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Jake Odorizzi's new pitch

Studying "The Thing."

Jamie Squire

When Jake Odorizzi came over from the Kansas City Royals in the James Shields trade, he was an undeniably valuable chip, but not necessarily the most exciting pitcher to have in the Rays' system. While his fastball had good rising movement, he no longer threw with the mid-90s velocity that had impressed scouts early in his career. And even though command and "pitchability" has always been a strength of Odorizzi, there were plenty of people who were worried that he didn't really have an "out pich."

Here's what I wrote in a PITCHf/x scouting report before his first start with the Rays last year:

His 84 mph changeup is fairly straight, yet neither does it precisely mirror the movement of his fastball. For success with his changeup, Odorizzi will need to rely on establishing his fastball and then selling the pitch with arm speed.

Well, there was another option that I didn't consider. He could scrap his old changeup, work with Alex Cobb, and start the season throwing a split-change, much the way Cobb does. He calls it "The Thing."

Let's take a look at Thing One and Thing Two, and compare them to Odorizzi's old changeup. All velocities are in the mid-80s. I will be using Brooks Baseball numbers and classifications. Here's a movement chart from the catcher's perspective:


Two obvious notes:

  1. Odorizzi's new split-fingered pitch is unquestionably distinct from his old changeup. There's much more drop to the pitch, and it's probably better (we'll look at results in a second).
  2. Thing Two is not the same as Thing One. Alex Cobb's splitter is a ridiculous, game-changing pitch. Odorizzi's version is not nearly as extreme.
Predicting results by looking at movement on a chart is a pseudoscience at best, though. When there are real-world results, look at them. Here, from Brooks, I've compared the results of Odorizzi's old changeup (usage data from 2013), Odorizzi's new splitter (usage data from 2014), and Cobb's splitter (career usage data).

Odorizzi Changeup Odorizzi Splitter Cobb Splitter
Usage 16% 33% 34%
Strike 19% 27% 25%
Swing 46% 51% 62%
Foul/Swing 51% 27% 34%
Whiff/Swing 20% 24% 28%
BIP 14% 26% 23%
GB/BIP 31% 68% 62%

Let's unpack the differences:
  • Odor's old changeup wasn't something he could throw all that often. His new splitter is. Both he and Alex Cobb now use their splitters a full third of the time. That, by itself, means that their other pitches are less exposed and will play up.
  • Odorizzi records strikes at a much higher rate with his new splitter than he did with his old change. It's a rate similar to Cobb's.
  • Batters are swinging at Odor's splitter more often than they did at his changeup. Still, with its greater movement, it's more difficult to hit. More swings at a pitch that's more difficult to hit mean good things for the pitcher. He still doesn't get as many swings with his splitter as Cobb does, which is ridiculous, because Cobb's split falls off the table like few other offerings in the major leagues (meaning that hitters really can't square it up, but they keep trying).
  • Odorizzi really wasn't able to put batters away with his changeup. They fouled it off 50% of the time. The new splitter is fouled much less often. Instead it's being whiffed at or put in play.
  • The new splitter does get more whiffs than the old one did, even if not quite as many as Cobb's elite pitch.
  • The new splitter is put in play far more often than the old changeup had been (and slightly more often, so far, than Alex Cobb's version). Being put in play is okay, because . . .
  • . . . A huge percentage of the balls put in play against the splitter are groundballs. While Odorizzi's changeup was a fly ball pitch, his splitter has produced 68% groundballs so far this season. Groundballs are a good thing with an infield defense as strong as the Rays have, and there's research to suggest that extreme groundball pitchers are actually giving up softer groundballs than normal. I would be shocked if that's not true of extreme groundball pitches as well. Both of "The Things" are extreme groundball pitches.
I am confident in saying that Jake Odorizzi's new split-change has made him a significantly better pitcher. The student's pitch may not be as good as the master's on paper, but Odor's results with the pitch have been similar to Cobb's so far. Better yet for Rays fans, he's still learning how to use it. Doubtless he will improve his command of the pitch and his understanding of when and where to throw it. While once we questioned Odorizzi's tools and his ceiling, there's now an "out pitch" to build around. Jake Odorizzi is still a prospect, and still has some developing to do, but the question has become just how good Odor can be.