Thursday, November 23, 2017
Tampa Bay Rays

For quiet Odorizzi, risk has reward

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Jake Odorizzi, true to his Midwestern roots, has never been one to take a lot of chances.

He hasn't tried anything too adventurous like sky-diving or rock-climbing or even snow-skiing. No wild offseason expeditions. Doesn't have a super-fast car.

"Nothing crazy," Odorizzi said. "I'm pretty chill."

But a week or so into his first spring training with a legitimate chance to win a major-league job, Odorizzi took an uncharacteristically big risk — "probably the biggest," he admits — in asking teammate Alex Cobb to teach him a new pitch.

And that hybrid splitter-change­up he quickly got comfortable with turned out to be the primary reason Odorizzi takes the mound today as an official member of the Rays rotation after winning a dogged three-way competition for the No. 5 spot.

"The help I got from Cobb was the big determiner," Odorizzi said. "Without him, I don't think I'd be in this situation right now."

Manager Joe Maddon wouldn't go quite that far, but did say the Rays felt it was important Odorizzi "develop something" to better combat left-handed hitters, and that they obviously liked what they saw of the new pitch.

"Definitely, that was very attractive," Maddon said.

Cobb and Odorizzi spent much of the offseason working out together in St. Pete, talking about pitching, Cobb noting that Odorizzi had only a "so-so" changeup to go with other "plus-plus" pitches but holding back from any serious suggestions.

Then one day after they got to Port Charlotte — neither remembers the revelatory moment — Odorizzi, 24, asked Cobb about the unique pitch he has had great success with, and Cobb showed him the specifics.

"It was a big leap of faith on his part," Cobb said. "I think that showed a little bit of maturity, the fact that he realized where his weakness was, his changeup, and he understood."

Cobb downplayed his contribution, saying all he did was show Odorizzi the grip — between the index and middle fingers — and how to make adjustments based on how the ball is moving.

"It's a pitch you can either throw or you can't," Cobb said. "He knew how to throw it from day one. What I've been teaching him is how to have consistent success with it."

It wasn't as if Odorizzi wasn't any good with his old changeup. A 2008 first-round pick by Milwaukee, he was a key part of the Zack Greinke deal with Kansas City and made it to the majors at the end of the 2012 season with the Royals. After coming to Tampa Bay with Wil Myers in the James Shields deal, Odorizzi had five stints with the Rays last season, getting better as he went and going 9-6, 3.33 for Triple-A Durham in between.

But Odorizzi — who has made nine big-league appearances (six starts) without a win — knew he needed to be better. So, even though it was a gamble — given the opportunity created by the elbow surgery that will keep Jeremy Hellickson out until around June 1 — Odorizzi decided it was well worth it to expand a repertoire that also includes a fastball, curve and slider.

"I just knew I needed a better pitch and I knew that could possibly work for me," he said.

Though Odorizzi is on the quiet side, he has impressed Maddon — who compares his personality to former Ray Andy Sonnanstine — and his teammates. "He's one of the biggest competitors I've ever seen," Myers said.

Though Odorizzi won the open spot in the rotation, he said he understands the work is just starting.

And that risks are sometimes worth taking.

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