Rays right-hander aims to keep delivery simple in return from DL
By Connor Mount
For many, mentioning a high fastball will evoke images of the likes of Max Scherzer, Jacob deGrom or Chris Sale mowing down hitters helplessly chasing high-octane heaters at the letters.
It might come as a surprise, then, that the starter who goes upstairs more than anyone in the Majors is Jake Odorizzi. The Rays right-hander pitches at the top of the zone or higher on 28.5 percent of his fastballs, according to Statcast™.
Odorizzi's dedication to the upper third of the strike zone comes despite his modest 91.5-mph average fastball, giving him a unique pitching style as well as a slim margin of error.
Coaches barking at pitchers to "get the ball down" is a fixture at many a baseball diamond, in part because of the inherent risk of the home run that comes with pitching up high. Odorizzi has given up at least one homer in a franchise-record 15 straight games, but the streak has been extended on a couple occasions by the day's lone mistake being hit out of the park.
"That's what happens … when you're not really high-octane stuff," Tampa Bay pitching coach Jim Hickey said. "Chris Archer gets away with a lot more mistakes than Jake Odorizzi does."
Odorizzi has an expected batting average against on high fastballs of .233. In reality, hitters have batted .268 (22-for-82), with a slugging percentage of .561 (49th of 54 starters who had at least 50 results on high fastballs).
Without elite velocity, Odorizzi is often driven to dense pitch-count workloads. Hitters foul off 19.9 percent of his offerings, 13th highest in the Majors among starters who have thrown 500 pitches. Odorizzi's per-inning pitch count of 18.4 is 14th highest in the same group.
But this isn't a case of the game telling Odorizzi to become a more conventional low-ball pitcher, as teams early in his career often instructed him.
"What's funny, also: It's usually not the high fastball that becomes the home run," Hickey said. "It's the conventional fastball that either leaks up or the bad breaking ball, the bad offspeed pitch."
Odorizzi had a rough first half plagued by mechanical inconsistency, which led to spotty command. He said he deteriorated into throwing more using the rotation of his body, rather than coming down through the ball to deliver the pitch.
"If you're late behind it, it's leaking back over the plate, yanking off the plate," Odorizzi said. "There's just way more room for error."
So Odorizzi came out of the All-Star break throwing exclusively from the stretch in hopes of simplifying his delivery. The change paid instant dividends, as Odorizzi had his best game of the year when he started using it against Oakland: a seven-inning, one-hit gem (the lone hit being a solo shot by Khris Davis) on July 17.
The tweak helped Odorizzi get on top of the ball, he said.
"I was able to locate down in the zone a lot when I wanted to, and it also had a better effect on my offspeed pitches as well," Odorizzi said. "Any time you're not pulling off the ball, you're usually going to get a better bite on your slider, changeup, whatever it may be.
"It's all about the finish."
The same can be said of Odorizzi's season, which saw him pitch to a 4.63 ERA in the first half. With the Rays in contention for their first playoff berth in four years, Odorizzi knows, "It's time to be back at the top of my game."
On Wednesday, Odorizzi returns from a disabled list trip caused by a back issue that lingered since the spring. Expect his eye-level-changing pitching style to remain the same. There will be conventional strikes setting up a changeup taught to him by teammate Alex Cobb, and of course, a steady diet of high fastballs.
"My 90 to 94 [mph] looks harder than what it is up at the top of the zone compared to the bottom," Odorizzi said. "I think velocity plays up up in the zone."
Only Sale has gotten more total swings-and-misses (97) on the high heater than Odorizzi (93), who also has the best whiff percentage (4.52) on the pitch among those who have thrown it 300 times.
"That ball's hard to hit, man. Without getting very scientific at all, most hitters train to hit that ball down there," Hickey said, holding a hand at knee level. "When we talk about pitching up in the strike zone, though, you're not just talking about belt-high, you're talking about letter-high. It's a very difficult pitch to square up."
Connor Mount is a reporter for MLB.com based in St. Petersburg. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.