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Assessing the strengths and weaknesses of Jake Odorizzi’s game

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The Astros are betting big on Jake Odorizzi’s 2019.

MLB: AUG 08 Twins at Royals Photo by Keith Gillett/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Jake Odorizzi was not the same pitcher in 2019 as he had been before. It was a career year for him, and its timing was fairly bizarre, considering he had recently departed the Tampa Bay Rays, a team that is notorious for its aptitude to maximize pitchers’ abilities.

The Minnesota Twins traded for Odorizzi less than a month before the outset of the 2018 season, and while his 2018 campaign was decent, nothing especially interesting transpired that year. What is of particular interest is what happened during the subsequent offseason, and by extension, the 2019 season.

That season now looms large, as over the weekend, the Astros reportedly agreed to terms with Odorizzi. Details are still being hashed out, but reports indicate that the contract is a two-year deal, with a player option for a third year.

In inking Odorizzi, there’s a chance the Astros will have breached the luxury tax threshold, something that was previously thought to be improbable. One report says they will just barely duck the tax. Either way, Odorizzi’s performance in 2019 is undoubtedly a key reason why the Astros signed him.

Before his 4-win (fWAR) breakout season was the aforementioned offseason with the Twins — Odorizzi’s first full offseason with the club. Serious developmental progress must have been made by Odorizzi that winter because in 2019, he pitched with an improved arsenal. Chief among the improvements was his velocity, as it had seen a substantial increase.

The best fastball you’ve never heard of

In 2017, Odorizzi’s average four-seam fastball velocity was 91.5 mph, then in 2018, 91.1 mph. In 2019, it ballooned to 92.9 mph, the highest of Odorizzi’s career.

How was this accomplished? First, it needs to be noted that the Twins are renowned developmentally in their own right, and deserve to be mentioned alongside the Rays and other forward-thinking teams. With that said, Odorizzi himself deserves plenty of credit for simply putting the work in.

The uptick in velocity in 2019 led to superb results that year. Per Statcast’s Run Value metric, Odorizzi’s four-seamer was the seventh best in the league. Moreover, it missed a ton of bats, and was a big reason why Odorizzi finished the season with a K% just north of 27 percent, the best of his career.

Gerrit Cole and Justin Verlander ranked 1st and 2nd among starting pitchers in terms of fastball whiff percentage (min. 500 pitches). Odorizzi ranked 3rd at 30.5 percent, by far a career-high, and finished ahead of starters such as Chris Sale, Max Scherzer and Jacob deGrom, who possess incredibly potent fastballs.

It’s not hard to see how Odorizzi generated whiffs with his heater.

It’s apparent that he lived up in the zone with his fastball.

Data from Statcast and Brooks Baseball differ regarding the vertical movement on Odorizzi’s fastball, and indicate that no substantial increase occurred in 2019. However, both agree that the pitch’s vertical and horizontal movement had already been above-average prior to 2019. This further highlights the importance of Odorizzi’s stark increase in velocity, and how vital it could be going forward.

Another contributing factor to Odorizzi’s success with the elevated fastball is his Vertical Approach Angle (VAA). I mentioned it when writing about Cristian Javier last week, and simply put, it can help optimize a pitch’s results by specifying if a pitch — particularly a fastball — would better play up in the zone or down at the knees.

Like Javier, Odorizzi’s VAA enhances the rising effect on his four-seam fastball, thus making it ideal to throw up in the zone. It’s a notably useful complement to the quality movement on Odorizzi’s fastball.

(For VAA rankings and heaps of other information, check out RotoGraphs’ Alex Chamberlain’s Pitch Leaderboard.)

Master and Commander

Judging by Odorizzi’s walk rates of the past several years, it would appear that he doesn’t possess good control, and his Zone percentages each year seem to legitimize that notion.

And yet, Odorizzi’s command is and has been above-average.

In 2017, 2018 and 2019, Odorizzi located his fastball in the Shadow Zone (the edges of the strike zone, both in and out of it) at an above-average rate. Additionally, Odorizzi’s overall command grades out well with the metric Command+, according to The Athletic’s Eno Sarris ($).

Odorizzi’s fastball and command are his two biggest strengths. In 2019, he threw his fastball nearly 60% of the time, and it would be reasonable to expect that the Astros continue to have him throw it often.

Shortcomings

When it comes to secondary pitches, Odorizzi’s aren’t the best. In 2019, he used a cutter/slider hybrid and a splitter as his two non-fastball offerings, as well as a curveball he’s sparingly thrown throughout his career. None of the three pitches miss an adequate amount of bats.

The splitter has been Odorizzi’s de facto out-pitch for many years, though it’s never had better than a middling whiff rate. 2019 was no exception, but despite that, the pitch’s effectiveness was evident, as its batted ball data was more than satisfactory — minimal hard contact and a slugging percentage of just .346.

Unsurprisingly, Odorizzi’s splitter is most effective when chased outside of the strike zone. He got hitters to chase it at an above-average clip. When they did, they often failed to make contact — its whiff rate was above the league average in regard to splitters/changeups.

The problem here is when the pitch is in the zone.

While Odorizzi’s splitter has solid overall in-zone numbers, its whiff rate is merely 15.8 percent. Out of the zone, it’s nearly 42 percent. A wide discrepancy is normal, but a decrease of more than 25 percent sticks out.

This isn’t to say that regression is imminent or even expected, but the simple fact of modern pitching is that the swinging strike is king, and Odorizzi’s secondaries fare poorly in that regard when located in the zone.

This ties in to Odorizzi’s overall whiff rate, which is heavily reliant on his fastball. It’s concerning because his exit velocities are below-average, and what amplifies that concern is the fact that Odorizzi’s a fly ball pitcher. This does not bode well for pitching at Minute Maid Park, every hitter’s favorite juice box.

Looking ahead

Odorizzi’s 2020 was a wash. He sustained multiple injuries, but fortunately none were terribly significant nor arm-related, and do not project to affect his health moving forward.

Evaluating 13.2 innings of production is nonsensical, but what is worth noting is pitch data.

Remember how important Odorizzi’s velocity boost was in 2019? Well, in 2020, it did not tail off. Because the sample size is so small, it can’t be concluded that he’ll maintain the same velo in 2021, but simply carrying it over from 2019 to 2020 is meaningful in itself.

In addition, Odorizzi increased his four-seamer’s active spin rate from 93% in 2019 to 98% in 2020, which could pay dividends movement-wise in 2021.

Last year revealed an intriguing development on another pitch. In 2019, Odorizzi’s splitter’s average spin rate was 1489 RPMs, but in 2020, it fell all the way to 1236. Regarding splitters (and changeups), it’s typically a good thing to have less spin, as it can enhance the tumbling effect on the pitch.

1236 RPMs is the lowest average spin rate Odorizzi’s splitter has ever been measured at. Concurrently, movement data from both Statcast and Brooks Baseball confirm that the vertical drop on the pitch was the most in Odorizzi’s career.

It’ll be worth monitoring in 2021 to see if this is a legitimate development, because if it is, it would be fairly significant.

TL;DR version

This is the profile of a league-average starting pitcher, and aside from his breakout 2019, that’s what Odorizzi’s been for most of his career. If his gains from 2019 and, to a lesser extent, 2020, translate to 2021, there’s a realistic chance that Odorizzi could again be better than average.

Considering where the Astros stand this year, with starters Framber Valdez and Forrest Whitley both in jeopardy of missing the entire season, Odorizzi’s steadying presence and production could be paramount to the club’s success.