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Yankees Potential Free Agent Target: Jake Odorizzi

Despite missing most of 2020 to injury, Odorizzi might be the second-best free agent starting pitcher after Trevor Bauer.

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

Earlier this week, Brian Cashman said that while he would like to add to the current starting rotation, he believes the pieces are already in place on the roster to have a successful, playoff-contending team. That’s a scary thought. The rotation as currently constructed is not one that can get you through a full 162-game season, much less into the playoffs.

So where will the Yankees turn to fill out their staff? They could always reunite with the recently-departed Masahiro Tanaka or James Paxton, but there has been little movement on that front as the Yankees make their decision on DJ LeMahieu. They could venture into the trade market, though the most likely target, Lance Lynn, was recently taken off the board. They could pursue the top arm on the free agent market in Trevor Bauer, though he is probably outside their price range if they intend to keep the payroll below $210 million. Or they could turn to perhaps the next-best option after Bauer: Jake Odorizzi.

Odorizzi, who turns 31 a few days before the currently scheduled Opening Day, has been one of the more steady starting pitchers in the AL over the last half decade-plus. Since his first full-time season as a starter in the bigs in 2014, he ranks tenth in innings pitched (1005.1), 37th in ERA (3.91), and 16th in fWAR (13.4). He put together arguably the best season of his career in 2019 with the Twins, going 15-7 with a 3.51 ERA, 3.36 FIP, 4.33 xFIP, and 178 strikeouts in 159 innings pitched, good for 4.3 fWAR.

2020 was not nearly as kind to the veteran righty, as he missed three separate stretches to injury: a back strain, a chest contusion after being struck by a come-backer, and a blister. All told, he only pitched 13.2 innings last season, so I am inclined to disregard his results as I evaluate his potential contribution to the Yankees.

Odorizzi fits the Yankees’ pitching philosophy, having scrapped the sinker in favor of his four-seamer in his final years with the Rays. The move has paid dividends, as among all starting pitchers in 2019, Odorizzi sported the sixth-best four-seam fastball in MLB, clocking in at a -19 run value according to Statcast (negative is better by Statcast’s metric). This is due to the unique profile of the pitch. Though he will not blow you away with overpowering velocity or riding life at the top of the zone, it exhibits a tremendous amount of tailing action, averaging over 11 inches of horizontal run over the last four seasons. Circling back to velocity, it should be noted that he has added close to two mph since joining the Twins, as it now sits at a respectable 93 mph.

He also features a splitter, slider, and cutter, all of which he throws over ten percent of the time, making him a true four-pitch pitcher. The splitter is his best offspeed pitch, generating a .282 xwOBA in 2019. His cutter is quite the curiosity, as in some seasons it features mostly horizontal break while in others it breaks almost exclusively downwards. The slider is probably his weakest breaking pitch, though in most years still maintains above-average lateral movement.

Now onto the points of concern. Odorizzi generates an alarming amount of hard contact, routinely sitting near the bottom-third of the league in terms of exit velocity, hard hit rate, and barrel rate. On top of that, he doesn’t generate groundballs nearly enough to mitigate the hard hit rate, giving up the sixth-lowest groundball rate among qualified AL starters since 2014. He is not particularly effective at limiting walks nor generating strikeouts, with a K-BB% of 14.5% right around league average. In short, he is certainly not an ace and probably not a number two at that. But he will give you roughly 160 innings of 4.00 ERA, 4.00 FIP ball, and there is definitely value in that.

Unfortunately, the Yankees have decided they don’t want to be picky with regard to their rotation. And adding DJ LeMahieu to a budget constrained by a self-imposed spending limit thins out the pool of available starting pitchers. In fact, if FanGraphs and MLB Trade Rumors are to be believed, the three-year, $39 million projected contract for Odorizzi may yet be more than they are willing to spend. However, should ownership loosen the purse strings enough to fill the areas of need, Odorizzi ought to be near the top of their wishlist.