In May of 2013, the stars aligned for Jake Odorizzi to pitch his first major league game as a member of the Tampa Bay Rays. David Price went down with a triceps injury just as Chris Archer was coming back from an ankle issue, and suddenly Odorizzi got the call. His Rays debut was solid as he allowed 3 runs on 5 hits in 5 innings, striking out 6 while walking 1. His second start, however, saw him allow 6 runs in 4 innings against the Miami Marlins, and his chance had come and gone. Evidently, he was not ready to be an impact pitcher in the major leagues. Odorizzi was excellent in his final four big league appearances of the year, managing a 1.04 ERA in 17.1 innings pitched as he delivered strong starts against the Boston Red Sox and Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim and even registered a save. However, the Rays didn’t have a starting spot for him and Odorizzi was simply going to have to wait for his opportunity. We thought that a David Price trade would clear room for Odorizzi, but instead the Rays never got the right offer and Price stayed put. Despite everything he had done, Odorizzi was set to start 2014 back at Triple-A Durham. But then the news broke that Jeremy Hellickson would miss the start of the season after undergoing arthroscopic elbow surgery, and Odorizzi’s second chance came into view.
Jake Odorizzi had an outstanding season at Triple-A Durham, going 9-6 with a 3.33 ERA, a 9.0 K/9, a 2.9 BB/9, and a 0.9 HR/9 in 22 starts and 124.1 innings pitched. But that was nothing particularly special. The previous three seasons, Odorizzi had also managed an ERA between 3.00 and 3.7 and a strikeout to walk ratio between 2.7-to-1 and 3.7-to-1. The issue was that despite the strong numbers, Odorizzi was missing key ingredients for success in the major leagues. Odorizzi was not an overpowering pitcher, sitting primarily 92-93 MPH with his fastball, yet he never did a great job commanding it down in the zone, leading to too many flyballs and home runs. He did throw a trio of secondary pitches in his slider, curveball, and changeup, but none of the three were that true swing-and-miss pitch he needed to make his arsenal stand out. Odorizzi was the perfect example of a pitcher who could pitch extremely well in the minor leagues but would have minimal upside as a a major league pitcher because his stuff and command simply were not good enough. This season, however, that began to change.
In April and May at Durham, Odorizzi’s groundball rate was just 27.4% for batted balls we have data for from Minor League Central. But the remainder of the season, Odorizzi’s groundball rate jumped to 37.1%. Odorizzi still has more work to do from there, but that is a statistically significant value with a p-value of .041 (24.4 to 1 odds). He made an adjustment in his delivery, and that led to improved fastball command and more contact on the ground. Odorizzi will never be a groundball pitcher, but he now he is in a reasonable range and there is hope that he will continue to improve. In terms of his secondary pitches, meanwhile, Odorizzi may never find a plus breaking pitch, but his slider is a strong groundball offering and both his curveball and changeup continue to show flashes. His secondary pitches are good enough now, and there is reason to believe they can improve. In recent seasons, Alex Cobb and Jeremy Hellickson broke through with their curveballs after arriving in the major leagues, and you have to think pitchers like Cobb and Hellickson could help Odorizzi work on his changeup as well. No matter what happens, though, the Rays are asking Odorizzi to be a number five starter, and he can be that and quite possibly more.
Jake Odorizzi is heading to the major leagues and his upside is likely exactly where it was a season ago–a number three or four starter in the major leagues. But now he has the command to start living up to that potential immediately and there is still a chance his stuff could continue to improve. Odorizzi proved in 2013 that he is ready to be a solid major league starting pitcher right now. Thanks to the injury to Hellickson, he is set to receive his chance, and he has the ability to take advantage.