Coming out of spring training, Jake Odorizzi won the Tampa Bay Rays’ fifth starter job, showing off a new split-change that made him look as impressive as we have ever seen him. Four starts into his major league stint, however, things are not going so well. Odorizzi has a 6.52 ERA, managing just a 17-10 strikeout to walk ratio and 23 hits allowed in 19.1 innings pitched. Is it time for us to be concerned about whether Odorizzi is ready to be a viable major league starter?
Even through his struggles, Odorizzi’s stuff has looked really good, and it still starts with his split-change. Odorizzi has allowed both of his home runs on the pitch, but there is nothing else wrong with it. It has generated swings-and-misses 14.06% of the time he has thrown it according to Brooks Baseball. To put that in context, none of his other pitches in his major league career has even reached 10%. He has also thrown it for strikes just under two-thirds of the time, even more than his fastball, and forced a 3.40-t0-1 groundball to flyball ratio. “The Thing” is for real–these four starts actually support that quite well. The issues for Odorizzi lie elsewhere: his fastball command and his breaking pitches.
Jake Odorizzi has faced two major questions to his abilities for years now, his ability to locate his fastball and his lack of an out-pitch. The latter problem is fixed, so we go back to the former. Odorizzi made a mechanical adjustment at Triple-A Durham last season, but apparently he still has kinks to work out. Still, we can look at his 1-to-1 groundball to flyball ratio with the pitch and 41.7% groundball rate overall and see that he has come a long way. In his start last night, Odorizzi had major issues commanding his fastball, but that was the exception, not the rule. There is no reason to think that Odorizzi’s walk rate is going to be anywhere near as high as 4.7 per 9 innings mark it is at right now as he gets his fastball back on track, and he may even force more groundballs.
That brings us to Odorizzi’s curveball and slider, which is funny considering that they have been his forgotten pitches. We heard the entire spring about Odorizzi’s splitter–how many times did we hear about the big curveball that helped him to success in his big league debut? As it turns out, that’s a bad thing. Both Odorizzi’s slider and curveball have been incredibly ineffective to begin the year, missing the zone at least 58% of the time and forcing a combined one whiff all season. Now we get to the chicken-or-the-egg question: did Odorizzi stop throwing them because they haven’t been working or have they faltered because he isn’t using them enough? Either way, it’s a major concern. Odorizzi’s split-change has been excellent, but with his breaking pitches being nonentities, he has been relying on his split-change like crazy with two strikes. Against left-handed batters, he throws his slider and curve a combined 1% with two strikes, and even though that goes up to 19% against righties, he has thrown his changeup more than any other pitch. We saw several sequences in last night’s game when Odorizzi kept throwing splitter after splitter. Although it often worked out in the end–especially early in the game–when he was throwing that many changeups, it was only a matter of time until he made a mistake.
Jake Odorizzi’s slider has always been a security blanket for him. While it was never a plus pitch, he could rely upon it to hit the bottom of the zone and force some groundballs. Odorizzi is still trying to use it the same way, throwing it 18.56% of the time, but all it is doing right now is putting him behind in counts. If Odorizzi can get the feel for the pitch back, it will give him at least a show-me offering if a batter fouls off a few splitters and a pitch that he can use to get contact early in the count. In contrast, Odorizzi’s curveball has never been a consistent pitch for him, but it was one he could rely upon to keep hitters off-balance and force a whiff or two per game. The big leagues are extremely tough to pitch in, and even a couple more effective pitches per game could make all the difference for Odorizzi.
Odorizzi has had two issues plague him his entire career–isn’t it ironic that two other things are weighing him down right now? It is, and the good news is that it should change soon. Odorizzi’s split-change looks excellent and his fastball command has been improved for the most part. All he needs to be a successful major league pitcher are the decent slider that he’s had for years now and the occasional big curveball. He is more than capable of making those two things happen. Jake Odorizzi left spring training with high expectations. Once he gets his breaking pitches in order to go along with his fastball and split-change, he will be well on his way to being just as good as we thought.