Following the news that Ervin Santana would miss the start of the 2018 season following finger surgery, it was even more apparent that the Twins would need reinforcements for their starting rotation. Fortunately, bringing in the ghost of Anibal Sanchez wasn’t the only move they would make as they pulled off what appeared to be a heist in acquiring 27-year old Jake Odorizzi for nothing more than minor league shortstop Jermaine Palacios.
Odorizzi was originally selected 32nd overall in the 2008 draft by the Milwaukee Brewers and lasted three seasons in their organization before getting shipped with Alcides Escobar, Jeremy Jeffress, and Lorenzo Cain to Kansas City for Zack Greinke and Yuniesky Betancourt. He steadily made his way up the minor league ladder before debuting in September 2012 with the Royals, making two late-season starts. However, he didn’t get a chance to become well-acquainted with Kauffman Stadium as he was then sent to Tampa Bay with three other players (including left-handed pitcher Mike Montgomery and first baseman/outfielder Wil Myers, now with the Cubs and Padres, respectively) for James Shields and Wade Davis.
Tampa was where Odorizzi established himself as a major leaguer, spending parts of five seasons in Florida. He enjoyed a solid stretch from 2014 to 2016 where he pitched to a 3.72 ERA, 3.91 FIP, and .235 batting average allowed while sticking just better than the league average in strikeout rate (22.4%) and walk rate (7.2%). However, last season wasn’t so good in spite of his 4.14 ERA as his FIP (5.43) was in the neighborhood of pitchers like Wade Miley and Ubaldo Jimenez, thanks to allowing 30 home runs in just over 140 innings and walking a career-worst 10.1% of batters faced. The reason he still managed the above-average ERA was due to his strikeout rate remaining steady while also allowing batters to hit just .216 against him.
On one hand, eyeing Odorizzi’s career .269 BABIP might be concerning as it suggests that he’s had good fortune throughout his career. However, it’s important to note his plan of attack on the mound. Odorizzi loves throwing high fastballs, a pitch that can generate swings-and-misses and lazy fly balls when thrown effectively. (This was the strategy used by Glen Perkins when he became a full-time reliever.) Last season saw fewer of those effective fastballs though as evidenced by the jump in Odorizzi’s home run rate. Travis Sawchik of FanGraphs suggested that Odorizzi may have been throwing his fastball too high, making it easier for batters to separate it from his second-favorite pitch, his splitter. One goes up, the other goes down, and it makes sense that if the “rising” pitcher is thrown high and the “sinking” pitch is low, hitters will start having a better time identifying which is which.
That might be the best hope for Odorizzi as the change in outfield defense isn’t as great as you may think. Although he’s gaining Eddie Rosario, Max Kepler, and perennial Gold Glove candidate Byron Buxton, he’s also leaving behind Steven Souza Jr., fellow Gold Glove candidate Kevin Kiermaier, and the left field trio of Corey Dickerson, Mallex Smith, and Peter Bourjos. In fact, the 2017 Rays outfield defense rated better than the Twins according to UZR/150 and Defensive Runs Saved, meaning that there won’t be much of a defensive benefit in joining the Twins, if even at all.
Regardless, Odorizzi immediately becomes the Twins’ third or fourth best starting pitcher (depending on your opinion of Kyle Gibson) and his presence means the Twins won’t have to rely as much on Felix Jorge and Aaron Slegers while Santana is out. His success hinges on his ability to regain his control and to limit the home runs, which will be critical as he leads the rotation early in the season.