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April 24, 2013
International Feel, Vol. 1
This is the first installment in a regular series of detailed player evaluations from Triple-A (east of the Mississippi).
Jake Odorizzi, Rays. It’s easy to misperceive Odorizzi as a second-tier prospect, and not only because he is overshadowed by Wil Myers, the big cookie in the prize package the Rays received from Kansas City for James Shields. It’s also easy to short Odorizzi because he isn’t a power arm. He essentially takes the Tampa Bay system baton from Alex Cobb, who got it from Jeremy Hellickson. All three of these pitchers work most comfortably around 90 mph and rely on location and variation; all are soft-spoken (two are Midwesterners); and all are fiercer competitors than they might seem at first.
Odorizzi has actually hit 94 mph with his fastball a few times in the three starts he’s made this year, all of which I’ve seen. That’s not Verlander velocity, of course, but it isn’t pedestrian, either, even if at 94 Odorizzi doesn’t command his fastball as well—it tends to sail. He’s more comfortable at 90-92 with his four-seamer, and he throws an occasional two-seamer in the upper 80s, too. He adds to these a rather slow curve, which sits in the 71-73 range, a slider here and there, and a changeup.
Odorizzi’s results so far have been generally very good. He shut out the Gwinnett Braves in a 6 2/3-inning debut on April 8, allowing four hits (all singles) and two walks while striking out eight. The G-Braves weren’t sporting a fearsome lineup—late-blooming slugger Ernesto Mejia (see below) was the only really scary bat Odorizzi had to contend with that night (Mejia went 0-for-2 with a walk and a strikeout against Odorizzi)—but he moved his pitches around the zone, especially up and down. His overall showing was strong and reasonably efficient: 83 pitches (51 strikes), eight swings-and-misses.
About those swings and misses, and moving on to Odorizzi’s next start against Charlotte, which I caught at lame-duck Knights Stadium* in Fort Mill, South Carolina (yes, South Carolina): Odorizzi’s out pitch is often a four-seam fastball deliberately thrown about letter-high. This may seem a curious choice—two-strike swing-and-miss offerings tend to be sliders, splitters,and changeups—but the four-seamer up is an essential part of Odorizzi’s general plan of attack, and it has not gone unnoticed by opposing batters. Charlotte’s Jim Gallagher struck out swinging twice against Odorizzi on April 13, whiffing at 92-93 mph heaters up at the top of the zone (or just above it). Gallagher told me after the game that it was quite obvious that Odorizzi was elevating against him on purpose; it’s hard to get up there and hit that pitch, appetizing as it looks. (A few years ago, the Durham Bulls’ Ryan Shealy called the letter-high fastball “chocolate mousse”: “It looks so good,” he said, “but it’s so bad for you.”)
* It’s just as well that Knights Stadium, built in 1989, is almost finished. It‘s old gray concrete, and the power alleys are just 352 feet away. An attempt was made to reduce scoring a couple of years ago by moving the inner walls back flush with the outer, higher, out-of-play retaining walls; before that, the alleys were even closer, only 347 feet from home plate. The result of the change is that any ball hit to the foul-line side of the power alleys now must also clear the second, higher wall (about 20 feet) in order to be a home run, which turns many home run-worthy line drives into doubles. (According to Charlotte manager Joel Skinner, last year the Knights’ Dan Johnson actually kept a count of how many home runs he lost to the wall in straightaway right field.) Any ball hitting the upper wall to the center field side of the alleys counts as a homer, even though it bounces pitiably back onto the field after its dull thud against the signage. The White Sox are surely happy that the Knights will move to a new ballpark in central Charlotte in 2014, which will give them a truer sense of their Triple-A players’ production.
After Odorizzi’s third start, on Thursday morning (the dreaded, twice-a-season, 11:05 a.m. “Education Day” special—flocks of kids screaming in occasional unison as if on roller coasters), I asked him about his high-cheese, two-strike habit. Odorizzi replied:
In Odorizzi’s second start—the one at Charlotte, in which he fanned Gallagher twice (and had nine Ks overall in 5 1/3 innings)—the last batter he faced was Brent Morel. Morel was going to be his final hitter, regardless of the outcome. Odorizzi was near his pitch limit, pushing 95 pitches barely into the sixth inning; a lefty was on deck, and southpaw reliever Adam Liberatore was ready in the Durham bullpen. Morel had fought Odorizzi through a 10-pitch at-bat in the fourth inning before lining an opposite-field double into the right-field corner. (In three plate appearances against him, Morel wound up seeing 22 of the 96 pitches Odorizzi threw that night.) This time, Odorizzi got ahead 0-1 (he threw first-pitch strikes to 17 of 21 batters), but then ran the count full. On the sixth pitch, he tried to get a 93-mph four-seamer past Morel, on the outer edge of the plate—and Morel blasted it over the left-field wall for a game-tying, two-run home run, ending Odorizzi’s night on a sour note. (n.b. The oft-injured Morel would leave a game two nights later, right in the middle of a crucial ninth-inning at-bat, with leg cramps.)
Five days later, after Odorizzi’s third start, I asked him about that last pitch to Morel. I expected him to say that he had simply missed a little too low with his pet high fastball. Instead, I got a different answer, which Odorizzi gave with a little more intensity and pace than he’d shown in the rest of the interview—he’s got that quiet, reserved demeanor—the tone and tempo of his voice expressing not so much defensiveness as competitive insistence:
You can debate whether trying to beat Morel three times with essentially the same pitch, the elevated fastball away, is a good idea, but in terms of mentality (which in the minors is often more important than results) I admired Odorizzi’s stubbornness. This is another way in which he resembles Hellickson (when Hellickson was in Triple-A): Hellickson would simply refuse to adjust his approach, making the hitter beholden to his purpose and plan with every at-bat. He said once, when asked one day in 2010 why he kept attacking the dangerous bats in the middle of the Lehigh Valley IronPigs’ lineup with breaking balls and offspeed pitches, that he "didn't know what kind of hitters they were [or] what they liked to hit." He simply didn’t have any fastball command that day, so he kept making hitters chase his curve, changeup, and cutter, regardless of whether the hitter was Greg Dobbs, John Mayberry, Jr., or Cody Ransom.
Odorizzi’s material is, of course, different from Hellickson’s, but he, too, was going to keep throwing what and where he wanted to throw, no matter the hitter. Unique adjustments come later. Right now, we get to see an assertive young pitcher attempt to impose himself on the game.
Later on, Odorizzi’s fly-ball tendencies (more than a 2:1 FB:GB ratio so far, as it was last year) will almost surely hurt him more in the big leagues than they have so far in the upper minors. Still, he is obviously a pitcher with an idea of exactly what he’s trying to do out there, and despite his stubbornness in the Morel circumstance, there’s every reason to think he’ll be able to adjust his plan against major-league hitters—especially with the formidable Tampa Bay coaching trust (and detailed scouting) behind him.
Ernesto Mejia, Braves. He’s the latest in a string of big, right-handed, too-old-to-be-a-prospect first basemen to hit very productively for Gwinnett (Mauro Gomez, Barbaro Canizares) yet have almost no chance to see meaningful time in Atlanta. (Canizares’ 21 plate appearances in 2009 represent the trio’s combined total for the Braves; Gomez needed the unlikely combination of the Gonzalez-Beckett-Crawford deal and the resulting arrival of James(town Flood) Loney to see any significant time in the Show.
Physically, Mejia looks rather like Albert Pujols, the sort of coincidental resemblance that can’t help but make the observer optimistic about him. He is perhaps just another Mauro Gomez, however, albeit evidently a worse fielder, but his bat speaks very loudly. He hit 50 home runs across Double-A and Triple-A over 2011 and 2012 (plus 16 more with a .253 ISO in winter ball in between, if you’re into that sort of thing), and so far this season he has already hit an International League-leading seven in 74 plate appearances through Monday. His strikeout rate isn’t good, 24.3 percent, but his walk rate, so far, is up from last year’s dreadful 6.1 percent to 12.2 so far in 2013. He’s an aggressive hitter but not a stupid one; he’ll take pitches as he looks for a good one to hit, even if he doesn’t cash in on it when he gets it. His BABIP, .316, is lower than his general rate: when Mejia hits the ball, he hits it very, very hard. And he is strong enough to muscle should-be outs into hits, without an inexcusably long swing.
On April 9, Mejia’s well-struck but seemingly catchable fly ball (he got under it) to straightaway center off the Bulls’ Steve Geltz wound up clearing the wall for a three-run homer. The next night, his natural strength provided an exclamation point rather than the difference between a homer and an out: he hit one of the longest home runs I’ve ever seen at Durham Bulls Athletic Park, a bomb to high-and-deep left field off Durham reliever Jim Paduch. No, the Braves do not need a first baseman, especially not with Chris Johnson showing off with a .354 TAv in place of injured Freddie Freeman. But Mejia’s bat is going to draw someone’s notice, and if he’s in the right place at the right time, he stands to earn a chance. It happened for Mauro Gomez, after all.
Jared Mitchell, White Sox. I’ve watched 12 of Mitchell’s plate appearances this season, and he has struck out in eight of them, all but one swinging. He has walked in two others and been hit by a pitch. His Triple-A K-rate in 2013 is a mind-boggling 41.5 percent—shortly after I wrote this evaluation, he was demoted to Double-A after a demoralizing .132/.277/.170 in Triple-A over 65 plate appearances. Mitchell, a former no. 1 draft pick, is now better known for having won a BCS Football Championship with Louisiana State than for anything he’s done as a baseball player except disappoint (indeed, he’s often thought of as that guy who won at football but can’t play baseball).
Mitchell’s at-bats tend to run deep counts. He’s not just up there hacking, and he doesn’t mind taking ball four. His 15.4 percent walk rate so far in 2013 is 21st in the league, and he has a history of getting on base via free passes. That would seem to indicate, perhaps, a mechanical problem, as though Mitchell knows what he wants to swing at but then can’t hit it when he gets it. But his manager, Joel Skinner, had a different take on it: “People key on the strikeout [pitch], but sometimes it’s the pitch before that he’s not playing. If he’s not playing that one, all of a sudden you’re later in the count.” As a consequence, Mitchell finds his plate appearances growing more fraught as he fails to take advantage of a better pitch to hit early in the count.
In a golden-sombrero performance on April 13, Mitchell faced Odorizzi three times and had at-bats of six, seven, and five pitches. He saw lots of two-strike pitches, and that pressure situation makes it hard to relax and simply try to barrel the ball easily and naturally. Mitchell’s swing is a bit violent and has a slight uppercut, and he often swings right through the ball. Skinner seems to have been suggesting that Mitchell isn’t so much overmatched physically as put on the defensive by his own inability to take charge of his at-bats and get a good pitch to hit in a favorable count. Mitchell provides yet another reminder that no matter how great an athlete you are, hitting a baseball remains the hardest thing to do in sports, and the skill is not immediately transferable from other athletic abilities, as another former White Sox farmhand demonstrated. It gives you renewed respect for guys like Deion Sanders.