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Free Agent Spotlight: Jake Odorizzi

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I’m writing about a player that might actually happen?

Minnesota Twins v Chicago White Sox Photo by Quinn Harris/Getty Images

I’ve done my fair share of free agent spotlights this offseason, and for basically all of them, it was written more as a hypothetical. It was not written because I thought it had a possibility of happening. It was written because I needed something to write and it would be interesting to look at somebody the Cardinals should be interested in. But all along, I did not believe the Cardinals would ever sign that guy.

That changes today. Now, I am not saying I believe the Cardinals will sign Jake Odorizzi. I truly don’t know. But for the first time, I actually believe they might sign Odorizzi. If he is announced before spring training, I would not be surprised. For literally every other player I’ve covered, if the Cardinals signed them, I would absolutely be surprised. Shocked even. Funny how much changed in such a short amount of time.

There is a very good chance Odorizzi grew up a Cardinals fan. He was born in Illinois and went to Highland High School in Highland, Illinois. According to Google Maps, Busch Stadium is 36 minutes away. He led his high school to the Illinois state championship back in 2008, which led to him being drafted 32nd overall in the MLB draft by the Milwaukee Brewers.

He never had a chance to pitch for the big league club. He had two solid seasons in rookie ball before emerging as a top 100 prospect after striking out 26.7% of batters in A ball at just 20-years-old. Coming off a 77-85 season, the Brewers felt they were close and decided to trade for Zack Greinke, who was affordable for two more seasons before hitting free agency. Odorizzi was combined with Lorenzo Cain, who had a promising first 43 games, Alcides Escobar, and Jeremy Jeffress.

He didn’t last long with the Royals either. Odorizzi took a step forward in High A in his first professional season with the Royals. He struck out 32.5% of batters and walked just 6.9% en route to a 2.18 FIP. He got promoted midseason to AA, where he struggled in 12 starts. He lasted just seven fantastic starts before a promotion to AAA the next year. He struggled in AAA, though had a 2.93 ERA (4.66 FIP), and made two very short starts in the big leagues to end the 2012 season.

And then he was traded again. This was another famous trade (as far as trades can be famous). In this one, he was paired with Wil Myers and Mike Montgomery for Wade Davis and James Shield. Considered a huge overpay at the time - Myers was the #4 prospect in baseball - it didn’t exactly turn out as expected. But that wasn’t Odorizzi’s fault. Much like in AA, Odorizzi responded to a repeat of AAA by dominating the league. The Rays gave him 29.2 in the big leagues to end the year where he was solid. Because the Rays kept in the minors so long, he ended up being a top 100 prospect for four straight years. At least according to Baseball America.

His career became stable with the Rays. He was a regular member of the rotation for the next four years. He was more average than good. He had a 2.9 fWAR season in his second full season with the Rays, but was just a little below 2 WAR in the two seasons surrounding it. And his tenure as a Ray ended on a sour note with a replacement level season - by fWAR. Due $6.3 million and being the Rays, he was traded. He was traded for a guy who never made the majors.

With the Twins, he became a pitcher the Cardinals might actually want. No disrespect to his Rays career, but he ended up average 1.7 WAR per season and he wasn’t exactly an innings eater. With the Twins, he had seasons of 2.5 and 4.3 fWAR before accepting the qualifying offer. Last year, well he had a bad year, but it ended up being just 4 starts and 13.2 innings so not a whole lot of data there.

Odorrizi’s jump with the Twins was not completely random. His fastball, always an above average pitch in his arsenal, became one of the best pitches in baseball in 2019. In his five full seasons prior to 2019, his fastball was worth an average of +8 runs above average. In 2020, it was +20.8. Part of the explanation is simple: he threw faster. He averaged 91.7 prior to 2019. In 2019, his average fastball went 93 mph. Every one of his other pitches was faster too. I’m sure there are more explanations than just speed, but for now I’ll just stick to speed.

The good news is, in the very limited sample that his 2020 was, he kept his increased speed. He threw even faster in fact, although not by much. But still. If speed is the primary reason for his success, it didn’t go away. The bad news is that he missed most of last year due to three different injuries: a blister, a chest contusion, and a right intercostal strain. None of those are his arm, but very weird year he had. Especially for a guy who made at least 28 starts in every season of his career.

There is one very important thing to know about Odorizzi: it’s not totally clear he’s for real. Yes, yes I mentioned his uptick in velocity and his improved fastball effectiveness in general, but his peripherals are perhaps a bit less impressive than the WAR number that sticks out. When he had a 4.3 fWAR season, his FIP was 3.36 and his xFIP was 4.33. Which is an enormous difference. His SIERA, which is supposed to account for quality of contact was 4.14. His deserved run average, courtesy of Baseball Prospectus, was 4.23.

It is however good to know that he does have a disparity between his ERA and all those other stats for his career. His career ERA is 3.92. His FIP is 4.12, his xFIP is 4.33, his SIERA is 4.21, and his DRA is 4.63. Did he “deserve” a 4.3 WAR season now knowing this information? Well, no. He probably should have had lower than a 3.36 FIP and 3.51 ERA, since his career HR/FB% is 10.5% and his HR/FB% in that great season was 8.8%.

I was looking at his stats, confused as to why 2019 appeared to be an outlier when the other stats he has suggest he didn’t exactly change that much. And the reason why is because he went from the Tropicana to Target Field. Tropicana is as much a pitcher’s park as Busch Stadium is. Target Field is a hitter’s park. One of the few benefits of being in a pitcher’s park is that... you don’t really need to worry about how pitchers will play in your park.

It also explains, why when you look at his projections, they don’t look that great. Because given his last three years were in Target Field, the projections assume he’ll have the same environment. Which is how you get results like a 4.63 FIP in 156 IP producing 2 WAR. If he had a 4.63 FIP at Busch Stadium, he would not get 156 innings and it would be significantly less than 2 WAR.

ZiPS is more of a fan than Steamer is. Given the seemingly randomness of his injuries (though he had blisters before 2020), it seems a little harsh on his innings projection but I understand. ZiPS projects 1.8 WAR in 119.7 IP. He averaged 165.1 innings per season prior to 2020, so if you give him that projected inning total, he is projected as a 2.5 WAR pitcher by ZiPS. Which the Cardinals could certainly use!

My interest in Odorrizi has went in a circle writing this post. Having not really looked into his numbers, I was good with signing him because the Cardinals need rotation depth. Then his numbers looked less impressive than I thought, to the point where I thought I was going to caution against signing him. And having discovered he has a 2.5 WAR projection, my interest is back to wanting to sign him. If you felt similar reading my post, well that’s why.

Being 31, Odorizzi does not come without a downside. Because of his 2020, he’s perhaps a less safe option than ideal for the someone who is considered a safe option. So I would go no higher than two years for Odorizzi. It’s harder to imagine he’s an above average pitcher after two years, and teams don’t really need to pay for the below average years anymore. Maybe the Cardinals will have to to sign him, but I would pass if someone else is offering three years or more.

With that in mind, what is his contract? Well despite the 2.5 WAR projection in 165.1 IP, as far as I can tell, no projection system is actually projecting that, so you don’t need to pay him that. ZiPS and Steamer are in agreement with 1.7 and 1.8 WAR, although the Steamer total has significantly more innings. It appears he’s valued as a 1.8 WAR pitcher then.

What’s that contract look like? 2 years, $27.9 million, and you might as well just say 2 years, $28 million. That’s assuming the $9 million a year free agency prices, which might not be true. Although I honestly have no idea what the market is, because some pitchers have signed for more than I expected. If you want to value a win at $8 million, the offer should be 2 years, $25 million. The Cardinals will probably do something funky, like pay most of that in 2022 or something to make the finances work. That’s why a one year deal is harder to imagine. You can mess with the financials if it’s two years, but you pretty much have to pay him if it’s just 2021.

Anyway, so 2 years, $28 million? Sound reasonable?