easy decision. To make things even sweeter, his player option for ‘23 also includes a number of performance bonuses that could increase his total salary to a maximum of $15.5 million.

Odorizzi will be joining his sixth organization in his 12th season as a big leaguer. Over the last two years, he’s posted a league- and park-adjusted ERA (104) and FIP (107) just a hair over league average across 45 starts and 211 innings. These past couple of seasons have been a bit of a disappointment after what seemed like a breakout season back in 2019, when he put up career-bests in FIP, strikeout rate, and WAR. Unfortunately, a host of minor injuries cost him most of the shortened 2020 season and have prevented him from pitching a full season since then. Last season, with a healthy starting rotation full of better options, the Astros traded him straight up for Will Smith (the reliever) at the trade deadline.

After reaching a lofty 27.1% strikeout rate in ‘19, Odorizzi saw that mark drop to 19% in ’22, the lowest it’s been since 2013. That shouldn’t come as a surprise after looking at his pitch arsenal, with his three most used pitches running nearly identical whiff rates: 22.2% on his four-seamer and splitter and 22.3% on his cutter. Nor have those whiff rates on his secondary offerings deviated much from the recent past. The big reason why his strikeout rate was so high in 2019 was because opposing batters swung and missed 30.5% of the time when swinging at his heater. Incidentally, his four-seamer averaged nearly 93 mph during his career year; it’s been closer to 92 over the last two seasons.

Without a sudden spike in velocity, it’s unlikely Odorizzi will be regaining the form he enjoyed in ‘19. Instead, he’s turned himself into a capable contact manager:

Jake Odorizzi, Contact Management
Year Hard Hit% Barrel% FB + LD% FB + LD Avg EV HR/FB wOBA xwOBAcon
2019 36.2% 7.8% 65.0% 92.3 8.8% 0.289 0.374
2021 39.3% 9.3% 64.8% 93.7 11.6% 0.316 0.384
2022 33.1% 7.3% 68.2% 91.7 9.2% 0.315 0.354

Armed with a prototypical modern fastball with tons of carry, Odorizzi has always been a fly ball pitcher, leading to a bit of a home run problem throughout his career. He didn’t fully solve that issue last year, but he was able to limit the amount of hard contact allowed against him to a significant degree. His expected wOBA on contact was the lowest it’s been in the Statcast era, and his barrel rate fell back to where it was during that breakout season, with his hard-hit rate falling even further. If giving up a few home runs is the price he has to pay to generate a ton of soft fly balls and pop ups, it’s a pretty good tradeoff, all things considered.

The other big bugaboo in Odorizzi’s profile is an inability to work deep into games; he’s averaged less than five innings per start over the last two years. It certainly seems like the Astros and Braves tried to protect him from being exposed to a lineup more than two times, and with good reason: when facing batters for the third time in a game, his wOBA allowed jumps from .302 to .373. Rangers president of baseball operations Chris Young alluded to those struggles and the efforts his team will go to allay them in his comments after the trade was completed.

“I think that it’s up to us to evaluate each pitcher and set each pitcher up for success. I think that in some ways, the way our bullpen has been constructed — with guys like Brock Burke and Taylor Hearn — we have the ability to shorten games that way. I think it is beneficial for each player to be put in positions that they will succeed. And I think with Jake [Odorizzi], we’ll evaluate what’s best for him, but it’s an option, and I think it’s a good way for us to try to build an entire pitching staff.”

So while Odorizzi won’t be able to eat the kinds of innings you’d expect from a veteran back-end starter, his consistency and newfound ability to manage contact makes him a valuable piece for the Rangers that didn’t cost very much to get.

This move is a little harder to parse for the Braves. With an estimated payroll already pushing over $225 million in 2023, they have very little wiggle room to add or re-sign any players. Moving Odorizzi frees up at least $2.5 million and possibly more if he meets his performance bonuses. The amount of cash included in the trade is a bit surprising; if this move were a true salary dump, you’d expect Atlanta to take a hit on the player it got back in return. Instead, the team will pay the majority of Odorizzi’s salary and receive only Allard.

That’s not to say Allard is an uninteresting addition; he’s a nice bit of depth for the Braves’ pitching staff. It’s a bit of a homecoming for him, too, as he was a first-round pick by Atlanta back in 2015 and made his major league debut with them in ‘18. Still only 25 years old, he has bounced between the rotation and the bullpen during his five-year major league career and has just 0.2 WAR to show for it. Pitching out of the ‘pen full-time in 2022, both his ERA and FIP started with a seven in 21 innings pitched, and it certainly seemed like he had fallen out of favor in Texas after spending most of the summer in Triple-A.

Still, despite the ugly surface stats, some of his underlying metrics showed some promise. Each of his three most often used pitches ran career-high whiff rates this season in limited action. That didn’t translate to a jump in strikeout rate, but there’s at least something for the Braves to work with there. The biggest problem comes when batters put his pitches in play; nearly a third of the fly balls Allard allowed this year flew over the fence, and his barrel and hard-hit rates were both career worsts.

With four spots in their rotation locked in and a host of young pitchers lined up to battle for the fifth spot, the Braves can now add Allard to that pile. His ability to work out of the bullpen also gives him a bit of flexibility in case Atlanta needs a long reliever, and he has a minor league option remaining, which has some value as well. If the Braves’ development team can identify why his whiff rates improved and help him translate that into actual results on the mound, he could be a useful piece of depth for them. If not, simply clearing Odorizzi’s salary off the books was reason enough to make this move.





Jake Mailhot is a contributor to FanGraphs. A long-suffering Mariners fan, he also writes about them for Lookout Landing. Follow him on Twitter @jakemailhot.

15 Comments
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proiste
2 months ago

Good move for the Rangers. But I’m really having trouble understanding this for Atlanta. They end up paying more money than if they just bought Odorizzi out, essentially buying Kolby Allard for $3.75MM. Unless I’m really missing something with Allard (I don’t see a bump in whiff% over 20 innings overriding 200 innings of terribleness), it seems like they’re just setting money on fire.

Not really a consequential move, but it’s definitely odd to see from a generally respected FO

TKDCmember
2 months ago
Reply to  proiste

They couldn’t buy Odorizzi out. It was a player option. The “buy out” in this case is what Odorizzi gets if he declines the option (which does sound weird, but that’s how it’s done and what it’s called).

The Braves valued Odorizzi at something less than $2.5 million plus Kolby Allard. I assume that once you realize that it was a player option and not a team option, it at least makes sense even if you disagree with the valuation.

Edit to add: all and all, the Braves, who likely would have just released Will Smith, ended up essentially buying 2 months of Odorizzi and a flyer on Allard for $7 million. Personally, I think it has been strange how AA has seemingly held very firm lines on the years given out in long term deals but has been fairly cavalier about spending money on marginal pitchers, especially relievers, that eventually adds up.

Last edited 2 months ago by TKDC
proiste
2 months ago
Reply to  TKDC

It was somehow lost on me that it was a player option. Whoops. Definitely less weird now

hughduffy
2 months ago
Reply to  TKDC

Considering how much the Braves owed to Will Smith, trading him to the Astros for 2 months of Odorizzi ended up being a wash with how much was left on their contracts for 2022.

One year deals add up, but at the end of the year, they’re off the books.

TKDCmember
2 months ago
Reply to  hughduffy

It would have cost the Braves $3.25 million had Odorizzi taken the buy out, when factoring what they offloaded to the Astros. Honestly, I’m guessing the Braves figured he would and were happy with spending $3.25 million to upgrade over their other depth SP options. Instead, it costs them $7 million less whatever Allard is worth.

Also, I wonder where Will Smith ends up next year as he chases a third ring in a row?

hughduffy
2 months ago
Reply to  TKDC

It was never going to cost the Braves just a $3.25 million buyout. Part of the reason the Astros wanted to trade Odorizzi was because he was close to reaching the incentives in his contract that were going to double the player option. They also knew that Odorizzi would exercise the option, since there’s no way that Odorizzi gets more than $12.5 million after spending the last two years as a league average pitcher who threw a total of 211 innings.

The Braves knew they were getting Odorizzi for 2022 and for 2023. They wanted the 103 ERA+/3.61 FIP Odorizzi the Astros had. What they got was a 78 ERA+/5.14 FIP Odorizzi instead.

So in the end, it costs the Braves $10 million to have Odorizzi pitch somewhere else to reacquire Kolby Allard so they can pay him the major league minimum.

I wish Will Smith luck with whatever team he ends up with. I hope no new fans have to endure the Will Smith Experience.

TKDCmember
2 months ago
Reply to  hughduffy

I think you’re misunderstanding me and also the option. The $3.25 million I’m referring to is the difference in cost between paying Odorizzi and paying Smith if Odorizzi takes the $6.25 million buyout (Smith also had a $1 million buyout and had ~$2 million more in salary in 2022 that the Astros paid, that is where $3.25 million comes from in my comment; it is only a coincidence that $3.25 million is also the buyout amount Odorizzi was about to soar past when traded).

Two other things: Odorizzi doesn’t need to think he could get $12.5 million to decline the option. Declining the option comes with $6.25 million, so he’d only need to think he could get more than $6.25 million in order to decline the option. It was reasonably likely that would happen when the Braves made the trade. It didn’t. But at the time it was reasonably likely.

It did not, so instead of paying the buyout, the Braves paid $10 million, or $3.75 million more than the buyout, which brought the total comparative cost to just keeping Will Smith to $7 million (less Kolby Allard).

hughduffy
2 months ago
Reply to  TKDC

I think you’re getting the math wrong on the amounts owed. According to RosterResource numbers, at the time of the trade, the Braves owed Will Smith $4,642,857 for the rest of the 2022 season, and the Astros owed Jake Odorizzi $4,785,714 for the rest of the 2022 season.

True, declining the option would net him $6.25 million, if he could get at least $6.25 million in free agency. With a player option, from the team’s point of view, I think you have to assume the player exercises the option until he doesn’t.

At any rate, if the Braves had kept Will Smith, they would have paid him $4,642,857 for 2022, and $1 million buyout for 2023. All of it would be booked in 2022, which would have given them more room under the CBT for 2023.

Instead, the Braves got Jake Odorizzi, paid him $4,785,714 for 2022, and $12.5 million for 2023, which they paid $10 million to the Rangers to take.

So the comparative cost difference difference between Smith and Odorizzi is $5,642,857 versus $14,785,714, or $9,142,857. Less Kolby Allard.

Was Odorizzi, his two wins, and 10 games started, worth an extra $9 million over Will Smith?

TKDCmember
2 months ago
Reply to  hughduffy

I was relying on the Fangraphs blog post from the trade, which had some weirdly worded language that I misread. You’re right about the amount Odorizzi was paid (the article compared the costs assuming Odorizzi would not hit those incentives he was pretty certain to hit and did hit).

I don’t agree that you have to assume a player takes an option. And I don’t think any MLB teams do, either. It’s not hard to come up with a probability of an event like that occurring. If anything, the Braves, who were trading for Odorizzi and in the best case scenario paying him $5.25 million for 2 months, would have assumed he would be good enough to opt out. If you make that assumption, the trade makes sense. If one assumption makes the trade make sense and another makes it not make sense, I think it’s fair to assume the former was the thinking of the team.

downbaddav
2 months ago
Reply to  proiste

odorizzi was probably going to pick up his player option and the braves were going to be on the hook for over 12 million. so they saved over 2 million and got a project arm

proiste
2 months ago
Reply to  downbaddav

I somehow got it into my thick skull that this was a team option, my bad