When Justin Verlander re-signed with the Astros in December, one of the questions that stemmed from it was Jake Odorizzi’s role with the team.
Before, the 11-year veteran comfortably projected to begin the 2022 campaign in the rotation, as Lance McCullers Jr. was expected to miss a fairly significant chunk of the season due to an arm injury he suffered during last year’s ALDS.
But after Verlander inked his new deal, there was speculation that Odorizzi could be bumped from the starting staff in favor of Cristian Javier, who had carved out a valuable multi-inning relief role in 2021 after primarily being used as a starter since debuting in 2020. Ultimately, no such change was made, leaving Odorizzi as a member of the Opening Day rotation.
It’s increasingly looking like it was the wrong decision.
Wednesday’s game against the Angels, Odorizzi’s third outing of the year, was a disaster. The former first-round pick collected all of two outs while allowing six runs (three earned), walking four batters, and striking out two.
On the season, Odorizzi sports a 9.00 ERA in 9 innings, featuring an abysmal 5-to-7 strikeout-to-walk ratio and a .352 xBA, with the latter ranking in the Bottom 5 percent in the league.
Few pitchers are less equipped to overcome poor control than Odorizzi, who possesses just one offering that’s capable of missing bats: his low-90s four-seam fastball, a pitch that has been heavily featured in 2022 — its 67.8 percent usage rate is number one among all starters (min. 100 pitches).
The fastball-centric approach was highly effective in the past for Odorizzi, when he was selected to the All-Star team for the first time in his career in 2019. Despite its middling velocity, above-average movement and solid command made Odorizzi’s heater one of the best in baseball that year — it missed more bats than the fastballs of Chris Sale, Max Scherzer and Verlander.
In hindsight, the fairly one-dimensional approach was never sustainable — at least not entirely. Not without improved velocity or better secondary pitches, neither of which has occurred.
Odorizzi did manage to produce a serviceable 4.21 ERA across 104 2⁄3 innings in 2021 in spite of his limitations, but a 4.62 SIERA — the third-worst in his 10-plus seasons — indicated that regression was in the cards.
To be fair to Odorizzi, his extremely poor form is unlikely to last, and it’s difficult to outright slam the panic button after three starts on the heels of an abbreviated spring training — especially without any serious, tangible warning signs like decreased velocity.
At this stage in his career, he’s a decent two-times-through-the-order starter who hopefully completes five innings before exiting.
Given his relatively unimpressive 2021 as well as his current woes, it could be fair to say that Odorizzi is not one of the five best (healthy) starters in the Astros organization.
Aside from Javier — the obvious candidate if a move were to be made — there’s Brandon Bielak, a member of the Triple-A Sugar Land rotation.
The owner of a 5.38 ERA in 82 career innings (8 starts), the 26-year-old Bielak has struggled as a big leaguer, but has long projected to be a capable back-end starter. If nothing else, he’d likely present a higher-upside option to Odorizzi.
Top prospect Hunter Brown is another notable choice — he has a 3.48 ERA in 63 2⁄3 innings (14 games, 10 starts) at the Triple-A level and already possesses the repertoire of a big-league starter, but below-average control will likely have him remain in the minors for at least another month or two, as the Astros, like most teams, typically prefer not to call up their top prospects until at least the summer so as to delay the beginning of their service time. Moreover, Brown is not on the Astros’ 40-man roster.
The lack of a slam-dunk option in the minors means Javier is the best and probably only choice. In Wednesday’s 6-0 loss to the Angels, he threw 55 pitches in 3 2⁄3 scoreless innings, surrendering 3 hits and 1 walk while striking out 4. He’s yet to allow a run this season (8 1⁄3 innings) and has a 12-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
Moving Javier back into the rotation would likely strengthen it, but from a development standpoint, shifting a young pitcher back and forth between the rotation and bullpen is generally unwise. Additionally, there’s a case to be made that Javier is best served by remaining in his current role.
Independent of optimizing Javier, Odorizzi is expected to receive more starts, which makes some sense when considering the small sample size of his struggles (excluding his mediocre 2021) and the fact that the Astros are invested in him principally as a starter — they’re paying him $5 million this year and gave him a $6.5 million player option for 2023.
If there isn’t any marked improvement in the coming weeks, however, it may not be feasible for the club to keep the rotation as is. Even now it seems a fairly questionable notion. For a pitcher who’s already perceived to have a short leash, Odorizzi’s may be even shorter going forward, which could prompt action sooner rather than later.