No need to sugarcoat anything: Jake Odorizzi has been downright bad so far this season.
Plucked by the Astros off of FA to provide insurance after Framber Valdez broke a finger on his pitching hand, he was signed to a 3-year deal for more than $30M, with the expectation to be a good #3 behind Greinke and McCullers, holding steady until Framber’s return to then be a high quality #4 in a rotation that projected to be average at worst.
While the latter has been true, more because of McCullers’ new weapon, an unreal slider that became his best pitch in a whim, Luis Garcia’s insurgence and Valdez’s quick comeback, it’s safe to say that Odo hasn’t been even close to what was advertised.
Normal metrics? Bad, a 4.52 ERA that is almost undeserved on the face of a 4.99 FIP, 5.08 xERA and 4.64 SIERA. Underlying statistics? Even worse! Jake’s Savant page is more akin to the Pacific Ocean than anything, a deluge of dark blue with the best percentile ranking being a 47th percenter on walks, still below league average.
To be honest, advertising him as a competent #3 if not #2 was the first mistake: outside of a spare ASG appearance and a couple of sub 4 ERA season he’s been not much more than an innings eater, one that doesn’t rock the world but punches his ticket for a good 6+ innings a start, your Tyler Anderson starter pack, albeit not a guy you should even think to pay such a hefty price, even more for a multiyear deal.
The way Odo pitches has always been the same: a ton of fastballs high in the zone to get swing and misses, a split and slide to close ABs, working either north-south or east-west depending on the batter’s nature. In 2021 nothing has changed, moreso Jake has almost become a two-pitch pitcher:
Revamping his fastball usage up to 55% at the expense of breaking balls while keeping more than 20% splitters in his arsenal, he’s one of the few starters having a splitter as his preferred secondary, and that’s usually good: may it be selection effect, most of the guys throwing a lot of splits are having incredible success, from Frankie Montas finally cementing his talent in Oakland to Kevin Gausman being a potential Cy Young in SF.
Odorizzi is not invited to that party though:
His splitter has been good but not nasty, his fastball is racking up quite a lot of whiffs but he’s simply having a hard time putting away hitters, either because seeing the same heater 3+ times makes is easier to hit or because batters are not chasing any one of his breaking balls down and away, recognizing early and spitting on them leading to more full counts and BBs.
What gives? Is something wrong on Odo’s arsenal?
Not really: his fastball plays up in the zone not because of spin and rise rather due to an insane amount of ride into RHBs and away from LHBs, a late tail making it a hard pitch to square up. His splitter and slider are not dropping much, a warning to be considered, but his cutter seems to be interesting, dropping far more than average without sweeping he can work in on lefties to get under their barrels.
His release point is consistent at around 6ft and his tunneling is solid:
The fastball/split combo is working as far as spin is concerned, with both offerings starting off the same to then diverge as the split fades away. A first correction may be one of pitch selection: the slider/cutter combo may be one to look more at as they are similar out of the hand but have opposite trajectory patterns, the slider more of a classic sweep and the cutter having that kind of drop they can be tunneled to catch righties guessing.
So if it’s not stuff, maybe batters are to be given more regard: are they being better at discerning Odo’s pitches? Are they chasing less and making more contact in the zone?
Yes and yes, but not in an otherworldly way: if anything Jake is throwing more pitches in the zone and on the edges, going 0–1 more than his career average while getting whiffs. What’s really lacking are chases, a career low that is almost 3 points behind his average, he’s not fooling anybody anymore.
Why? First hint:
These are some weird splits: lefties are doing far less damage but walking like egyptians, righties are just killing him with the longball, most of the pain coming on fastballs and some on splits/sliders. But wasn’t his fastball still good though? It’s up a tick even, gets his fair share of misses up and is not bad in terms of xwOBA…what then?
Anything strange? No slider for a start, far better results on both fastball and splitter, with the former being worth an obscene -19 Run Value, one of the best 2019 heaters in all of baseball. More cutters, and good ones, but nothing jumps out right?
Mr Slider is back with a vengeance, that and the cutter being amazing secondaries while the fastball is a lot 2021 with less gas. Did you find the trick? Look at the third to last column: that is the extension of a pitcher, as feet he rides down the bump from the start of his motion to release.
In the span of 4 years Odorizzi gained half a feet of extension, almost a feet on his splitter. That is…good? Well, that may be the cause of all his problems!
When measuring the quality of a fastball, extension is one of the main traits helping a heater to play up his shape and speed: in layman’s terms, the only one I can spare given my close to zero knowledge of physics, the more a pitcher extends the more ground he gains, releasing the ball later and much closer to the plate. When that pitch is a fastball there’s an obvious advantage, as the batter has less time to react and catch up to the gas.
The main boost provided by above average extension down the mound is closing the gap between effective and perceived velocity, the loss of mph from the moment the ball leaves the pitcher’s grip, effective velo, to the split-second the batter has to make a swing decision before the ball crosses the plate, perceived velo.
That is a key matter: consider pitchers such as Brusdar Graterol and German Marquez. Both have premium heaters, sinkers that go from 95 to upwards of 100 mph for the former, yet their SwStr% and Whiffs on those missiles are well below league average. Sure, sinkers are made to be hit for soft contact, still we’re talking about 100 miles an hour zipping by.
Is there any common denominator between the two? You got it: both have abysmal extension down the mound, less than 6ft with Graterol hovering around 5.5–5.7ft and Marquez slightly above that. You see it as easy gas, Graterol really seems like he’s slinging fireballs while sitting on his yard drinking a glass, but a lot of the heat gets lost in translation, disperding in the thin air on its journey to the plate, that’s why hitters are able to time and even hit bombs off such hellacious offerings.
On the opposite side of things there are countless examples of pitchers driving so far towards the plate that their fastballs jump on hitters more than their effective speed, even when mphs are already high enough for aces such as Zack Wheeler and Freddy “Fastballs” Peralta with their 7ft of extension, or compensating for lack of pure gas as in the strange case of Bailey Falter, a magician having almost more perceived velo than effective one.
But wait, if more extension correlates to better fastball, then Odo is set! He’s striding far more, releasing the ball later and harder while placing it optimally high in the zone and that explains why, even in a down season and with meager spin, his fastball still is a good pitch when commanded. There’s another issue though:
What about breaking pitches? If you are extending more, you are also cutting part of the tail of your sliders/cutters and losing fade on splitters and changeups, so while they are faster, they don’t move so much keeping everything else as is, grips and release points. That is what’s happening to Patrick Corbin and his patterned curve, just a memory of his past dominance, and that is the same scenario for Odorizzi’s splitter.
With less ground to cover, a shorter mound-plate trip, Jake’s split lost a ton of drop, now well belove the avg vmov for splitters in the league, and he’s having a hard time making it enticing for batters to chase, spiking it on the ground searching for more downward action or floating it high enough for hitters to take batting practice.
That explains a lot of Odorizzi’s struggles: without his breaker of choice he’s walking a ton of lefties, as against them he rarely goes with a slider or cutter due to lack of hmov, and against righties he has to resort more to his good heater, albeit one that if seen a number of times and located not exactly where it works up and over, is hittable for damage.
Lately, paired up with Martin Maldonado instead of Jason Castro, Odo is faring much better while specializing much more: on his last three starts he threw a ton of fastballs and splitters while keeping sliders and cutters at a bare minimum, on 0–0 or with two strikes against RHBs. That doesn’t mean he changed his mechanics, something he alluded to: his release point is still the same and so is his stride and an uncharacteristic loss of control, giving up 2+ walks in almost every start in 2021.
Is there anything to do about Jake’s “overstriding”? That’s a hard question to answer: we’re not talking about grips, windups, position on the mound, rather about something so natural that it would be hard to ask him not to stride so much. Would it help? Maybe yes, injecting more life to his split, maybe not, making his fastball even more garden variety.
What is clear is that, by going further down the mound as he delivers, Jake Odorizzi is having a tough time putting away hitters, cornered into a fastball-heavy approach bringing more contact and hard knocks due to his inabilty to both land breaking balls for strikes and making them bite late enough, for batters to fish at them, a prison of full counts, walks and foul balls he needs to evade from if he wants to reserve a place in the Astros postseason roster.
Sometimes less is more, Jake. Keep it short and stride to October!
All stats and graphs from Baseball Savant, data updated to August 26th.