Leading up to his first start in the month of September against the Baltimore Orioles, Jake Odorizzi was coming off one of his better months, having posted a 2.48 ERA in August.
But Odorizzi fell flat against Baltimore this past Tuesday. He completed only four innings of work, yielding seven runs on six hits. Four of those runs came off the lumber of Orioles' stud third baseman Manny Machado, who crushed a grand salami off of Odorizzi in the top of the fourth inning, one of two long balls off Odorizzi that day.
The pitch that Machado clubbed was a four-seam fastball, a cookie right down the gut of home plate, and Machado rightfully deposited the pitch into the stands out in left center.
The pitch location was a mistake, but indicative of a problem Odorizzi has had lurking beneath the surface.
Jake Odorizzi has a terrible fastball, right?
The four-seamer is a pitch that Odorizzi has relied on heavily throughout his career. This season, he is throwing the pitch 56% of the time, which is slightly above his career average. Throughout his career, his fastball has been able to suppress the big hits with a career ISO of .164 against the pitch, which is slightly lower than the league average of pitchers who throw as hard as Odorizzi does. However that trend has changed somewhat in 2016. According to Brooks Baseball, hitters have mashed Odorizzi's fastball to the tune of a .174 ISO this year, which is higher than last years average of .146.
The pitch is also being hit harder than the average four-seam fastball this season. Odorizzi's average exit velocity off his fastball is 92.4 mph, which is almost two miles per hour higher than the league average against the fastball.
In addition, his fastball has an average distance traveled of 261 feet (21 feet more than the league average) and is hit at a higher launch angle (22.2°) than the league average (18.0°); 13 of Odorizzi's 25 home runs allowed this season have come off his fastball.
Odorizzi's fastball isn't just bad, though, it is secretly bad.
According to Baseball Savant, Odorizzi's “effective velocity minus actual velocity” is -1.2 mph. This means his heater is perceived to be more than one mile per hour slower than his actual velocity. To the batter's eye, Odorizzi's fastball, which averages approximately 92 mph, really looks like 91 mph.
This may not seem like a huge drop, but even the slightest difference in velocity can make a split-second difference in whether contact is made on a pitch or not.
Furthermore, this differential is the nearly the worst among Rays' starting pitching, with Drew Smyly owning the worst mark of -1.8 mph on his fastball. Maybe not coincidentally, he has home run problems too.
The reason for Odorizzi's low “effective velocity” on his four-seamer is the fact that he does not have a long stride to the plate and that his 6'2" frame is average among major league starting pitchers, so he does not have tremendous extension when delivering the baseball.
So on the whole, Odorizzi throws a four-seam fastball that is not only hit hard and for extra-base hits consistently, but that is also perceived at a slower velocity than what is picked up on by the radar gun making it easier to hit overall... right?
FanGraphs ranks Odorizzi's fastball ninth in the league among starting pitchers in terms of wFB with a value of 15.0. That is higher than the likes of Miami Marlins' ace Jose Fernandez's fastball, which ranks 26th with a value of 6.1.
Especially with that wicked slurve he throws, we would presume Fernandez’s fastball value would be higher, yet Odorizzi ranks above even that.
Why does it work?
The main reason why Odorizzi's four-seamer is valued so high is the fact that he is able to generate an above-average amount of whiffs with the pitch.
His current 12.09 Whiff% is (at the moment) not only a career high but a step up from his 2015 rate of 10.04%. In fact, prior to his last two starts, Odorizzi recorded his highest rate of whiffs on the fastball on the season at 14.85%.
Then, suddenly, things stopped going his way in September.
So if Odorizzi's fastball is thrown less hard than it is actually perceived, and not even that hard to begin with, then how in the world is he able to get opposing batters to swing and miss at the pitch?
For starters, his four-seamer has a lot of rising action to it, churning out 10.77 inches of vertical movement—over a standard deviation above the average four-seam fastball.
The surplus of vertical movement is produced thanks in part to Odorizzi's high vertical release point of 6.41 feet. The higher a pitcher's vertical release point, the more backspin is created on his fastball, thus more swings-and-misses and pop ups are induced.
Odorizzi takes advantage of the rise on his fastball by throwing up in the strike zone as well as above the zone this season than last season. He has increased is O-Swing% by almost 10% from last season to 36.1% this season. The results have certainly paid off, as he has gotten opposing hitters to chase those high fastballs quite often. Just ask Chris Coghlan back in May.
Odorizzi's four-seam fastball has the unique ability to be both one of the best and one of the worst fastballs in the league.
And that’s really weird. Generally, a pitch that’s good in one area is good overall. Missing bats and not getting squared up for hard contact are, for the most part, a connect skills. This is why pitchers with extreme strikeout rates often demonstrate an ability to limit their opponents’ BABIP.
Unfortunately for us, that symbiotic relationship between whiffs and good ball-in-play outcomes hasn’t been evident for Odorizzi, and we’ve seen his fastball lose its effectiveness overall in the month of September so far. He has not been able to replicate the same number of whiffs as did the previous month in his first two starts this month as shown in the graph above.
Hopefully, Odorizzi will regain his form with his fastball and carry that momentum the rest of the way, but that likely won’t change the fact that Odorizzi’s fastball is an odd combination of hittable and unhittable.