This morning, FanGraphs posted an interview by David Laurila with Rays pitching prospect Jake Odorizzi. I am a huge fan of David Laurila. When he interviews players and coaches, he almost always gets them to open up about their process and their experience, and to provide meaningful details. If you had to choose one way and only one way to learn about baseball, you could do a lot worse than to read the assorted works of Laurila.
So before you go any further, click here and read the full interview itself.
Very good. Now let's talk about what Odorizzi said.
First he answered two questions about his career and his big league debut with a ton of confidence, both in his performance to date, and in his ability to continue to improve. Good. Grand. I haven't got anything worthwhile to say about that so let's move on.
On his breaking-balls: I started throwing my breaking-balls in high school. The curve was better then. The slider I’ve learned to throw better over time, from tinkering with it. My curve has remained the same. . . .
" . . .Having four pitches for me is better than having three, because I’m not a guy that’s overpowering. It’s nice to have an extra pitch you can throw for a strike. That can give you that extra edge. My curve and slider are very different."
On the development of his slider: "I used to throw my slider [going] around the ball, trying to create break in my hand. That was fine at the time — at the lower levels — but once I got to higher levels and listened to coaches who have been around the game for a while, I learned to get behind the ball and it really showed. The velocity increased and the movement turned into a late, sharp movement. Instead of a loopy out-of-the-hand, right-to-left type of pitch, it became more of a straight-then-diving-down sort of pitch. . ."
". . .Triple-A is where I feel I perfected it by getting a bit more velocity. It’s turning into a hybrid slider-cutter."
Let's put some pictures to Odor's descriptions. Here's all the pitches Odorizzi threw last year.
His curve ball averaged 71 mph last year and his slider averaged 84 mph. When Odorizzi says that his curve and his slider are very different, he's of course speaking in the obvious pitch movement sense, but I think he's also talking about the roles that they play within his repertoire. He uses the two breaking balls in very different ways. Consider usage data from Brooks Baseball last season:
|Against right-handed batters||Against left-handed batters|
Odorizzi threw his curve at the same rate to batters on both sides of the plate. For him, it really was that fourth pitch that simply helped diversify his offerings. The slider, on the other hand, is clearly something he views as a weapon against righties.
Let's consider more closely his statement that his slider is actually a little bit cutter-ish. There were some pitches last season, shown in the upper left corner of the green slider cluster, that on their own I might have decided were a cutter. There were other pitches, down in the lower right corner of the cluster, that don't look anything at all like a cutter. Is this variation on his slider's motion something he's doing on purpose, or will the pitch trend in one of these directions as he refines his command of it? Or is it just natural variation and I'm making too much of it? This will be something to keep an eye on as we get to see more of Odorizzi in the future.
On organizational differences: . . ."I’m now in a different situation in my career — here in Tampa — than I was then. Everything here works around you. If you need adjustments, it’s on you to ask for help. If not, you stick with what’s going well. If you want to work on something, you speak up and someone is willing to help."
Interesting that he says the Tampa Bay coaches don't impose an agenda on their pitchers. I think we all would have guessed that they tell pitchers to work on their changeup. It sure seems like an organizational philosophy, but I also imagine that something like " use your changeup" can be an organizational philosophy without being a huge part of the organization development philosophy. Teaching is a tricky, and the shortest distance between two points may not always be a straight line.
On his changeup: "I’ve been doing a lot of work on my changeup. That’s been my biggest work-in-progress since I was drafted. I’m still tinkering with it, trying to find something I’m happy with and can throw at any time. When I was drafted, I didn’t have a changeup. In high school you don’t use one much, so I’ve had to learn one in pro ball.
"I’ve messed with a lot of grips. I’m still tweaking it a bit, trying to find something that consistently works. That’s been my point of emphasis, and this year is no different, I’ll go into spring and work hard on my changeup, throwing it as much as I can and trying to get a good feel for it. That’s what spring is all about, preparing everything for the season."
So this is the big what-if for Odorizzi. People are worried, and probably rightly so, that Odor doesn't have an out-pitch. I've called him "James Shields without the changeup," which isn't really a comforting comparison. All those worried mutterings might stop if his changeup improves. There really isn't enough major league data on out there on Odor yet for me to put much confidence in these numbers, but I'll say this anyway. Compared to 2012, Odorizzi had more movement separation between his changeup and his fastball (slightly less velocity separation), and he also induced more whiffs with his changeup, both against righties and lefties. He says he'll be working on the pitch in spring training. Anyone who's able to get a seat behind home plate, keep your eye on it and tell us what you see.
On his fastball and command: "I throw mainly four-seamers, When I throw a two-seam fastball, it just kind of goes straight. I don’t really know how to make it sink without forcing it, and that’s unnatural. I can hurt myself trying to do that. I’ve always thrown it straight; it just doesn’t have that two-seam motion to it. There are guys up here that are pretty darn good at it, like Alex Cobb, Chris Archer andDavid Price. They all have great two-seams and I might talk with them and learn how to do it, but until then I don’t think it’s going to be a staple in my arsenal.
"My game is controlling the ball. I’m not throwing 97 [mph]. I throw between 90 and 95, and when you’re in that range you really need to locate. That’s what pitching is all about: throwing what you want, where you want it. I want to be able to put my fastball anywhere I want at any given time."
Here's another thing to watch for in Odorizzi's development. A four-seam fastball has good rise, while a two-seam fastball, sometimes called a sinker, has less rise and more run. Good four-seamers get a lot of swings and misses. Good two-seamers get a lot of groundballs. Adding a legitimate sinker would probably improve Odorizzi's overall performance.
But do note that Odor's four-seam fastball is sneaky good. There are a ton of problems with the comparison I'm about to make (stemming both from pitch classification discrepancies and from potential park effects), but, according to FanGraphs, Jake Odorizzi's fastball averaged 11.4 inches of rise relative to a pitch without spin. Among qualified starters, Chris Tillman's fastball had the most rise. It rose, on average, 11.4 inches (and before you point out that Tillman isn't a very good pitcher, number two on the rise list was Clayton Kershaw). I'm not trying to say that Jake Odorizzi's fastball will make him an elite pitcher, but it is unusual. If he can "put [it] anywhere [he wants] at any given time," we'll see a lot of major league hitters get blown away, and a lot of surprised commentators talk about how his easy motion makes it seem to get on hitters quickly.