Jake Odorizzi: from Breakthrough to Breakout?

This past spring, Jake Odorizzi had an opportunity, but not much in the way of expectations from fantasy baseball players. He hadn’t yet been exceptional at anything. There had existed a decent chance that he would eventually lose his rotation spot. For the first couple of months of the season, he struggled in each outing after his first time through the opposition’s lineup. Rotisserie owners might even consider his 76th-place finish in Zach Sanders’ end-of-season rankings for starting pitchers a bit of a coup. According to the list, he earned a buck – on the nose. How exciting.

But Odorizzi also did something interesting: strike people out more frequently. He finished with a 4.13 ERA and 1.29 WHIP, but the 174 K’s (24.2 K%) in 168 innings were quite nice. They lowered the right-hander’s FIP, xFIP, and SIERA, naturally, to more eye-catching figures and raised the level of interest of the fantasy population. How great should that interest be in 2015?

Start with a brief history lesson. Those curious should aim their mice at “Jake Odorizzi’s new pitch,” a piece at D Rays Bay that covers the theretofore impact of a split-finger grip the righty learned from Alex Cobb. After that, lured readers should take a spin through Eno’s conversations with Odorizzi and Cobb to get a feel for Odorizzi’s … feel. Finally, inspired opportunists should check out David Laurila’s interview of Jim Hickey, the Tampa Bay Rays’ pitching coach, so that they have some confirmation of what went on this past season. Got it? OK, cool.

Odorizzi went from a blah four-pitch mix to kind of a yee-ha four-pitch mix in one season. The numbers on his new split-changeup thingy were pretty darn good at the end of the campaign: about 15% whiffs and 50% ground balls. The new offering helped his otherwise ordinary four-seamer (with below-average velocity), which he uses up in the strike zone, to become more effective: 9.8% whiffs (up by more than a percentage point) and greater than 15% pop-ups (a jump of about 5.5 percentage points). (Results on the cutter-slider hybrid Hickey mentioned are unfavorable, but perhaps they made the pitcher’s traditional slider more effective, because its outcomes were better. Anybody knows, fire away.)

Odorizzi is a lot more interesting thanks to this 2014 revelation, assist Cobb and crew. This starter’s slider may be beginning to become a reliable weapon against RHBs. His fastball and split-change are effective against both RHBs and LHBs, the latter more so, of course, but also especially significant because his changeup was no good and his curveball doesn’t look like much more than a show-me pitch.

Slow down the Odorizzi train a little, though. The righty’s occasionally evasive command defuses some of the excitement. It’ll be interesting to see how much more he can improve. He still has a lot of work to do in terms of refinement. His release points, 2014 and career, are noticeably less consistent when compared to Cobb’s, 2014 and career. Odorizzi improved his walk rate as the season wore on, but he finished the campaign poorly, particularly in September, as his release point became more over the top. Perhaps he eventually tried to mimic Cobb too much; Eno’s piece, among other things, tells us that these two are still distinctly different.

Based on the context of Odorizzi’s path to this point, his 2015 projection could stand to be a little better than Steamer’s (a 3.96 ERA, 1.29 WHIP, 21.1 K%, and 8.4 BB% in 173 IP). Forecasters may be tempted to regress the K% toward his mean more if they don’t investigate the why for his jump – unless, that is, they also use the righty’s minor league marks. The thing is, he surely achieved some of those farm K’s in ways different from how he did in the majors in 2014. The use of major-league equivalencies may help his forecast of strikeout rate to look right, but probably for some wrong reasons.

There are a couple of other areas where the 2015 marks could or should improve. I figure that Odorizzi’s next gains, if they come, would be in BB%, based on the pitcher’s pattern of development and his 2014 progress. Steamer is too hard on him in the HR/9 area, too, I assume because of his propensity to induce fly balls (which have ended up as pop flies often; he was in the top 10 in pop-up rate among qualifiers in 2014). Neighborhoods of a 3.50 ERA and 1.20 WHIP are doable.

Odorizzi could be even better, I imagine, but the forecast still needs a decent margin for error. Inconsistency remains a potential issue. As such, there’s some obvious downside, beyond Steamer’s projection.

Regardless, a gamble on Odorizzi shouldn’t cost much. His overall results in 2014 weren’t exactly impressive. A breakout isn’t a certainty, but he’s already on the path toward one. He should fall near the end of a draft or in the end game in a 12-team mixed league. I think that I’d be, at minimum, willing to reach for him by a round or two, or to top for him at least once, when either of those stages arrives.

Nicholas Minnix oversaw baseball content for six years at KFFL, where he held the loose title of Managing Editor for seven and a half before he joined FanGraphs. He played in both Tout Wars and LABR from 2010 through 2014. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasMinnix.

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7 years ago

I owned him and think he can provide great value if he can refine a few small points but the one thing that scares me is his high FB% combined with http://www.baseballheatmaps.com/graph/pitcherdistancenobuntleader.php

4th highest distance on this list…
A below avg fb up in the zone, when hit goes a long long way.

However, spot start in parks w low HR factors and lots of foul territory, he has a chance to be solid