Jake Odorizzi brings cerebral, understated approach to top of Twins' rotation
PITTSBURGH — Growing up in Highland, Ill., about a 40-minute drive from St. Louis, Jake Odorizzi was a Cardinals fan.
In particular, he took note of a right-hander named Matt Morris, a first-round draft pick who spent eight seasons with the Cardinals. A 22-game winner in 2001, when Odorizzi was 11, Morris was a solid presence in the rotation of a perennial contender from 1997-2005.
There was nothing flashy about Morris. He just showed up every five days and did his job, averaging 16 wins and 199 innings in his final five seasons with St. Louis. This appealed to the young Odorizzi, whose baseball career was just taking flight about that time.
He liked something else about Morris' game, something that continues to pay dividends to this day for Odorizzi.
"He had the big curveball," Odorizzi said in advance of his second Twins start at 5 p.m. Wednesday, April 4, at PNC Park.
Trips to Cardinals games were rare for Odorizzi, who adopted Cardinals right-handers Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright as his favorites after Morris bounced to the San Francisco Giants and, later, the Pittsburgh Pirates. Asked if he ever secured any autographs of his pitching heroes, Odorizzi shook his head.
"Too shy," he said in a voice that rarely rises above a gravelly whisper.
'Average white righty'
It hasn't been seven weeks since the Twins acquired Odorizzi from the Tampa Bay Rays for Class A shortstop Jermaine Palacios. In many ways, they are still getting to know a pitcher who remains under club control through 2019, thanks to the salary arbitration system.
But the early returns have been impressive and reassuring, enough to make one wonder how the Twins were able to acquire such a polished, durable pitcher so cheaply.
"Hard worker, super competitor, family man, great clubhouse guy," Rays ace Chris Archer said this spring.
Tampa Bay manager Kevin Cash appreciated the way Odorizzi, 28, fought through lower back and hamstring issues to make 28 starts last season for a third-place team.
"I don't know if he was ever healthy," Cash said. "He battled some injuries and just kept taking the ball. He finds a way, it seems, every fifth to give his team a chance to win."
Odorizzi did that on Opening Day last week in his Twins debut, shutting out the Orioles for six innings on two hits and a pair of walks. It was the first of what the Twins and Odorizzi hope will be many quality starts with his new team.
"You're getting just a very mild-mannered guy," Cash said. "The mindset that he takes onto the mound every fifth day is probably what you strive for in a lot of pitchers. He's so even-keeled — doesn't get too high, doesn't get too low. He's just very consistent."
Over his final four seasons with the Rays, Odorizzi averaged 10 wins, 30 starts and 167 innings. He also averaged 24 homers allowed while pitching to a 3.81 earned-run average and a 4.23 fielding-independent figure.
His park-adjusted ERA in that span was three percent above league average, even while averaging 8.3 strikeouts per nine innings, so it was easy to overlook Odorizzi in a talented Rays rotation that at various times included Archer, David Price, Matt Moore, Alex Cobb and Blake Snell.
"That's the AWR — Average White Righty," Twins designated hitter Logan Morrison said of his Rays teammate the past two seasons. "That's my guy. He gets outs. He's got a great dad bod."
Odorizzi doesn't mind the good-natured teasing. It's part of what makes him such a popular and valued teammate. Where the understated pitcher with the slight frame and modest fastball really earns respect is on the mound.
"It doesn't matter how he's feeling; he'll take the ball every fifth day and go out and compete," Morrison said. "And he is very concerned about (helping) his team ... win on the day he pitches."
That might seem automatic, but it's not.
"He doesn't care if he gets the win, but he wants his team to win," Morrison said. "That's always a good attribute to have. You don't see that sometimes with pitchers. It's very easy for pitchers to get into that mode of 'just do your job and don't worry about the rest,' which is not a bad thing. But being able to put your team in a position to win, I believe, is first and foremost, and I think that's where he's at."
In an effort to be even more durable this season, Odorizzi worked with trainer Chris May in Tampa this winter. They have worked together the past five years, introducing Pilates into Odorizzi's routine.
"My regimen in the offseason was catered to more functional workouts and strengthening instead of just your classic lift," Odorizzi said. "That's really helped me get fully prepared for this season."
The Twins eased him into their spring training rotation, backing him off an extra couple of days on multiple occasions, as they seek to keep him strong for the six-month haul of the regular season.
"What I've learned over time, if you have a little nagging thing like I've dealt with in the past, it's better to calm it down instead of pitching through it," Odorizzi said. "Just a little bit of maturity, I guess you would say. Just being smart."
He takes that same cerebral approach to the mound, carving up hitters with a varied pitch mix that includes that Morris-level curveball, a short slider and a split change that was slow to come around this spring. He also isn't afraid to pitch inside with his fastball at 90-92 mph or work up in the zone for two-strike success against greedy hitters.
"While it's not mid-90s, it plays really well when he's using the other pitches in his mix," Twins manager Paul Molitor said. "I think the other component is a combination of intelligence and makeup. He's just got a really good feel of how his stuff is working on a given day, and what the vulnerabilities of hitters are."
An extreme fly-ball pitcher, Odorizzi is looking forward to working with a talented young defensive outfield behind him. After having Kevin Kiermaier patrolling center field in Tampa Bay, Odorizzi now has Byron Buxton behind him.
"There's not too many times you can go from a Platinum glove (award) winner to another one," Odorizzi said. "I'm excited about everything: The team, the park, the city, the defense behind me. I'm excited to see them on a regular basis and see the things that they can do."
The Twins are eager to see what Odorizzi can do for them, as well.