The Braves acquired Jake Odorizzi for Will Smith just ahead of the August trade deadline.
As the 2022 Trade Deadline loomed, the Braves found themselves needing an additional starter to help accommodate for a pair of upcoming doubleheaders and a potential desire to rest Kyle Wright, Spencer Strider, and other arms down the stretch. In an interesting twist of fate, the 2021 champions made a deal with their World Series foe, the Houston Astros, to acquire right-handed veteran Jake Odorizzi in exchange for left-handed reliever Will Smith — the pitcher who had closed out the title-clinching game for the Braves.
A welcome move for those having grown weary of the Will Smith Experience™ — yes, I am clearly among that group — the trade appeared genuinely mutually beneficial for both teams. The Astros needed left-handed bullpen assistance, and Atlanta was finding it harder and harder to justify using Smith over fellow lefties A.J. Minter, Dylan Lee, and Tyler Matzek (at the time), or at all, in addition to needing a roster spot for a rehabbing Kirby Yates.
When the Braves acquired Odorizzi, they also acquired his contract, with included an oddball player option for 2023 with very specific parameters, according to ESPN’s release from when Odorizzi signed his deal with the Astros in March of 2021:
“The deal includes a $6.5 million player option for 2023 with a $3.25 million buyout, and the 2023 option price would escalate by $2 million each and the buyout by $1 million apiece for 20, 25 and 30 points. He would get one point for each start as a pitcher or pitching appearance of 12 or more outs during 2021 and 2022.
He can earn $6.75 million in performance bonuses for innings in 2022: $500,000 for 100, $1 million each for 110, 120, 130, 140 and 150 and $1.25 million for 160.”
By the time the Braves acquired Odorizzi, he had earned the maximum number of points, meaning that his 2023 option price increased by a total of $6 million to $12.5 million, and the buyout by $3 million to $6.25 million.
Also, for those reading the last line of fine print, he did earn a bonus of $500,000 this season for surpassing 100 innings pitched—he ended the year with 109 1⁄3 between the regular season and one postseason appearance, just 2⁄3 innings shy of the threshold for an extra $1 million.
What were the expectations?
Prior to joining the Braves, Odorizzi had a 3.75 ERA, 3.61 FIP, and 4.60 xFIP in 12 pretty up and down starts. It took until his fourth start of the season for him to cross the five-inning mark, and his worst outing of the year was his third, as he gave up 6 runs in just two-thirds of an inning before being pulled. He seemed to right the ship a bit in May but wound up on the Injured List with a lower left leg injury for 42 games from May 17 to July 4. Once he returned from the shelf, Odorizzi posted his two best starts of the season in July — a pair of scoreless, seven-inning outings at Oakland — before being traded to Atlanta.
I say all of that to say, expectations for Odorizzi were fairly standard: consistently fill a fifth or sixth starter role while allowing the Braves to rest Wright or Strider should they decide to do so. His xFIP (a 117 xFIP-) before the trade suggested that his 1.2 fWAR in 60 pre-trade innings wasn’t a sustainable pace, but there was no reason he couldn’t stick as a swingman/fifth starter type to eat innings when needed.
With the Braves, Odorizzi put up much, much worse numbers than what he had done with the Astros over 10 starts. His line was 5.24 ERA / 5.14 FIP / 4.82 xFIP; the homers that were absent in Houston came back in a hurry, and he totaled just 0.1 fWAR in 46 1⁄3 innings as a result. In those 10 starts, he only reached five innings three times, and none of his outings were scoreless.
To make a long story short, Odorizzi simply had quite the hard time turning in quality starts, or quality anything. Only one of his starts with the Braves qualified, and it just made his turn in the rotation a question mark each time.
His best, considering its importance, outing was his final one of the regular season, as he threw five innings of two-hit, one-run ball with seven strikeouts against the Marlins and earned the win as the Braves clinched the NL East. He also ate three much-needed innings in Atlanta’s blowout loss in NLDS Game 3, allowing just one hit after Strider gave up three (scoring four runs) on consecutive pitches.
What went right? What went wrong?
As we all watched, that consistency the Braves hoped Odorizzi could help provide ended up being a problem, and Atlanta had a hard time piecing together a reliable rotation down the stretch. Shortly after acquiring Odorizzi, the Braves sent a struggling Ian Anderson down to Gwinnett; in September, Strider landed on the IL for longer than anyone hoped for, and Max Fried battled a bad bout of the flu combined with an upper respiratory infection.
In theory, these voids left room for Odorizzi to step up. The potential was there, particularly after he made a mechanical adjustment during a rain delay against the Mets on August 17 and only allowed two runs in the nine innings immediately following.
“It’s good to see the results after what I thought I found last start.”
Jake Odorizzi has allowed two runs run in the nine innings since making mid-start mechanical adjustments during the Braves-Mets rain delay last week. pic.twitter.com/OJWW8O34iD
— Bally Sports: Braves (@BravesOnBally) August 23, 2022
In fact, the one quality start mentioned earlier was the one after said rain delay adjustment. Odorizzi went 6.0 innings in Pittsburgh, allowing just one run on four hits with seven strikeouts. But that start proved an anomaly, and Odorizzi could ultimately neither pitch long nor effectively enough in games to provide value in the rotation.
The Braves focused on getting Odorizzi to throw more cutters and splitters at the expense of his four-seamer after he was acquired. That was a good and obvious idea in theory, because those pitches were much better for him than his subpar four-seamer, despite nothing in his arsenal having an appealing shape or other characteristics. Yet, despite this change, and some improvements in the location of the cutter and splitter, Odorizzi still went backwards — in large part because his four-seam fastball location worsened and it got creamed even more than before. He seemed to substantially change how often he threw four-seamer start-to-start, and while it got creamed quite often, there were also a few outings where he somehow got by throwing mostly four-seamers and not really changing it up.
That outing against the Pirates was his best as a Brave: a 7/0 K/BB ratio, albeit with a homer allowed, in a 2-1 win.
Meanwhile, Odorizzi’s worst outing came in an Atlanta 9-1 loss at Philadelphia in late September during which he gave up eight runs on 10 hits in just four innings of work. In his prior start, he had somehow helped the Braves win an Odorizzi-Aaron Nola matchup by allowing just a run with a 5/1 K/BB ratio in 4 2⁄3 innings; he was mercifully pulled after facing exactly 18 batters. With the same matchup on tap a few days later, the Phillies blasted him while the Braves couldn’t touch Nola; lightning probably wasn’t going to strike twice.
Here’s Odorizzi trying unsuccessfully to beat a batter with a 92 mph fastball located high in the zone while getting shelled:
Odorizzi’s case was an interesting one. On one hand, opting in would make sense for the veteran right-hander, as the likelihood that he makes $12.5 million with another team via free agency seems slim. However, he only needs to get a tad over $6.25 million from another team to come out on top, since the Braves are on the hook for his $6.25 million buyout if he had chosen to opt out.
That decision was made this week when Odorizzi informed the Braves that he was opting in and was subsequently traded to the Texas Rangers for left-hander Kolby Allard. Atlanta is sending $10 million to Texas in the deal, leaving them with $2.5 million in savings from Odorizzi’s $12.5 million option.
Barring injury, Atlanta wouldn’t really have had much of a spot for Odorizzi. With a rotation of Max Fried, Kyle Wright, a healthy Spencer Strider, a heavily-invested-in Charlie Morton, and a fifth spot that’s more likely to go to Anderson, Bryce Elder, Kyle Muller, maybe even Allard, or a yet-to-be-acquired free agent (or Mike Soroka? Can I start manifesting that?), Odorizzi just wouldn’t have had a clear role.