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Rays 2017 season preview: Jake Odorizzi

With arbitration settled, it’s time to get the odometer churning!

MLB: Tampa Bay Rays at Toronto Blue Jays Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

The Rays had quite a few arbitration-eligible players this offseason and got almost every one settled without a hearing. The lone exception was righthander Jake Odorizzi, 26, who was eligible for the first time. Once each side made their case, the arbitrator sided with Odorizzi and awarded the righty a 2017 salary of $4.1 million.

The significant raise came on the heels of a 10-6 season that saw him throw the most innings of his career (187.2), and compile 3.7 WARP and 2.0 WAR. Year-over-year, he maintained the same strikeout rate (8.0 per nine innings), had slightly worse walk rate (2.6 per nine), and saw his xFIP jump from 3.96 to 4.44.

That was on the season, but it fails to tell the whole story, which lies in his splits.

Jake Odorizzi’s 2016 Splits

  • 1st half: 104.2 IP | 4.47 ERA | .246/.307/.438 line against | .318 wOBA | 1.271 WHIP
  • 2nd half: 83.0 IP | 2.71 ERA | .227/.282/.395 line against | .290 wOBA | 1.096 WHIP

To get a feel for what changed over that span, here is what he threw to opposing hitters* (splits are to July 1 / July 1 onward):

  • 4-seam FB MPH (# thrown): 91.5 to 92.4 MPH (959)/ 92.2 to 93.0 (891)
  • Sinker MPH (# thrown): 90.9 to 92.7 (76)/ 92.1 to 92.6 (51)
  • Slider MPH (# thrown): 83.2 to 84.1 (171)/ 80.5 to 82.9 (128)
  • Curve MPH (# thrown): 71.7 to 72.4 (79)/ 71.4 to 72.6 (50)
  • Cutter MPH (# thrown): 86.4 to 87.5 (77)/ 85.8 to 87.4 (167)
  • Split MPH (# thrown): 85.5 to 86.1 (376)/ 84.3 to 85.4 (260)

*Excluded: 13 changeups thrown in August.

So what does this tell us? Two things, which may have contributed to his success in the second half. First and most obvious is Odorizzi’s increased cutter usage, which more than doubled after July 1 (up from 77 to 167). Second and more subtly, he was able to create a larger differential between his fastballs (four-seam/sinker) and his off-speed pitches.

Differential and Movement

As an example, the differential between his 4-seam and slider in the 1st half was 8.3 miles per hour, while in the 2nd half it was 10.1 to 11.7 mph. That was a welcome change from the past, which had Brooks Baseball describing his slider as follows:

His slider is basically never swung at and missed compared to other pitchers' sliders, has short glove-side cut, has less than expected depth and results in somewhat more flyballs compared to other pitchers' sliders.

Almost all of his pitches showed an increase in horizontal movement. One example was his cutter, which ranged from 2.2 to 2.8 inches of movement before July, and 2.2 to 4.0 after. His 4-seam went from -2.69 to -5.05 inches before July, to -5.16 to -5.46 after.

In short, his pitches danced around a whole lot more, both in speeds and location, allowing him to keep batters off balance more effectively.

Odorizzi’s bread and butter, however, are his cutter and sinker, which are described as follows by Brooks Baseball:

His sinker generates an extremely high number of swings & misses compared to other pitchers' sinkers, has surprisingly little armside run, results in somewhat more flyballs compared to other pitchers' sinkers and has virtually no sinking action reminiscent of a true sinker.

[...]

His cutter explodes on the hitter and has strong cutting action.

If Odorizzi wants to have a successful 2017 and to take that next step forward, he needs to kick off the season with the kind of movement and differential that set him up for success in the 2nd half of 2016.

So, what should fans expect?

MLB: New York Yankees at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Jake Odorizzi: 2017 Expectations

While many Rays fans and analysts have toyed with the idea of the Rays extending Odorizzi, and others have gone to the extreme of trading him, it seems more likely that he remain with the Rays throughout the 2017 season. Why?

First and foremost, the Rays need the innings. With the loss of both Matt Moore and Drew Smyly over the past year, this is a young rotation, and one that may not get 200 innings from injury returnee Alex Cobb. With 1,458 innings to throw along a 162-game season (plus extra innings), it’s a long season. If the Rays were to deal Odorizzi, they would be placing a lot of pressure on their younger arms.

The other reason to not trade him lies in his value right now. Sure, he would be a sought-after commodity right now, but if he has a great 2017 — as many of us expect he will — his value will increase significantly. Since he is controllable through 2019, Odorizzi would still command quite a return in trade or among the Rays rotation, whichever the team decides to go with at that point.

Here’s what the statistical projections tell us:

  • Fans: 12-8 | 198 IP | 8.0 K9 | 2.5 BB9 | 3.55 ERA | 4.01 FIP | 2.8 WAR
  • ZiPS: 10-8 | 177.3 IP | 8.4 K9 | 2.6 BB9 | 3.70 ERA | 3.78 FIP | 3.0 WAR

If he were to reach the ZiPS projections (which are completely feasible), almost exactly match the same value Chris Archer achieved in 2016 (3.1 WAR). These projections seem solid overall, despite my wanting to improve them slightly in the walk department and increase the innings pitched above 200.

Either way, do we really want to trade that away when all it costs the Rays is $4.1 million? I certainly hope not.

One last point I’d like to make is that I watched a lot of Odorizzi’s starts closely in 2016 and noticed one trend throughout: he wasn’t getting the calls that other pitchers received. In fact, it seemed to be a trend for many Rays pitchers. Here’s an example of what I’m pointing to.

If Odorizzi gets more of those calls, would his stats reflect it? Possibly. The point is that as umpires get to know and respect pitchers, they seem to give the better ones more benefit when they are working on the edges.

Is Odorizzi going to get more of those calls in his favor in 2017? That’s tough to tell.

There is still a whole lot of upside to Odorizzi, and there’s something that could click once he pairs up with Gold Glove catcher Wilson Ramos. Not to knock any of the Rays catchers over the last few years, but they are not in the same realm as Ramos, who had the 10th best defensive rating (Def) among catchers in 2016 (better arm strength and accuracy, leading to 8th in FSR).

Closing Thoughts

There’s a lot of potential in Odorizzi to like, and he has matured quite a bit as a pitcher since he joined the Rays. With 562 innings now under his belt, a sharper pitch repertoire to lean on, and the experience to put it all together, there’s reason to believe that he is a decent breakout candidate for 2017.

Whether he does break out or not, however, his floor is very high and provides stability and security to a rotation that needs it this season. While most look to Archer to be the ace of the staff, they should also look to Odorizzi to lead along with him.

Now that Archer and Odorizzi are joined by Cobb, and are taking a leadership role for Blake Snell and others, we hope that they will all rise to the occasion and put together a full season of what they are capable of. If Odorizzi does accomplish that much, the Rays will have serious decisions to make, as he either cashes in through arbitration or becomes one of their most valuable trade chips.

To finish it off, enjoy a video of what @JakeOdorizzi is capable of against one of the best lineups in baseball in 2016.