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Apr 28, 2014; Chicago, IL, USA; Tampa Bay Rays starting pitcher Jake Odorizzi (23) pitches against the Chicago White Sox during the first inning at U.S Cellular Field. Mandatory Credit: David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

Jake Odorizzi Struggling to Find Early-Game Approach That Works

Injuries to Matt Moore and Alex Cobb have brought Cesar Ramos and Erik Bedard into the Tampa Bay Rays’ rotation. Among the biggest disappointments on the team, though, is the pitcher who beat out Ramos and Bedard to replace Jeremy Hellickson in the Rays’ rotation: Jake Odorizzi. Odorizzi’s stuff is real, with his newfound split-change emerging as an excellent pitch, but he has a 6.84 ERA through five starts and that will not cut it. The principal reason for Odorizzi’s struggles: an inability to find the right mix of pitches early in games.

It seems ironic to say that Jake Odorizzi’s problem comes at the beginning of games when he has held hitters to a .471 OPS and a 16-3 strikeout to walk ratio the first time through the batting order and just a .400 batting average and a 6-9 K-BB afterwards. But those numbers tell us that hitters have needed to see Odorizzi just once to figure him out. Teams formulate strategies to attack every hitter in their opponents’ lineups, but they need to have a better game plan for each subsequent at-bat or their chances of success will decrease exponentially every time. Odorizzi’s pitch selection has failed to improve as games have gone on, and he has paid the price accordingly.

Jim Hickey and Ryan Hanigan have continuously changed up Odorizzi’s pitch selection the first time through the batting order as they attempt to find something that works. In his first start, Odorizzi threw nine breaking pitches (all sliders) against the first nine hitters he faced, but the Rays decided to change that for his following outings, likely because the pitch was not very effective. With that in mind, Odorizzi threw five breaking balls combined (3 sliders, 2 curveballs) in his next two starts, but he faltered later in the game on both occasions. Odorizzi collapsed even worse then before when the Rays went back to eight breaking balls (5 curveballs, 3 sliders) in his fourth game. Taking that into account, the Rays tried yet another strategy for his fifth start: stick to his fastball and split-change entirely the first time through. Sure enough, Odorizzi managed his lowest ERA after the first nine hitters since his first start. Unfortunately, he also allowed his first two runs against the first time through the order all season and that ERA was still just 7.71. It seems like the Rays have tried everything, and none of it has helped Odorizzi.

Every Rays pitcher pitches differently the first time through the batting order. The well-known strategy is to hold a pitch back for later, and sure enough, the data shows that Chris Archer almost never uses his changeup when seeing hitters for the first time and Cesar Ramos saves his curveball and slider. Then we can see things get a little more complicated with pitchers like David Price and Matt Moore. Price tends to throw his changeup noticeably more while Moore uses his curveball as his primary secondary offering instead of his changeup.  Those pitchers demonstrate several strategies that Odorizzi could try–he could try holding his split-change back or at least using his breaking balls more often early in games. But then there are Alex Cobb and Erik Bedard, who use the same pitch frequencies every time through the batting order. That goes against conventional baseball wisdom, but it may be the best strategy for Odorizzi moving forward.

Jake Odorizzi’s low-90′s fastball is a plus pitch, but it is not overpowering enough for him to throw too often, especially with two strikes. His split-change shows signs of being another above-average offering, but given that he occasionally makes mistakes with it, Odorizzi needs his other secondary pitches to complement it. That is where Odorizzi’s slider and curve come in. His slider will not miss many bats, but it can force contact on the ground and help end at-bats quickly. His curveball, meanwhile, has too big of a speed difference from his other pitches to be used too often, but it can force the occasional swing-and-miss. With those two pitches clearly a step back, Odorizzi’s best option is to go fastball-splitter most of the time. However, simply showing his slider and curveball will put something else in hitters’ minds and help him immensely. Odorizzi has thrown the two breaking balls under 15% of the time combined anyway–what does he have to lose doing that earlier in games?

Jake Odorizzi and the Rays may be outthinking themselves as they attempt to find the perfect approach for Jake Odorizzi early in games. Simply mixing his pitches the same way every time through the batting order makes him the best possible pitcher without costing him much later in his starts. Holding back pitches has only raised Jake Odorizzi’s pitch count and given hitters more looks at his split-change. Using his slider and curveball at their normal ratios throughout games gives him a greater variety of ways to attack hitters, and that could be what finally gets him on track.

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