Odorizzi has reduced his walk rate a bit by sacrificing a bit of his strikeout rate, but the most noticeable difference is the lack of batted balls safely put into play. Earlier in the season, Odorizzi's high BABIP was directly related to how hard the ball was being hit rather than just bad luck. That issue was due to the fact Odorizzi tended to pitch both righties and lefties away-away-away preferring to get them to strike out or make contact off the end of the bat while forcing batters to hit balls to the bigger part of the ballpark. The strategy is wise when you spend a lot of your time pitching indoors in Tropicana Field, as Greg Holland explained last season:
Pitchers like to pitch on the outer half of the plate - away - because it's hard to hit a pitch on the outer half of the plate out of the park. Stay on the outer half and, unless the guy has unusual opposite-field power, he's likely to stay in the park.
But, when you pitch like that and miss out over the plate, batters take advantage of you.
Those issues tended to arise for Odorizzi after he would flip a lineup over and batters had a good idea of what he was throwing and where it was going to be. Simply put, batters could swing away with authority on pitches away without impunity as they did not have to worry about covering the inner part of the plate. That was the other part of Holland's quote:
But continually pitch on the outer half - away, away, away - and hitters start to "dive." They stride toward the outer half of the plate and now, as far as the hitter is concerned, that pitch on the outside corner is right down the middle.
Over those first 12 starts, batters hit .372/.434/.574 against Odorizzi after their first plate appearance in a game with a .440 BABIP and struck out 19.7% while walking 11.2% of the time. Since then, the turnaround has been dramatic as batters have hit .219/.280/.318 against him with a .276 BABIP while striking out 25.5% and walking 7.3% of the time. The biggest improvement came against left-handed batters.
Normally, a pitcher that features a changeup has success against lefties because that pitch fades away from them. The challenge for Odorizzi was that he is primarily a fastball/changeup guy to lefties and thus his habit of only pitching away/away to lefties made it easier for batter to spoil pitches until they got what they want. Lefties hit .392/.429/.633 against him the second and third time through a lineup because they only had to guess location and not pitch type.
These days, Odorizzi has added to the level of guesswork for batters as he is showing more willingness to pitch to the inner part of the strike zone. Those same lefties have batted just .215/.271/.278 against him the second and third time through the lineup and are swinging and missing at a much higher rate – 30.6% versus 20.9%.
This in-season maturation is one of the things the Rays' front office liked about Odorizzi when they traded for him. Chaim Bloom, the team's Director of Operations, told Tommy Rancel as much back in February:
Jake's mound presence was one of the things our scouts liked before we acquired him - his composure and his poise stood out. Translating that to the major league level isn't automatic and he did a terrific job. It was exciting for us to see how Jake adapted and learned from each big league outing he had throughout the summer. The way he pitched in September, especially in that extra-inning game against Baltimore, spoke volumes about how he's made up.
Bloom's last quote hints at what has helped Odorizzi change his fortunes this season:
I think that when you have an arsenal as deep as Jake's, with several quality pitches in play at all times, you have advantages that might not be as apparent as when you have an upper-90's fastball or one devastating secondary pitch. But they're every bit as real. When you not only have good stuff but you can also execute any pitch in any count, get ahead consistently, disrupt timing, and change eye levels, you're going to be very successful.
Odorizzi has showed a willingness to adapt to change his outcomes this season. He first added a split-changeup to his arsenal, then went to a 12-6 curveball for a bit, before finally taking a cheat-code (left/right; up/down) approach to the strike zone. While he lacks the velocity of a front-line starter, his 26.5% strikeout rate is currently tenth-best for all qualified pitchers in baseball and has the highest strikeout total for all rookie pitchers in baseball.
The real Odorizzi is somewhere in between what we saw and what we are seeing as he can't continue to strand baserunners at his current clip, but the strikeouts are for real. For those that were willing to overlook the baseball card stats with him and use advance metrics to see what was possible, they have been handsomely rewarded these past two months.