Should You Be Buying Jake Odorizzi?

Entering spring training, Jake Odorizzi did not have a starting rotation spot in hand. But then an elbow injury to Jeremy Hellickson opened up a spot and Odorizzi won out over Erik Bedard and Cesar Ramos. A popular sleeper choice in a presumed good situation in Tampa Bay, Odorizzi hasn’t exactly impressed, having posted a 4.72 ERA and 1.38 WHIP over 14 starts. Surely the former top prospect was expected to perform better.

As usual, ERA isn’t exactly the best way to evaluate performance. Odorizzi’s SIERA stands at a much more intriguing 3.42. Both an inflated .328 BABIP and suppressed 69.5% LOB% have wreaked havoc on his ERA. So SIERA suggests that he should be better moving forward, assuming his skills are sustained of course. But are they actually sustainable?

Driving that SIERA is primarily a surprisingly high 26.4% strikeout percentage. If he had thrown enough innings to qualify for the leaderboard, he would rank 10th, right behind Corey Kluber. Sure, he posted a similar 25.2% strikeout rate at Triple-A in 2013, but that was his second tour around that league and the prior year at the same level he managed just a 19.1% mark. Both the Steamer and ZiPS projections also called for a strikeout rate of just 18% to 19%. So by all accounts, he has outperformed expectations on the strikeout rate front. So let’s figure out what’s behind this strikeout rate surge.

His fastball, at least by velocity, is unimpressive, as it averages just 90.5 mph. He complements that with both a slider and curve ball, as well as a splitter/changeup, depending on which source you check. A quick look at his SwStk% marks by pitch type reveals some surprising information — all of his secondary pitches induce swings and misses at a worse than league average rate for that pitch type! Both his fastball have been better than average, which is how he has been able to maintain about a league average overall SwStk%. If you check out his Baseball-Reference page, you’ll notice that by their definition of swinging strikes, he’s been slightly below average.

So with just average ability to generate swings and misses, where the heck are all those strikeouts coming from? If you jump back to that Baseball-Reference page, you’ll notice that his rate of called strikes has jumped. Of course, it has now merely reached league average territory. So that’s now getting us anywhere closer to an explanation given that both his rate of called and swinging strikes are about league average.

The final strike rate type percentage is that of fouls. Finally, a somewhat clearer picture emerges. His 33.6% mark is significantly above the league average that sits around 27% and ranks second among all starters in baseball. Foul strikes have the lowest impact on a pitcher’s strikeout rate for obvious reasons. Although a foul could add a strike to the count to eventually lead to a strikeout, foul balls themselves rarely result in a strikeout. So Odorizzi’s high strikeout rate is driven primarily by a massive rate of foul strikes. That’s simply not the type of skill I want to rely on continuing.

Odorizzi’s xK% according to my latest formula is 24.9%, which is only 1.5% below his actual mark, suggesting he hasn’t been all that lucky. But given that foul strike rates are the flakiest of all and it’s easy to see how what had been a foul strike is now a ball in play, it’s hard to believe he’s going to remain at this level. If his foul strike rate drops to 30%, which is still well above league average, his strikeout rate drops all the way down to 21.7%. That would have resulted in 14 fewer strikeouts than he current has.

Since he’s a fly ball pitcher and his control is just mediocre, his fantasy value is entirely dependent on those strikeouts continuing to pile up. I don’t have confidence that they will and so I think his current SIERA overstates what fantasy owners might enjoy if his luck neutralizes. That said, he’s clearly nowhere near as bad as a 4.73 ERA would indicate, so he could be a good target in deeper leagues. But, his owner must not be saber-savvy, otherwise he’ll be well aware of his SIERA and be less likely to give him away for peanuts.

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Mike Podhorzer is the 2015 Fantasy Sports Writers Association Baseball Writer of the Year. He produces player projections using his own forecasting system and is the author of the eBook Projecting X 2.0: How to Forecast Baseball Player Performance, which teaches you how to project players yourself. His projections helped him win the inaugural 2013 Tout Wars mixed draft league. Follow Mike on Twitter @MikePodhorzer and contact him via email.

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He’s 15th not 10th in K% if you include other non-qualifiers (Kershaw, Sale, etc)

1 Clayton Kershaw 34.4 %
2 Jose Fernandez 34.2 %
3 Chris Sale 30.9 %
4 Yu Darvish 29.3 %
5 Masahiro Tanaka 29.1 %
6 Stephen Strasburg 28.8 %
7 Felix Hernandez 27.6 %
8 David Price 27.3 %
9 Collin McHugh 27.2 %
10 Max Scherzer 27.1 %
11 Johnny Cueto 26.8 %
12 Jake Arrieta 26.7 %
13 Madison Bumgarner 26.5 %
14 Corey Kluber 26.4 %
15 Jake Odorizzi 26.4 %