Jake Odorizzi has come a long way since he was involved in the franchise-altering Wil Myers/James Shields trade from December of 2012. When he arrived in Tampa Bay, Odorizzi was a tenured prospect with an ordinary four-seam fastball and several developing off-speed pitches. Now, just over two years later, Odorizzi is quietly emerging as one of the top right-handed starters in baseball, and it’s a testament to his organization’s philosophy and the indispensable guidance he’s received from a few teammates.
Originally a first round draft pick by the Milwaukee Brewers in the 2008, Odorizzi was traded twice before he turned 23 years of age. It appeared that he was on the brink of breaking into the big leagues for good with Kansas City before they pulled the trigger to acquire Shields, but the trade came before Odorizzi had more than two starts under his belt. Odorizzi spent most of the 2013 season at Triple-A Durham, where he pitched well, but left something to be desired in his 22 starts.
Something was missing from Odorizzi’s repertoire. Before the Rays got a hold of him, Odorizzi’s most advanced off-speed pitch was presumably his looping curveball, which was essentially the only pitch he regularly utilized to offset his fastball. That began to change at the beginning of the 2014 season, when Odorizzi finally took over a prominent role in the Rays rotation.
For nearly a decade, the Rays have been unparalleled in the area of pitching development. That shouldn’t come as much of a surprise; the Rays have some of the best instructors in the game, including pitching coach Jim Hickey, who has been instrumental in the revitalization of this franchise. Their turnaround started with remarkable improvement in the draft, where they acquired much of their talent, but two of the mainstays in the current rotation, Odorizzi and Chris Archer, were both obtained through enormous off-season trades and were at similar stages of development as prospects several years ago.
The differences between the two are unmistakable; Odorizzi doesn’t offer the same electric stuff as Archer and can’t rely on upper-90s fastball velocity to regularly overwhelm opposing hitters. It was that distinctive asset that earned Archer a ticket to the big leagues in 2013, leaving behind his floundering teammate Odorizzi. Then spring training of 2014 arrived. Primed for a full-time Major League position, Odorizzi began tweaking with his mix in an attempt to broaden his arsenal. With assistance from his teammate Alex Cobb, Odorizzi learned the grip for a brand new pitch; a pitch that elevated Odorizzi’s repertoire to another level of effectiveness.
Some see the movement on this pitch and refer to it as a splitter. Others take into account its mid-80s velocity and call it a change-up. But regardless of a title, this pitch has been a revelation for Odorizzi, who was finally able to establish a potent alternative offering to his four-seamer. Cobb has been throwing his version of this pitch for several years with remarkable effectiveness (15.9 change-up runs above average in 2014, according to FanGraphs). The difference between Cobb and Odorizzi’s split-change lies in release point. Cobb comes more from over the top, and therefore gets more of a vertical drop. Odorizzi, on the other hand, tends to pull his head off the ball before releasing, causing more of an unpredictable tilt at the point of the drop.
Unpredictable movement is invaluable for any pitcher, especially one like Jake Odorizzi. This pitch allowed him to more efficiently attack in the upper reaches of the zone with his fastball and subsequently finish hitters off with that devastating split-change that both Odorizzi and Cobb have referred to as a “heavy two-seamer”. What was once a pedestrian four-pitch mix had radically transformed into an extremely formidable selection for Odorizzi, and that started to show throughout the course of the 2014 season.
It was a season filled with inconsistency for Odorizzi — remember, he was just 24 years of age and a rookie — but as the schedule progressed, he began to show a marked improvement in run prevention, which was correlating with an inflated strikeout rate. Odorizzi finished 2014 with a sensational 9.32 K/9 rate, thanks in large part to his split-change, which he threw just under 21 percent of the time. His 4.13 ERA didn’t exactly impress and he was walking a few too many batters (3.16 BB/9), but his reduced FIP (3.75) was clearly a better indicator of what was to come.
To date in 2015, Odorizzi has been one of the most dominant starters in the American League over seven starts, pitching to a 2.09 ERA (2.34 FIP), while inducing more ground balls, maintaining a solid strikeout rate (7.42 K/9), and cutting down his walk rate tremendously (1.52 BB/9). Odorizzi is throwing his split-change over 31 percent of the time — opponents are managing a meager .398 OPS against it and whiffing over 18 percent of the time — while also introducing a cutter into his mix more relevantly. What this amounts to is a young pitcher with huge potential, ever-increasing confidence, and one pitch that’s just, well, silly good.