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Rays season preview: Jake Odorizzi

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Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

When analyzing a pitcher's batted ball results, I tend to focus on two aspects: fly balls and ground balls. These statistics can be very telling about a pitcher's approach, which affects the expectations and standards for the individual pitcher.

Each batted ball type has a certain average BABIP—or probability of falling in play for a hit. These rates are illustrated in the table below.

Batted Ball Type BABIP
Ground Ball 0.239
Fly Ball 0.126

Looking at this table, it may seem like a pitcher should try to generate as many fly balls as possible, because they fall for hits least often. However, this frequency only involves hits that are in play, and since home runs aren't technically in play, they are not counted by this metric.

In essence, fly balls are risky. When they stay in the park, they rarely fall for hits, but studies by John Burnson (2015 Baseball Forecaster) have shown that a pitcher has very little control over how far the fly balls that they allow travel. Being a "fly ball pitcher" makes the pitcher more susceptible to home runs, which can be costly.

Ground balls, on the other hand, result in hits more often than fly balls. However, ground balls are never a threat to leave the park, so they are a safer bet than fly balls in this regard.

This isn't to say that one is better than the other. Both fly ball pitchers and ground ball pitchers can be successful in the major leagues, and more factors than their batted ball profile go into their performance.

Jake Odorizzi has been one of these fly ball pitchers who has found success. He was originally drafted 32nd overall in the 2008 MLB Draft by the Brewers. After two solid seasons in Milwaukee, he was rated the #1 prospect in the organization. But, in the same year, he was flipped to the Royals as a part of the Zack Greinke trade.

With Kansas City, he continued to climb prospect charts and show the potential to be a front-of-the-rotation starter. In 2011, Baseball America ranked him as the #68 prospect in the MLB. In 2012, Odorizzi was on the move again, this time heading to Tampa Bay in the Wil Myers trade. After making a few starts and relief appearances in 2013, Odorizzi broke camp with the Rays in 2014.

His 2014 season was encouraging in some aspects but concerning in others. Looking at the positives, he recorded a 4.13 ERA, 9.32 K/9 and 2.0 WAR, and featured a diverse pitch arsenal. While his ERA wasn't elite, it was nearly 40 points above his Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP, a metric based on strikeouts, walks, and home run rate, that is more predictive of future ERA than is a one-year sample of current ERA), indicating that his peripheral statistics support a lower ERA. His strikeout rate was well above league average, and that level of production is supported by his performance in the minors.

But, there were negative aspects to Odorizzi's 2014 campaign as well. His BB/9 was 3.16, which was just above the league average of 2.89. During his time in the minors, he showed small control issues, and the trend seems to have continued on into the majors. As previously mentioned, Odorizzi is an extreme fly ball pitcher. While this isn't necessarily a bad thing, it means that he will likely allow more home runs than the league average. Over a long sample, a pitcher's HR/FB rate will regress to the league average of 9.5%, but it is susceptible to short-term fluctuations during the season.

Because of this, much of Odorizzi's performance will be driven by his HR/FB rate. His monthly splits serve as a microcosm of these fluctuations. In the first month of the season, Odorizzi's HR/FB rate was higher than league average. He also had poor command (4.56 BB/9 in April), and both of these issues pushed his April ERA up to 6.85. This was partially expected, as Odorizzi was still adjusting to major league hitters. However, it does serve as an example of how bad luck on fly balls can easily cause or exacerbate issues.

During the middle of the season, Odorizzi pitched like an ace. He posted ERAs near 2.50, and had strikeout rates near 10 K/9. But, Odorizzi's HR/FB rate was low and he stranded an extremely high percentage of the runners he allowed on base. These aspects certainly contributed to his low ERA, and are both in part due to luck. What the HR/FB rate giveth, the HR/FB rate can and usually does taketh away.

Odorizzi is helped by the park factors at the Trop, as it suppresses home runs for both right handed and left handed hitters. If he can find a way to limit home runs, it will be instrumental in his progression as a starter.

He also has a wide pitch arsenal, featuring a fastball, a slider, a curveball, and a split-change that he picked up from teammate Alex Cobb last season. Let's take a look at his pitch arsenal on a pitch-by-pitch basis.

Fastball

In 2014, Odorizzi's fastball usually sat around 90-91 mph, which is below league average and a little uninspiring for a right-handed pitcher. However, what distinguished Odorizzi's fastball from others is the large amount of "rise" it has. These pitches don't actually rise, and instead just drop less than other pitches.

Recently, rising fastballs have been the focal point of an article by Danny Russell, and an article by Jeff Sullivan at Fangraphs. As both Jeff and Danny explain, these fastballs tend to stay above the hitter's bat, and help contribute to whiffs.

Here's Odorizzi's rising fastball in action, with video from the MLB.com YouTube channel.

In Jeff's article, he points out that the Rays seem to encourage pitchers to throw high fastballs, as players like Drew Smyly, David Price and Erik Bedard threw more high fastballs with the Rays than with their other teams. Sullivan concludes that as umpires continue to call the strike zone lower, and hitters look for more low pitches to drive, pitching up in the zone keeps hitters off balance. Odorizzi follows this trend, as demonstrated by his pitch usage heat maps, first against lefties, then righties:

These pitches can be difficult to lay off of. Once the hitter realizes it's going to be a ball, it's too late to stop swinging.

In addition to these whiffs, his fastball, like many of his other pitches, results in many fly balls. It was most effective at generating fly balls against left-handed hitters, but was serviceable against righties, too. This also stems from his usage pattern, as pitches up in the strike zone are more likely to be hit in the air. Here are heat maps for fly balls hit by both left-handed hitter and right-handed hitters.

Odorizzi's fastball generated fly balls more than any of his other pitches, and has been crucial to his early success.

Slider

In 2014, Odorizzi threw his slider close to 9% of the time, and almost exclusively to right-handed hitters. While it drew few whiffs (13%, compared to the league average of 31%), it did produce ground balls at a rate slightly below league average. This may sound concerning, but it was closer to league average than any of his other pitches, so his slider is unique.

As previously discussed, ground balls are beneficial to pitchers because of their safety. This is important for Odorizzi, because the batted balls on his other pitches tend to be more risky. His slider gives him a stable, safe offering to keep batters from zeroeing in the other pitches in his arsenal.

He primarily threw it low and away, which explains why he generated so many ground balls.

But, as mentioned earlier, the downfall of this pitch is that it doesn't draw many whiffs. This isn't because batters are putting it into play, but instead because they aren't chasing the pitch when he throws it out of the zone. Of the 44 sliders he threw in the lower right square of the Brooks Baseball heat map, only seven of those pitches were swung at. Odorizzi isn't fooling hitters with this pitch, which causes it to be less effective than the sliders other pitchers throw around the league.

Curveball

While Odorizzi threw his slider primarily to right-handed hitters, he threw his curveball most often to left-handed hitters. This makes sense, because curveballs on average have a relatively even split against both same-handed and opposite-handed batters, while other pitches are far more effective against the opposite hand.

His curve, like his other pitches, gets hit for a fly ball at an above-average rate. However, unlike his slider and split-change, it also generates an above-average number of pop ups. A study by Dave Appelman at Fangraphs suggests that pop-ups are not an independent skill, but instead are positively correlated with fly balls.

Pop-ups occur most often when the pitch is up in the strike zone, or even above the strike zone. In order for a pop-up to happen, the batter needs to make contact on the lower part of the ball. Because of this, it makes logical sense that pop ups occur up in the zone—it is almost impossible to make contact on the lower half of the ball when the pitch is low in the strike zone.

Generating pop-ups is a big part of Odorizzi's success. They are almost always caught, so essentially, he is getting "free outs" from this, as Fangraphs' Tony Blengino writes in his recent article about Odorizzi. Blengino explains that he didn't just generate a lot of pop ups, he was in the 96th percentile in generating infield flies. Infield flies are great for the pitcher, and it greatly helped Odorizzi last season.

Overall, his curveball isn't used too often (only 5.5% of the time overall, and only 7.1% of the time against lefties in 2014, according to Brooks Baseball), and if he were to throw it more, it would most likely be exposed. To prevent this, while still having a pitch to use against left-handed hitters, Odorizzi uses his split-change.

Split-Change

Teammate Alex Cobb taught Odorizzi the split change before the 2014 season. By adopting this pitch, Odorizzi could stop throwing his old changeup, which was mediocre at best. Cobb's pitch is incredible, and while Odorizzi's isn't as good, it is still a solid pitch. It was immediately an important part of his arsenal, as he threw it 25% of the time last season. It was also most effective against left-handers - right-handed hitters hit .304 on it last year, while lefties hit .233 - which made it a viable way it to hide his curveball.

It is important to identify which type of pitch we are labeling the split-change when we evaluate it in order to set baselines for movement. If we look at it like it is a splitter, then it is has average movement, but if we look at it like a change up, then it has above-average movement both horizontally and vertically. Regardless, it darts away from left-handers with five inches of horizontal movement.

Odorizzi threw this pitch mostly to lefties, and his usage patterns are illustrated by this chart.

Additionally, when he kept this pitch low, he was able to cause batters to swing and miss.

Odorizzi's split-change was put into play 21.49% of the time, which was most out of all his pitches. But, this was a good thing—it was hit for a ground ball almost half the time.

Because this pitch is so effective, he can throw it often and use it to hide his lesser pitches, like his curveball. Additionally, he can rely on it when he is behind in the count—something he couldn't do effectively in prior years, when he was throwing his changeup.

This pitch is not only a good pitch on its own, but it complements the rest of his arsenal well, and is a critical component for Odorizzi to continue to develop as a pitcher.

2015

Odorizzi's peripheral stats from 2014 suggest that his overall performance should regress downward in 2015. All of his pitches get average, or below average whiffs, which suggests that his high strikeout rate from 2014 is most likely unsustainable. Additionally, his HR/FB rate was lower-than-average for the year, so he should see a slight uptick in his HR/9. Both of these factors should, in theory, increase his ERA.

IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP LOB% ERA FIP WAR
173.0 8.23 3.07 1.26 .280 75.1% 3.90 4.24 1.0

Steamer agrees that his strikeout rate and HR/9 should regress in 2015, but projects his ERA to decrease. This projected decrease may come from better control, stranding more runners, or the belief that he was generally unlucky in 2014. Specifically, one of the biggest areas for upwards regression comes from his BABIP on ground balls. As mentioned earlier, ground balls usually have a BABIP of .239. For his career, Odorizzi has allowed 53 singles and two doubles on 153 ground balls, which is a staggering .359 BABIP. This should regress in 2015, and contributes to his projected ERA improvement.

While Odorizzi may never become an ace for the Rays, he can perform like a mid-rotation starter, and be a stable piece to build around in future seasons. However, he has little room for error with his fastball, which already has below-average velocity, and he would be helped by continued development of his slider to neutralize right-handed opponents.  Odorizzi taking these steps forward will play a large part in whether he blossoms into a #2 starter, or settles in as an above-average innings eater.

Statistics are from Brooks Baseball and FanGraphs.