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Kodi Whitley is Primed for a Breakout

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The 26-year-old came on strong down the stretch in 2021, but he should become an important piece of the bullpen in 2022.

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at Pittsburgh Pirates Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Kodi Whitley dominated throughout his minor league career. He was taken in the 27th round in 2017 and he had reached Triple-A by 2019 having never posted an ERA above 2.51 at any level. Had there been a 2020 minor league season he likely would have spent the first half of the year in Triple-A, but if he had continued at the same pace he would have been in St. Louis for the second half of the year. The cancelled 2020 minor league season and shortened major league season meant that Whitley threw only 4 23 innings.

Whitley was injured for part of 2021 and spent part of the year in the minor leagues, but he came on strong in the final month of the season. The right-hander did not give up a single run in 14 innings in September and October while fanning 19 hitters and walking just four.

It was a small sample size, but overall in 2021, Whitley had a 2.49 ERA and 2.97 FIP. His walk rate was a bit high at 11.9%, but it improved significantly at the end of the year and his strikeout rate of 26.7% was solid. SIERA (4.02) and xFIP (4.27) paint a less rosy picture, but Whitley’s quick ascent and minor league dominance give him plenty of promise.

His promise also comes from his arsenal. Whitley’s bread and butter is his fastball. It is not overpowering (93.7 mph), but it does have a strong rising effect. the 26-year-old’s four-seamer drops 11.7 inches, 18% less than the average four-seamer. Thus, it is not surprise that he targets the upper part of the zone with great success (.281 wOBA allowed against the pitch in 2021).

Whitley’s changeup is perhaps his most intriguing pitch. It is his second most used pitch, behind his fastball, as he throws it 27.9% of the time. He is also comfortable throwing it to right-handers, which is unusual because pitchers generally prefer to avoid same-sided changeups. The thinking goes that changeups break in to same sided hitters instead of out, so when the pitch is hung it is much easier for a same sided hitter to do damage. Because of this, many pitchers almost exclusively throw their changeups to opposite-sided hitters.

In 2021, the right-handed Whitley threw more changeups to right-handed hitters than he did to left handed hitters. This is crucial for him because he is primarily a fastball/changeup pitcher. If he did not throw his changeup to right-handers then he would be refusing to use his best offspeed pitch to more than half of the hitters that he faced.

Whitley also had success with same sided changeups in 2021. He threw 64 of them and only allowed three singles. This is clearly a small sample size, but given Whitley’s success in the minors, the pitch has likely been successful throughout his professional career.

Since changeups are typcially used as a weapon against opposite-sided hitters, it is possible that Whitley can be just as effective against lefties as he is against righties. This was true in a very small sample size is 2021. Whitley had a 2.20 FIP versus lefties and a 3.50 FIP versus righties while surrendering a .232 wOBA against lefties and a .230 wOBA against righties.

Again, Whitley threw only 25 13 innings in 2021, so it is possible that Whitley will have less success against left-handers in the future, but theoretically, a fastball/changeup combo should allow him to be effective against all hitters. This potential ability to get all hitters out is valuable in the bullpen and should neutralize the effects of any pinch hitters or lineup orientations designed to alternate right-handed and left-handed hitters.

Whitley throws his changeup with above average velocity and although it gets well below average break in both the vertical and horizontal directions, it generated a 37.9% whiff rate in 2021. The success that Whitley has with the pitch is partly due to its velocity as it is a power change that gets on hitters a little quicker and has sharp break, even though there is not much of it. It also looks almost exactly like his fastball.

Whitley’s fastball has a spin direction of 12:30 and his changeup has a spin direction of 1:00. In fact, the two pitches sometimes come out with the exact same spin direction.

The speed difference and the rising effect of Whitley’s fastball make his changeup more effective. While his fastball looks like it is rising, his changeup drops. When the two pitches come out with the same spin, it is easy for the hitter to be fooled. Whitley could improve by bringing his observed spin directions even closer, but currently, the combination can be devestating to opposing hitters. He does not need elite movement on his changeup to fool hitters or get them to miss, rather he just needs to use it in tandem with his fastball.

The same effect is seen with Whitley’s slider, though not to the same extent. Like his changeup, Whitley’s slider does not get much movement, but it’s 11:45 spin direction is close to the 12:30 spin direction of his four-seamer. This also allows it to build off the pitch and contributes to why he had a 42.9% whiff rate on the pitch in 2021.

Whitely has a good fastball and it is the basis of his arsenal. Every other pitch builds off his four-seamer. Not only does that give him three viable pitches, but it also generates a lot of whiffs, and it makes him less susceptible to platoon effects. For a former 27th-round pick, Whitley has quickly turned himself into an MLB-caliber pitcher, and he is primed for a breakout in 2022. It would not be surprising to see him develop into a key bullpen option for the St. Louis Cardinals as soon as next season.