What should be isn’t, and what shouldn’t is.
Stop me if you’ve never heard this mantra before when referring to the Houston Astros as a whole. The team calling the Juice Box home has been a long time mistery, defying expectations in good and bad, faltering when everyone thought they had it easy and standing tall against pundits who previewed its demise after so many departures.
The early 2022 season is nothing short of another page in the Astros book of riddles: riding a 7 game winning streak, Houston rose from under .500 to well over and only looking up to the Angels and their Trout/Ohtani dynamic duo, which is to say that a bad start can be easily forgotten when things start to click.
And that’s exactly what has NOT happened so far! The vaunted Astros offense, with all BABIP and bad luck caveats, has been atrocious: scoring less than 4 runs per game, a collective slashline of a decent #8 hitter and some of the worst results against Fastballs in all of baseball, Houston’s 1-9 hasn’t gotten it going to say the least.
What was once the longest lineup in MLB is now full of holes to exploit: from leadoff, a returning Jose Altuve, to cleanup spot, an amazing and still unlucky Yordan Alvarez, there’s not much to complain about, with Brantley on his LD game and Bregman disciplined if not sometimes passive, but then…doom and gloom.
Yuli Gurriel is scuffling, and that’s me being kind on the face of a sub .180 AVG, but somehow he’s still batting ahead of Kyle Tucker, perennial slow starter getting hotter by the day, when the latter should accrue as many ABs as possible. Jeremy Peña has been nothing short of a revelation, 1.7 WAR is no slouch, but the man Whiffs and Chases a ton, and being followed by free-swinging brothers McCormick/Siri and should-not-ever-swing Martin Maldonado is not helping.
So how did they win so many games with so few runs? Believe it or not, by pitching out of their minds!
Both starting rotation and bullpen rank among the best in all of baseball in several categories, from WHIP to ERA, from HR/9 to xwOBA: the relief corps, even with Ryan Pressly hurt and underperforming, have been nails on close games, with last year’s trade acquisition Rafael Montero and this year’s FA coup Hector Neris almost untouchable, plus good quality innings from Maton, Taylor and fireballing Bryan Abreu.
The real surprise has been the starting rotation though: Justin Verlander keeps on forgetting he’s 39 coming back from TJS, still pumping heaters upwards of 95 mph and nasty sliders he doesn’t walk people and suppresses baserunners as he never left; Luis Garcia and his salsa windup are still effective, with his stuff up by a tick; Framber Valdez may walk a batter too much but no one, yep NO ONE, has barreled him yet and everything he allows are grounders, even a banged up Jose Urquidy has been useful and it was about time to let Cristian Javier show how to go through six with only two, albeit elite, pitches.
No one has been than Jake Odorizzi as of late though.
That’s the truth: in his last 3 starts that Jake Odorizzi, the one I like to hate on, has been the best Astros starter by a good margin, allowing a single run in almost 18 innings, things I’d never expected to say nor see.
How in the world is he doing it?
Baseball is a game of constant adjustments: when what you are doing now, and usually what you have been doing for all of your career through the Minors and in the big leagues, starts to falter, it’s time to change things up.
Pitching is not exempted by the rule of Father Time: everyone gets older, stuff wanes and the gas you once blew past hitters is now pedestrian if not below average, leaving you at the mercy of young phenoms ready to jump on your pitiful offering. Ask Zack Greinke: a fire-breathing, 100 mph FB monster in his 19 y.o. debut, he’s still going strong despite striking out 2 batters per nine, not a typo, with his fastball missing the 90 speed limit by three ticks, going as fast as his changeup for that matters.
Odo didn’t get the memo: his right arm didn’t abandon him in his first three starts, capable of averaging more than 92 mph on his FB, but results kept on telling him and everyone what 2020 and 2021 told, a sour story of how Framber’s finger injury prompted one of the worst FA signings in the short career of James Click as Astros GM.
In his season debut Jake labored against the Angels but got out with only 2 ER in 4 innings, and things got worse from there on out: in his next start he got only one more out allowing 4 runs via 8 hits and four walks to Seattle, which is a gem compared to what he accomplished against LA in his second go at the Angels lineup.
Two thirds of an inning, 4 walks and 6 runs, 2 ER, incapable of throwing strikes and disposing hitters he finally reached the bottom of a steep barrel, to that followed a myriad of critics, myself included, for a move to the pen with Javier taking his place in the rotation.
There’s an old saying here in Italy that goes as follows: “Once water reaches your neck, you’ll learn how to swim”. That’s to say that in dire situations a man has to forgot his pride and his shortcomings and gut it through if he doesn’t want to give up and fall down.
When Jake took his next start against Texas, tired of pitching like crap, something interesting happened:
Result: a sole HR allowed in 6 innings, plus 4 K’s!
What about his second chance against the Mariners?
Result: almost seven innings of scoreless baseball!
And, third time the charm, was he a new pitcher indeed against Detroit?
Result: 5 innings, no runs, 4 strikeouts…has Jake Odorizzi become a dependable starter!?
As you may have noticed, Odo made a noticeable change in his arsenal:
Once a fastball/splitter, 2 pitch guy, he’s now halved his splitter usage and doubled the rate of cutters, equally divided against LHB and RHB amounting for 20% of his offerings.
The change happened in his 4th start, the one against Texas where he threw more cutters than splitters for the first time and he only got more extreme, as far as 35% cutters, almost as much as his FB, against Seattle in his 2nd try and all but eliminating his splitter against Detroit, throwing his fastball 60% of times and retaining his 35% cutter usage.
There’s a good reason for such a drastic change:
Lo and behold, Jake Odorizzi’s cutter is his best pitch by a mile, a dandy that has still yet to be hit for extra bases and allowed miserable contact while Whiffing batters at an above average clip.
When hitters are getting the bat at Odo’s cutter they are not doing much, and they are Chasing a lot of his cutters outside the strike zone too, albeit he’s already established the pitch as one he likes to throw in the edge searching for that soft contact:
Note how he locates it the same against both lefties and righties: the former are bound to see the pitch go into their kitchen, trying to achieve outs in the form of broken bats and groundballs, the latter are being surprised by a little left cut, one that deviates from the barrel and results in mishit flyballs and easy popouts.
In all but ditching his splitter for a cutter Jake made a conscious, intelligent and maybe hard decision: saying goodbye to the pitch that made you great for something you only threw sporadically must have hurt but it was about time.
If you remember, the last time I wrote about Odo I pointed out that his cutter had an interesting shape, and it still has:
With above average drop and a low mph and rpm differential with respect to his FB, Jake’s cutter is designed to fool hitters into a pattern concentrated on allowing the worst contact possible: this is different from what he did with his splitter, a pitch he threw out of the zone to rack up strikeouts, which are almost out of the equation now.
Introducing a cutter also made his standard FB better, a pitch that is not standard at all as it’s almost a two-seamer: batters are back to flailing on his high heaters as they now have to respect the chance of his pitch darting down and in/away:
Outs are outs, no matter how they come, and Odo came to understand that if striking out batters is not the way to go now that his splitter has gone and not coming back due to command issues and extension/movement give-and-take, then he has to find them by searching for contact, the bad kind.
For a Framber, certified worm killer with a GB% on the high 70s, there’s an Odo, living a riskier life:
Over 70% of his batted balls against are finding the air, a high rate of Line Drives too, and his new weapon is helping his cause: a Popout rate north of 13% is a career high, reverberating in hitters getting under almost a third of their BIP. Most of all, he has avoided barrels as never before, allowing only a single HR in his new, cutter-fueled edition.
Now the question everyone dreads: can he keep it up?
I’d say no, at least not in this economy:
Simply put, not striking out batters and allowing more walks than league average is not a good recipe for future success: Jake’s 15.6 K% is his career worst by 5 percentage points and so is his BB%, a 10.1% mirroring his 2017 season. He’s also allowing his lowest xwOBACON ever, a sign that his plan is working, and batters are not hitting him for damage, his 31% HardHit rate also a career low.
Still, with bats as cold as ice for almost all teams and balls that seem to be deader than EDM, as the season progresses, weather gets warmer and Rob Manfred slipping more 2017–19 balls into the mix, I’m not expecting Jake to retain such a low Barrel% nor keep on seeing batters chase 40% of his cutters.
Hitters are whiffing and chasing less, making more abysmal contact though, but the true issue is a Zone% that is too far from the coin toss, 50% threshold: if Odo can’t find the strike zone at a higher rate, even with his new offering for batters to consider, his contact-related success may not live much longer.
In that sense, getting 0–1 more often could help him in not having to resort to too many forced strikes and mediocre pitches for hitters to explode on, and using his cutter in the initial 0–0 count could be an option considering the burgeoning command Jake is showing for the pitch.
So far so good though: once a man everyone wanted long gone from Houston, Jake Odorizzi is now back, solidly keeping his #5 rotation spot at the expense of a Cristian Javier that has to go back to his multi-inning relief ways.
With what always worked for him, a low spinning splitter he ammassed strikeouts on, not working anymore, he had to evolve: in came a cutter, so close yet so different from his fastball, and the more comfortable he’s getting with it, the better the results.
It may be just a fleeting moment, maybe at the end of the day what should will be, the Astros offense resurging to its high AVG, pass the baton nature, and what shouldn’t won’t, a pitching staff among the best in the league.
Maybe not though, and Jake Odorizzi will keep on going, too many walks, too few strikeouts and a ton of weak flyballs dying on the outfielders’ gloves.
An out is an out any way it comes, anyway!
All stats and graphs from Baseball Savant, data through May 9th.