This article is part of our Collette Calls series.
Jake Odorizzi did not exactly drum up a lot of pre-season excitement in fantasy circles. He went for $4 in AL Tout to Joe Sheehan, $4 in AL LABR to Tristan Cockcroft and in the reserves in the Mixed Tout standings to Patrick Davitt.
Twelve starts into 2014, Odorizzi justified the lack of interest in his abilities as he was 2-6 with a 5.31 ERA and a 1.53 WHIP. Despite the fact he had permitted just five home runs and had a 27.4% strikeout rate, he permitted three or more earned runs in 8 of his 12 outings. He also failed to go deep into his outings because he had difficulty turning a lineup over with any level of efficiency. It was not unusual for Odorizzi to need 40 or more pitches to flip a lineup or to enter the 5th inning over 80 pitches. The second time through lineups was an adventure for him and teams punished him for it.
If one used advanced metrics to evaluate Odorizzi at that point, there was reason for optimism. Despite the 5.31 ERA, he had a 3.20 Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP), a 3.45 xFIP and a .372 batting average on balls in play. Simply put, he was pitching better than his results indicated. Two areas held him back – a 10% walk rate and a below league-average strand rate of 68%. While many balls were hit rather hard against him, he kept the ball in the ballpark but would often leave a mess on the basepaths for the bullpen that the mid-relief guys could not always clean up for him.
To his credit, Odorizzi tried to change things up to change his fortunes. He began incorporating a slow curveball in mid-May that had some early success with the pitch as shown here when he completely fools Robinson Cano:
Then, as quickly as the slow curve came, it went away. Odorizzi had issues with a split fingernail earlier in May and perhaps the curveball grip was aggravating that issue because the pitch disappeared, and so did his success. Over his next four outings, he lost three of the four with a 6.16 ERA and a 1.48 WHIP.
If you wanted Odorizzi on June 6th, you could have likely picked him up off a free agent pile or for any hot hand at that point. If you had, you would have rostered a pitcher that has since gone 6-3 with a 2.63 ERA and a 1.11 WHIP. After allowing three or more earned runs in 8 of his first 12 starts, he has done so just twice over his last 11.
The indicators have not changed much, but the outcomes have:
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 Hollandexplained 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.