Jake Odorizzi has been traded twice now, first in the Zack Greinke deal and then in the James Shields trade. Then he saw the other centerpiece of the latter move, Wil Myers, get shipped off to San Diego just one year after winning AL Rookie of the Year. Odorizzi may be the promising young player in baseball with the best reason for paranoia about his standing with his current team.
However, while Odorizzi’s past and the Tampa Bay Rays’ recent deals are arguments against Odorizzi staying with the team for long, they mean little in the scheme of things. They are outweighed by one critical fact: the Rays are the team that best understood how Odorizzi could become a successful major league pitcher.
Jake Odorizzi has always had two flaws as a prospect, his fastball command and his lack of a put-away secondary pitch. By the time the Rays had acquired him, evaluators had already begun to discount the chance that Odorizzi could overcome those issues. After regarding him as a potential number two or three starter for years, Baseball America had grown tired of Odorizzi by the 2012 offseason.
"Odorizzi will need more consistent control and command if he’s going to thrive in the big leagues with average stuff…his lack of plus stuff limits him to a ceiling as a No. 3 or 4 starter."
Who could blame them? We live in a baseball world where pitchers are taught to attack the bottom of the zone, but Odorizzi was throwing above the waist instead. His numbers were still very good, but his approach seemed unlikely to continue working at higher levels. After all, big league hitters are smart enough not to chase the high heat as often plus the risk of not elevating the ball enough and leaving it in a hittable zone is extremely high.
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The Rays, however, saw Odorizzi’s tendency to pitch up in the zone as a strength rather than a weakness. They realized that he didn’t have command issues–it wasn’t as though his fastballs ended up there because he was missing. He was making a concerted effort to pitch up and did an excellent job delivering offerings that were low enough for hitters to swing but high enough that they couldn’t hit the ball with any authority and often couldn’t connect at all.
Since then, the Rays have built a pitching staff that is notable for how often it throws elevated fastballs. Did Odorizzi give them the idea or was he simply a pitcher that fit what they were looking for? Either way, Odorizzi is the Rays’ best pitcher at attacking hitters up in the zone and rode the approach to over a strikeout per inning in his rookie year.
In regards to Odorizzi’s lack of a secondary pitch, meanwhile, that was less of a concern for a team like the Rays. Big league pitching coach Jim Hickey and then-Triple-A pitching coach Neil Allen had become among the best in the business at teaching and refining changeups. Even better, the Rays had players with the ability to supplement that instruction.
The pitcher for whom Odorizzi was traded, James Shields, had helped everyone on the team with their changeups, from Scott Kazmir to David Price to Alex Torres. Of course, Shields was gone the moment Odorizzi arrived, but before the Rays knew it, Alex Cobb had taken his place as the instructor. Cobb taught Odorizzi his split-change and the rest is history.
It remains to be seen just how good Odorizzi will be. His overall 4.13 ERA in 2014 probably doesn’t tell the full story as he managed a 3.59 ERA in his last 140.1 innings pitched that was backed up by a 3.57 FIP. Before a rough finish, he actually had a 3.13 ERA and a 3.25 FIP for a 127-inning span. However, his strikeout rate also declined as the year went on as hitters may have adjusted to his propensity to pitch up in the zone.
No matter what happens in the end, though, we can say for certain right now that Jake Odorizzi still has the ability to be a number two starter. The Rays continue to believe in his potential and will give him every opportunity to get his game up to that level. The Rays understand Odorizzi better than either of his previous teams and he would not have gotten to this point had he been with any other franchise.