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Tampa Bay Rays: Did Jake Odorizzi’s Slider Throw Off His Year?

By Robbie Knopf
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You don’t need me to tell you that Jake Odorizzi hasn’t been as good for Tampa Bay Rays since returning from his oblique injury. To quantify it, his ERA has gone up from 2.47 pre-injury to 4.41 afterwards. It also isn’t rocket science what the biggest reason for his decline has been: the home run ball. He has surrendered 13 homers in his 15 post-DL starts, including multiple home runs in 3 of his last 5 outings, compared to just 5 in his 12 starts before the injury. The questions that will hopefully get you to keep reading this piece are the following: what has caused Odorizzi’s decline and what can he do to get back on track?

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To stay in the realm of the obvious for one more second, Odorizzi needs to stop hanging as many secondary pitches. According to Brooks Baseball, Odorizzi’s home run rate on his fastball has stayed relatively constant (0.42% pre-injury, 0.57% since), but his splitter’s has nearly quadrupled from .27% to .93% while his slider/cutter has gone from .89% to a crazy 2.40%. We start to get a hint that there is something more complicated going on when we look Odorizzi’s percentages of “grooved pitches” according to Brooks. His fastball (6.72% to 6.90%) and splitter (1.91% to 2.33%) haven’t been much worse, but his slider/cutter has jumped from 3.11% all the way to 7.20%. We also have reason to believe that there is more to this than some command issues.

I can’t find a link, but Brian Anderson said multiple times on the Rays’ broadcast that Odorizzi returned from the DL with a new spin on his arsenal and Pitch F/X data provides further evidence. He learned Chris Archer‘s slider and returned to the major leagues just about ready to have it replace his cutter. Odorizzi’s cutter wasn’t a dominant pitch, not forcing many whiffs, but it was good enough to keep hitters off-balance. He used it 42% of the time against right-handed batters before he got hurt, which was probably too high a proportion but also illustrated how much he trusted it. Then he gambled with it, and evidently lost it.

Odorizzi’s new slider has averaged 83.77 MPH, 3.5 MPH slower than his 87.28 mark for his cutter, and unsurprisingly has featured more vertical and horizontal movement. It took him a little while to work it in, throwing it just 0.56% of the time in his first two starts back compared to 24.53% cutters, but after he threw 2 sliders and no cutters in his third start, it became a much bigger part of his arsenal. In his next nine starts, he threw 11.50% sliders compared to just 2.97% cutters. Four times he didn’t throw a single cutter in a game. However, he slipped back down to 1.35% sliders versus 10.83% cutters in his last two starts as the experiment with the slider may be over for now.

If Odorizzi had tried out the slider and it hadn’t worked out, that wouldn’t have been so bad by itself. The problem was that throwing the slider also seemingly affected Odorizzi’s cutter as it declined in terms of whiffs, groundball to flyball ratio, and homer rate, all to dramatic extents. We are talking about a 35% drop in whiffs, the groundball rate being just a third of what it was, and the homer rate going up by 126%. And because Odorizzi’s cutter has been so much worse while his slider never went anywhere, he has needed to rely more heavily on his splitter, leading to its inferior results as well.

Tonight will be Jake Odorizzi’s last start of the season for the Tampa Bay Rays, so he is about to have a lot of time on his hands. If the season was still young, it would probably make sense for him to forget about the slider for now and try to get his cutter back to what it was. At this point, though, he has an entire offseason to fiddle around. Two years ago, his split-change burst onto the scene in spring training and last year it was the cutter. Maybe in 2016 it will his slider.

What we can say is that adding the slider at midseason proved to be a mistake for Odorizzi. It was going to be difficult enough for him to maintain his tremendous start to the season and diverting his focus from his primary offerings certainly didn’t help matters. It is hard to quantify exactly what percentage of Odorizzi’s decline can be attributed to the slider, but between the issues of the slider itself, the problems it likely gave him throwing his cutter, and the additional pressure its struggles put on his splitter, it sure looks like a notable proportion. Hopefully this second half rut will help him for the future, whether through motivating him to refine his slider this offseason or making sure that he doesn’t take the cutter for granted again.

Next: Tampa Bay Rays Game 158: Opportunity Seized in 5th Inning

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