Tomorrow, we will find out who the Tampa Bay Rays decide upon for their fifth starter role. In making their choice, the Rays have several factors to consider. The first is who they think is the best man for the job, but that is not all. The job may only be temporary because Jeremy Hellickson will return by the end of May. Is it worth calling up Jake Odorizzi when the job may only be his for a couple months? That is especially the case because Erik Bedard will opt out of his minor league deal if is not named the fifth starter. Is Odorizzi so much better than Bedard that losing Bedard would be worth worthwhile? Finally, is starting the season in the major leagues the best thing for Odorizzi’s development? The Rays have been known to keep even big league-ready players in the minor leagues both to gain polish and gain an extra year of service time. Why should Odorizzi be any different?
The Rays do have a reputation of holding down top prospects in the minors, but their history with pitchers in Odorizzi’s situation does not seem to provide much insight into what they will do one or the other. The Rays had David Price coming off an electrifying postseason performance in 2008 yet kept him in the minor leagues until the end of May. The next year, Wade Davis began the season in their starting rotation. In 2011, Jeremy Hellickson followed the same pattern, also beginning the season as one of the Rays’ five starters. Then in 2012, Matt Moore started the year in the rotation, but Alex Cobb didn’t surface in the big leagues until the middle of May. Finally, the following season, Chris Archer did not make his Rays debut until June. Is there some pattern that can reconcile those seemingly random decisions?
Price and Moore were in almost identical situations after their late-season call-ups and playoff heroics, but Price went one way and Moore the other. Davis, Hellickson, Cobb, and Archer had more big league time than Moore and Archer, and of course two started the season in the rotation and two did not. You would think that pitchers with more big league time would have an edge, but just 2.0% of the Rays’ decisions were explained by how much big league time each pitcher had thrown in the big leagues the previous season (R^2=.020). Where Baseball America put them in the prospect rankings following the year were a little bit better, explaining 18.6% of the data, that goes down to just 1.0% if you take out Cobb, who lost his rookie eligibility in 2011 after being ranked the Rays’ 16th-best prospect following the 2010 season. Switching to the prospects’ rankings in Baseball America’s top 100 to adjust for different quality systems in different years, we get just 2.5%–although Cobb was not in those rankings. Plug in 101 for Cobb, and suddenly we are at 21.7%. But what was the other 78.3%? The Rays’ decisions had nothing to do with how much experience the prospects had gained the previous season, and how good they were as prospects was only one part of the equation.
How about career innings at Triple-A entering the year? That explains 26.0% of the data, about the same as the prospect rankings. Take out Matt Moore, who was a special case as he dominated in his limited time at Triple-A, and that shoots up to 66.7%. Neck-and-neck with that without making any adjustments is how many total innings the pitchers had thrown the previous season, where we can explain 60.4%. Correlation certainly does not imply causation with these numbers–the big thing we are not accounting for is the availability of quality alternatives to these pitchers. That being said, the Rays tended to choose pitchers as much because of their Triple-A experience and their ability to log innings in the big leagues the next season as how good they were as prospects.
Where does Jake Odorizzi fit into that? He has thrown 154 innings, right in the middle of the pack, but his 231.2 Triple-A innings are more than anyone. Davis was the only other pitcher over 200. Especially with Hellickson returning to give the Rays at least six major league-quality starters, Odorizzi should have no issue filling innings for the Rays. But it is worth nothing that Odorizzi (67th) is the lowest-ranked prospect in the top 100 that we have discussed aside from Cobb. Odorizzi simply does not have the upside of previous Rays’ pitching prospects, and that certainly hurts his case. He has added a split-change this offseason, providing hope that he could exceed expectations, but he certainly hasn’t blown away enough hitters this spring to make the Rays’ decision easy. Using a multiple regression model based around prospect ranking, innings at Triple-A, and innings pitched the previous season, Odorizzi nets a .475, with 0 being returning to Triple-A and 1 being starting the season in the major leagues. Odorizzi is right on the boundary, leaning just slightly towards more time in the minors. It is a close decision, but based on their previous choices, the Rays could easily justify sending Odorizzi back to Triple-A to begin the year.
At the end of the day, it comes down for the variable we could not account for, the Rays’ other options to start. Is Jake Odorizzi the Tampa Bay Rays’ best fifth starter option by a big enough margin that he deserves to start the season in the major leagues? We will find out in the next 24 hours as the Rays figure out the direction in which they will proceed to begin the year.