With less than two months to go in the season, the Rays have underwhelmed again. In the first year post-Maddon/Friedman, they've gone 56-56, and FanGraphs projects them to finish the season at about that level (81 wins). After falling short of the postseason last year, it's looked as though this year will end the same way.
Amid this uninspired play, Chris Archer's improvement has received a lot of attention. Certainly, he's become one of the best pitchers in the majors, ranking in the top ten by both fWAR and RA9-WAR. But his rise has overshadowed that of Jake Odorizzi, who's also made strides from last year. In 110.1 innings of work in 2015, he's equaled his 2.1 fWAR from 2014, and doubled his 1.6 RA9-WAR to 3.2. Ever the tinkerer, Odorizzi seems to have discovered the approach that will fulfill his potential.
In pretty much every metric, Odorizzi has changed from 2014 to 2015:
*As percentage of balls in play
We'll start with the Ks and BBs. Compared to 2014, Odorizzi hasn't garnered more swings-and-misses — his whiff rate has held steady at 9.7%. He has seen a slight decrease in looking strikes (16.8% to 16.2%), but not anything that would account for this degree of change. The explanation for his defense-independent stats won't come here; it has more to do with his rate of balls in play.
The 2014 version of Odorizzi threw a fair amount of strikes, at 63.8%; however, he didn't allow hitters to put the ball in play, with the third-lowest in play-strike rate (24.9%) in the American League. Consequently, he found himself in a lot of deep counts, leading the league in pitches per plate appearance. As research will tell you, pitchers who don't pound the strike zone and/or pitch to contact will generally run mediocre walk rates, in addition to higher strikeout rates.
Of course, the converse applies as well — when a pitcher works more efficiently, he'll lower his levels of free passes and punchouts. That's been the case for Odorizzi in 2015: His strike rate has risen to 64.7%, while his in-play strike rate has come all the way up to 29.0%. Not only has the type of Odorizzi's batted balls shifted, the volume has increased, thus affecting his strikeouts and walks.
Let's move to Odorizzi's pitch mix. He's messed with his usage from 2014 in a few different ways:
The four-seamer still occupies the largest spot in Odorizzi's arsenal, but the splitter has spiked to nearly its level. The cutter has become a primary pitch, as has (to a lesser extent) the sinker, while the slider has nearly disappeared. This kind of evolution leaves a lot to cover, much of it relatively insignificant, so I'll focus solely on the important stuff.
It's important to note that Odorizzi didn't possess a cutter or a splitter in the minors. His repertoire consisted of the four-seamer, curveball, slider, and a changeup. In his scouting report prior to 2014, Jason Parks described the latter as having "above-[average] potential", along with "good deception and action". Perhaps because of that, Odorizzi implemented it 15.0% of the time during his 2012 and 2013 cups of coffee. Then, in the next season's spring training, this happened:
RHP Jake Odorizzi, competing for the fifth spot in the rotation, is bringing a new weapon to the battle.
Odorizzi said he is experimenting this spring with a different changeup, using the same split-finger grip as RHP Alex Cobb. It's Cobb's best pitch, and Odorizzi is hoping he can have similar success.
Swapping out a good pitch for an elite one, Odorizzi didn't look back. That new
changeup splitter gave him most of his success in 2014, putting up a 68.2% strike rate, 20.0% whiff rate, and — most importantly, given what we've established earlier — a 21.5% in-play rate. While each of those marks topped all his other pitches, the splitter did have some warts: Its .329 BABIP and 0.8% home run rate left some room for improvement. As mentioned initially, Odorizzi did struggle some with hits and long balls, and the splitter bore the blame for most of that.
In Year Two of its existence, the splitter has gone from good to great. Packing on a half a mile-per-hour of velocity (from 84.8 to 85.5) and some extra horizontal movement (from 4.7 inches to 5.0) has helped it generate weaker contact, as it's sustained its output with strikes, swinging strikes, and balls in play. Its 2015 BABIP of .267 and home run rate of 0.4% have made it worth three runs above average, compared to 2.7 runs below average last season.
So the splitter has helped Odorizzi overperform. But its in-play clip has held steady, although the pitch itself has appeared more often. By contrast, the four-seamer and cutter have jumped considerably in that regard:
|Year||Fourseam BIP%||Cutter BIP%|
For the four-seamer, a lot of that has come from a shift in location. Like his teammates, Odorizzi still primarily places the pitch high; in 2015, though, it's leaked down a bit more:
The resulting drop in swinging-strike rate (from 9.8% to 8.7%) has hurt a bit, but the rise in balls put in play — more of which, unsuprisingly, have come on the ground — makes up for it.
Then comes the cutter. Odorizzi created it in 2014, as he did with the splitter; unlike the latter, however, the former didn't appear often during that season. He perfected the cutter further during spring training, to such an extent that he's almost quadrupled its usage in 2015. And concentrated location, to the opposite place as the four-seamer, has accompanied that surge:
Whereas he was (comparatively) all over the place with his 2014 cutters, his 2015 ones have stayed low and outside. Hitters haven't missed on those swings — the cutter's whiff rate has stabilized at a dull 7.6% — but they also haven't managed to put the ball in the air:
The cutter could do better, but it's served Odorizzi well in this role. In that way, it sort of epitomizes all his pitches: None truly dominates the competition (in the style of, say, Archer's slider), but all succeed in some manner, and together make Odorizzi a superb pitcher. He's not the guy who burst onto the scene last year — the fly ball-heavy strikeout master has turned into the low-walk control wizard, and this latest combination of pitches has gotten him there.
Next season should go better in Tampa. Drew Smyly will come back to fortify the rotation, as could Cobb. They would make for one of the better rotations in baseball, if they all have clean bills of health. Perhaps then, this team will head back to the postseason, where Odorizzi can truly shine.
. . .
An earlier version of this article misstated the Rays' record entering Monday's play as 55-56.