The Minnesota Twins have dramatically outplayed public expectation this season. Their corps of position players was correctly projected to be the strength of the team, with nine players projected by FanGraphs Depth Charts to be average or better. But, not one of those nine players was projected to be worth more than 3 WAR. As FanGraphs Dan Szymborski put it in his preview of the team, “One of the problems with having a team full of average players is that it becomes damned hard to upgrade.” In other words, the most common type of player hovers around average—by definition, there are fewer all-star type players than there are average regulars. They’re a more difficult commodity to collect.
I’m highly skeptical, therefore, that even the most rabid members of the Minnesota fanbase thought the offense would be strong enough to challenge the home run record, let alone break it with over a month remaining in the season. The modest disappointments of Jonathan Schoop, Eddie Rosario, and Marwin Gonzalez have been vanquished with huge breakouts from Max Kepler, Mitch Garver, Jorge Polanco, and Luis Arraez, reemergences from Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton, and Nelson Cruz’s continued eschewal of age-related decay. The Twins have managed to do just what Dan claimed was so difficult. They turned a group of regulars into a group of above-average players and stars. At the time of writing, only the Yankees have scored more runs than Minnesota this season, and only the Astros have surpassed their share of FanGraphs’s offensive component of WAR.
One would think, therefore, that silencing their vaunted lineup would be the key to defeating them, and the Indians have managed to do that all season long. In holding Minnesota to a .708 OPS, Cleveland has effectively turned the league’s most powerful lineup into a team of Cory Spangenberg’s. In their 16 contests, the Twins have tallied a measly 63 runs, which works out to be a hair under four a game. Against the rest of the league, by comparison, they’re averaging over six a game.
Despite doing the hard part, despite facing the Minnesota Spangenberg’s, the Indians have only managed to win nine of their 16 matchups. This is because the 63 runs Cleveland has allowed is only narrowly fewer than the 67 they’ve scored. By OPS, the Indians have actually hit worse than the Twins in these matchups.
As press-worthy as the Twins offense has been, their pitching’s metamorphosis has been equally surprising, if far less historic. Discussions earlier this season between baseball writers for this very website could be paraphrased as: “Minnesota’s offense may be legit, but there’s no way their pitching holds up. It’s Jose Berrios and a bunch of random dudes.” Some of our suspicions may have been true, sure, Martin Perez is not actually good. But friends, I’ll admit it. We were wrong. They may not just be “random guys.” Heading into the ultimate three-game series, the Cleveland Indians are going to need to figure out how to hit against them.
Perhaps no performance in the Twins starting rotation has been more surprising than Jake Odorizzi’s, who primes the mound for this weekend’s epic clash this evening. Odorizzi was once a highly-touted prospect, though he didn’t carve out a major league role until he reached Tampa Bay, his third organization, who acquired him in the Wil Myers/James Shields/Wade Davis trade. From 2014-16, Odorizzi ate innings unspectacularly, averaging 2.2 fWAR a year over that span. In 2017, things made like Chinua Achebe and fell apart. He gave up dingers as if he was trying to, and he found himself traded to Minnesota the following offseason in return for a single, scrubby prospect. Things looked bleak.
But, after scrapping his way back to league average last season, Odorizzi has come into his own as a member of these 2019 Twins. At 3.7 WAR and a few games to go, this has easily been the best season of his career. He’s set career bests in not only fWAR, but also FIP, K%, and K%-BB%.
Most intriguing to me, though, are his home run patterns. This year’s historic rate has dwarfed years past, but at the time, 2017 was the Year of the Juiced Ball. No season had even approached that its 1.26 homers per team per game. Odorizzi felt it more than most, as he surrendered a longball to one out of every 20 batters he faced. In 2018, he took a major step forward as league-wide home run rates slightly regressed, limiting home runs to one every 35 batters. But, the Juiced Ball has returned with a vengeance in 2019; at 1.4 homers per team per game, this year has obliterated 2017’s record. As a league, one out of every 27 batters goes yard. Against Odorizzi, it’s one out of every 38. In other words, it’s The Year of the Home Run and Jake Odorizzi is threatening to set his career-low in home runs allowed. Amazing.
Thus far, he’s mystified Tribe hitters, striking out 29 of the 90 batters he’s faced while allowing just two homers and an OPS under .600. His last time out, he baffled the Indians with 5.1 two-run innings, striking out 10. The question is, how has Jake Odorizzi done so well, and more importantly, can the Indians counter his approach for a Game One victory?
Let’s look at one of the homers he allowed to the Indians earlier this year, surrendered to the very mortal Hanley Ramirez.
There are a few things I want to point out here. Firstly, off-topic: how amazing would it have been if Hanley had worked out this season—that swing is glorious. More pertinently, though, Hanley’s dinger came off a fastball, and that’s important to this whole discussion. Notice the count and location the catcher is asking for; this is a classic “get-me-over” fastball, and it ends up thigh-high down the middle.1
That pitch location is in stark contrast to his general fastball strategy this season. Odorizzi has thrown a four-pitch mix: a four-seamer, a slider-like cutter, a splitter, and a very occasional curveball. Take note of the pitch frequencies in the charts below.
As league-wide breaking ball rates have ticked up, Odorizzi has brought the heat, and he has brought it often. Although he possesses merely average fastball velocity, spin rate, and movement, hitters have managed just a .294 wOBA on the pitch, putting it in the 81st percentile in terms of effectiveness among pitchers who have thrown at least 100 fastballs. What stands out about Odorizzi’s fastball is not how, but where he throws it.
Again, Odorizzi counters a league-wide trend here. As hitters have feasted on the low pitch, Odorizzi has dodged that part of the zone by specializing in the high fastball. It’s worked: Only Gerrit Cole, Justin Verlander, and Lance Lynn have gotten more swings and misses on the fastball. Additionally, Odorizzi is in the 85th percentile in average launch angle, but in the 30th percentile (lower is better) in exit velocity off the fastball. In other words, hitters can’t make contact off of his fastball, and when they do, it’s a weak fly ball.
It’s surprising that hitters haven’t adjusted to Odorizzi’s fastball placement; it’s not as if he as Gerrit Cole’s raw stuff. Perhaps it’s enough at odds with the rest of the league that it takes opponents off guard. More likely, it’s because even though the fastball is the most common, Odorizzi wisely never abandons his cutter or splitter; he’s willing to throw each of those pitches in any count.
The splitter, in particular, has given Indians hitters fits this season; he’s thrown 93 of them against Cleveland, and only Francisco Lindor has managed to hit a ball with any kind of authority. Indeed, the splitter has held the Indians to a .168 wOBA, and guess what? Odorizzi knows it:
Against the Indians, the cutter has gotten demoted to curveball territory, and Odorizzi essentially becomes a two-pitch pitcher because Cleveland simply cannot lay off the splitter. It’s astonishing, actually. Over three-quarters of the Odorizzi splitters the Indians have seen have been out of the strike zone, and yet the Indians offer at nearly half of them. It truly is just a chase pitch, and Cleveland has been eating it out of the palm of his hand:
An optimal strategy might be to never swing at the splitter, but it’s not so simple. Here are two screenshots, one of a fastball and the other of a splitter; I tried to capture them at exactly the same point in Odorizzi’s delivery.
The ball is a little tricky to see in the top picture—it’s right by Mitch Garver’s right shoulder. The pitches look largely identical at this point in Odorizzi’s delivery, and so it’s impossible to determine each pitch’s identity. Maybe the pitch to Jake Bauers looks ever so slightly more inside, but it’s not enough to be easily discernible in hindsight, let alone as a hitter. Here is the actual footage of each pitch:
The pitches look identical until the splitter darts toward the ground, while the fastball “rises” and tails into the top of the zone. These aren’t just random pitches that sync up perfectly, either; these are the exact average locations for the fastball and the splitter.
By becoming a two-pitch pitcher, Odorizzi does become predictable in some ways. Indians hitters have done absolutely no damage this season against the splitter, and it would behoove them to swing at as few as possible. Odorizzi’s splitters are almost always low. So, my trick for beating Odorizzi: Don’t swing at the low pitch! Low pitches are all splitters! If only it were so simple.
The old baseball adage is that hitters should “take what the defense/pitcher gives them.” That mindset has become largely passé today’s game. Today, hitters would rather attempt to hit to their own strengths rather than to the pitchers’ weaknesses, and for the most part, I support that mindset. However, Odorizzi has tailored his pitch mix perfectly to make it impossible to try to elevate the low pitch. If that’s your approach, you’re whiffing at splitters and popping up fastballs, not exactly a recipe for success. If the Indians are going to defeat Odorizzi and the Twins this evening and beyond, they have to hunt for the high fastball.