When players break into the big leagues, it is easy to forget that they have simply reached one more step along their development path. Sure, the minor leagues are where youngsters do the bulk of their tinkering and improving, while major league clubs expect results and immediate contributions when calling upon players from their farm system. Even so, rookies should be expected to change and evolve as they strive to make their bones in MLB.
Sometimes those changes come faster than anyone could have guessed. Just a year ago, Jake Odorizzi had already been labeled as a back-end starter, someone who flashed a decent enough four-pitch mix, but also a hurler who was limited by his inability to put advanced hitters away.
Indeed, coming into 2013, Jason Parks wrote at Baseball Prospectus that Odorizzi "lacks a knockout pitch," and that his "secondary offerings aren’t consistent enough to back hitters off [his] fastball." He acknowledged Odorizzi had a future in a major league rotation, but concluded his "struggles to put hitters away" would limit his ultimate ceiling and ability to get strikeouts.
That thinking was reflected in Odorizzi’s 2013 numbers, which were solid but unspectacular. The biggest thing holding Odorizzi back was a middling strikeout rate (18.0%) that didn’t show any signs of improving this year as the 24-year-old stumbled through a tough April. Odorizzi reached the sixth inning just once in his first five starts, compiling a 6.85 ERA over 23.2 innings pitched.
Yet Odorizzi’s 2014 strikeout rate now stands at 25.9%, nearly eight percent higher than his mark a year ago. That is a huge improvement in just 12 months time, and his swinging-strike rate has jumped three percent from 2013 to 9.9%, which ranks higher than other starters such as John Lester, teammate Chris Archer, and Jonny Cueto.
Odorizzi’s 4.23 ERA might fool some into thinking his season has been anything but impressive. That number has been elevated by an abnormally high .312 BABIP, however, and the clunker of a start (eight earned runs allowed in four innings) he had against the Orioles this past Monday. Since the beginning of May, Odorizzi has posted a 3.70 ERA and 3.42 FIP, while striking out 134 batters in 116.2 innings.
How has Odorizzi gone from someone who struggled to put hitters away to a starter who has struck out more than a batter an inning over a four-month span?
As Eno Sarris wrote over at FanGraphs in early August, it begins with his new pitch—a splitter that rotation-mate Alex Cobb taught him earlier in the year. Odorizzi’s changeup didn’t yield much success in 2013, with opposing batters hitting .313 with a .563 slugging percentage against the offering, per Brooks Baseball. This season, Odorizzi has turned to that splitter, and it’s become his second-favorite offering (he has thrown the pitch 24.1% of the time in 2014).
Even more important has been the way Odorizzi uses the splitter with his fastball. As he admitted to Sarris, he thinks of the offering as more of a "heavy two-seamer," a pitch that resembles a fastball until it drops down (and often, out) of the strike zone.
These zone charts courtesy of Brooks Baseball demonstrate just how Odorizzi uses the two pitches in tandem. The righty loves to use his fastball up in the zone, a tactic he has increasingly turned to this year:
That fastball usage is paired with a splitter that he buries in the bottom and below the strike zone:
Talking about his splitter to Sarris, Odorizzi said, "You think fastball and it’s hard to adjust when you start your swing to drop your swing path as you’re going." The addition of a splitter has yielded better results for Odorizzi’s fastball, with his whiff/swing percentage on the offering increasing by nearly five percent from a year ago, according to Brooks Baseball. FanGraphs’ pitch values also indicate that the 24-year-old’s fastball has been more effective in 2014.
A recent start against the Cubs, in which Odorizzi struck out nine batters in six innings (all on his fastball and splitter), provides another example of how he has attacked hitters this season. Odorizzi gets his final five strikeouts with his fastball, all of which are up in the zone:
That Odorizzi has made such substantial changes and improvements is a good reminder that players are still developing at the major league level. Young pitchers are frequently looking to add another pitch to help balance out their arsenal, and judging by the results, Odorizzi has found one. These changes in pitch selection and sequencing have allowed him to induce more swings on pitches outside the zone and also generate less contact both inside and outside the zone in 2014.
Even with the loss of David Price, the Rays can bank on their usual bevy of talented young arms to push them forward. Odorizzi, Archer, Cobb, and Drew Smyly could fit in well in just about any big league rotation, and they will help the Rays get right back into the AL East mix when next season arrives.
Alex Skillin is an editor at Beyond the Box Score. He also writes for SB Nation's MLB hub and The Hardball Times, among other places. You can follow him on Twitter at @AlexSkillin.