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The effect of the fly ball revolution on Jake Odorizzi

It hasn’t hurt Odo’ just yet, but if his peers are to be trusted, that may not last...

MLB: Cincinnati Reds at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Odorizzi has famously made a living attacking hitters up in the zone. Simply put, he uses his “hard pitches” far more in the upper part of the zone than most pitchers.

Here’s the Brooks Baseball chart of his four-seamer, sinker, and cutter usage throughout his career.

Traversing over to Baseball-Savant, the story is the same. According to their data, no starting pitcher has even come close to throwing fastballs up in the zone as frequently as Odorizzi has this season. Here are the top five (min. 1,000 pitches):

Pitchers who attack with heat up in the zone

Name FB% Upper Third Fly Ball Rate
Name FB% Upper Third Fly Ball Rate
Jake Odorizzi 25.66 43.3%
Drew Pomeranz 21.19 36.4%
Trevor Bauer 19.17 32.3%
Daniel Norris 17.86 38.0%
Justin Verlander 16.19 43.9%

Each pitcher’s fly ball rate has been included, because it is quite difficult to attack hitters with fastballs up in the zone and not induce a high number of fly balls. Odorizzi has made a living out of posting a lofty fly ball rate, as his career fly ball rate of 44.3 percent ranks 12th among all pitchers since his debut in 2012.

In previous seasons, Odorizzi’s approach has led to numerous fly outs, but home runs had never been an issue. He was typically among the top third of the league in homers allowed simply due to his flyball heavy approach, but he was outside the top 35 in HR/9 in both 2014 and 2015 (min. 100 IP).

Then, last season, he finished in the top 30 for the first time in his career. In 2017, where home runs abound, he is all the way up to 14th (min. 50 IP) in the league in HR/9. Odorizzi has allowed a home run in 12 of his 13 starts this season, and he has allowed at least one in each of his past 10 starts.

The date that many give for the start of the ‘fly ball revolution’ (or ‘juiced ball revolution’ if you’re cynical) is at the All-Star Break of the 2015 season. Odorizzi’s HR/9 rate in the first half of 2015 was 0.55 per nine. After the All-Star Break: 1.34. That’s a large difference.

Take a look at this chart:

Pre- and post-2015 All-Star Break

Timeframe FB% HR/9 ERA FIP
Timeframe FB% HR/9 ERA FIP
9/23/12 - 7/11/15 44.7% 0.91 3.60 3.59
7/17/15 - 6/19/17 44.0% 1.49 3.88 4.49

Those are Odorizzi’s career stats pre- and post-2015 All-Star Break. Odorizzi’s HR/9 rate is up 64 percent despite allowing slightly fewer fly balls.

Here’s the thing, though: his ERA really hasn’t jumped that much. His FIP is nearly a full run higher, but he’s managed to beat his FIP so far and has seen only about a quarter of a run jump in his actual run suppression.

Will he be able to sustain that?

Let’s circle back to that nugget about Odo being 12th among all pitchers in fly ball rate since his debut in 2012. Here’s a rundown of the 11 pitchers above him:

Notes on fly ball heavy pitchers (2012-2017)

Pitcher 2017 Notes
Pitcher 2017 Notes
Chris Young Career-high ERA; which is saying something
Hector Santiago Career-high ERA and FIP
Marco Estrada Highest ERA in season with more than 11.1 IP
A.J. Griffin Career-high ERA, which, again, not easy for Griffin
Dan Straily Career-low ERA; posting by far best K/9 rate of career
Bruce Chen Out of league
Jered Weaver Career-high ERA; FIP over 8.00
Drew Smyly Yet to pitch in 2017; career-high ERA in 2016
Colby Lewis Free agent; hasn't pitched in 2017
Jake Peavy Free agent; hasn't pitched in 2017
Max Scherzer Career-low ERA; striking out over 12.00 batters per nine

So unless you are Dan Straily or Max Scherzer, the fly ball revolution has been really bad for the fly ball pitchers of the past five years. Straily and Scherzer have been able to adjust thanks to high strikeout rates, but the rest have — to a T — fallen into the morass of unemployment or career-high ERAs.

Right now Odorizzi is the lone hold out, and given the results in a couple of his previous four starts, that may be coming to an end.

  • June 2, 2017: 2.1 IP, 4 H (2 HR), 3 BB, 2 SO
  • June 8, 2017: 6.2 IP, 8 H (1 HR), 1 BB, 8 SO
  • June 14, 2017: 4.1 IP, 5 H (1 HR), 3 BB, 4 SO
  • June 19, 2017: 7.0 IP, 5 H (2 HR), 3 BB, 4 SO

Odo’ hasn’t improved his strikeout rate yet (his 7.70 K/9 in 2017 is worse than any other full season for him), but he is not in the career-high ERA tier, either.

It appears as though Odorizzi is walking a tight rope right now, trying to pull off a balancing act. His continued success, despite his FIP, is either the sign of an ever improving approach for a maturing pitcher, or it’s something unsustainable.

Odorizzi’s 3.78 ERA (109 ERA+) certainly hasn’t demanded a change in approach just yet, but it will be interesting to see (if and when some regression does come) whether Odo’ will try to change his attack, or just look to power through instead, riding his fastball into the sunset.

Stats current through June 19, 2017.