Brewers' Odorizzi Follows Own Path To Success

PEORIA, Ill.—Jake Odorizzi's path from player to prospect went along the road less taken.

Many of today's top prospects have spent years criss-crossing the United States—and in some cases, the globe—playing for elite travel teams and participating in various high school showcase events.

Then there's 20-year-old Odorizzi, a righthander from Highland, Ill., whom the Brewers selected 32nd overall in the 2008 draft. Odorizzi played one summer of travel ball with the St. Louis Pirates in '07.

"I didn't do too many showcases," Odorizzi said. "I didn't play with prospect teams. I just stayed with my high school team and did my own thing.

"I stayed within my town, and doing that you never get your name out there. But I did what I thought would benefit me, and it worked out in the end."

Highland Hero

Highland is a suburb of the suburbs. It sits just off Interstate 70, some 30 miles from St. Louis.

Prior to 2008, the choices for Highland High's most famous athletic alumnus was a two-man race between 15-year big leaguer (and current Triple-A Buffalo manager) Ken Oberkfell or football player Billy Greenwald, who etched his name among Illinois' all-time high school rushing leaders before heading to Northwestern.

Oberkfell is especially dear to locals' hearts. Not only did one of their own make good, but he did it with the hometown Cardinals, whose following in Highland, and throughout southern Illinois, borders on religious zeal. He helped the Cardinals to the 1982 World Series title to boot.

The buzz around Highland, however, began to grow following Odorizzi's junior year. Word filtered out of the state's southern region that there was a player that needed to be seen.

"I wasn't on too many people's radars, but I wasn't too worried about it," Odorizzi said. "It came gradually."

His draft buzz went through the roof in 2008 as Odorizzi enjoyed one of the most dominating seasons in Illinois prep history. On the mound, he was 14-0 and allowed only one run in 89 innings for a miniscule 0.08 ERA. Even more impressive were his 146 strikeouts against just six walks.

When he wasn't pitching, he was the Bulldogs' shortstop, where hit .431 with 15 home runs, 10 doubles, two triples and ran a 6.78 60-yard dash at the Perfect Game National showcase. All of which led to talk that he could be drafted as either a pitcher or a shortstop.

Odorizzi, however, knew where his bread was buttered.

"I knew my future was on the mound," Odorizzi said. "I could have tried to make it as a shortstop and then started over as a pitcher if I failed, but that would have been a waste of time.

"I just wanted to continue to do what I knew was best for me down the road."

When the Brewers selected Odorizzi in the supplemental first round, they got what low Class A Wisconsin pitching coach Chris Hook describes as a total package.

"He's an athletic kid, and you don't see that too often," Hook said. "He's got velocity, he's got some know-how and he's a smart guy out there.

"He's got all the tools, even the tools you can't project, to be a successful big leaguer for a long time."

Odorizzi credits his time as a three-sport athlete at Highland for easing his transition to professional athletics.

"You learn certain things from certain sports," Odorizzi said. "In basketball, you learn quick feet and agility. In football, you have to stay centered and keep your balance.

"All that stuff helps with pitching because you have to stay back, stay balanced and stay over the mound or, when you're fielding your position, you have to go get it and turn and throw to first. It's benefitted me tremendously."

All Ears

Still, there were some areas that Odorizzi had to smooth out, particularly in his delivery and his pitchability

"If you go back and look at his video from last year, he's grown comfortable with a certain delivery," Hook said. "Now, he's got a delivery that he's comfortable with and it's nice and clean."

Then there was a habit that many prep pitchers have to break—relying too much on a fastball that blew away high school hitters but is hittable by pro standards.

"There's really two areas he's improved," Wisconsin manager Jeff Isom said. "One is controlling the running game. His first couple starts this season, they were running all over him and he learned that he had to control the game."

And two?

"He was relying on his fastball too much at times," Isom said. "He's had to learn how to pitch and how to get his breaking stuff over."

Isom and Hook praise Odorizzi for listening to constructive criticism.

"He's focused on what he wants to get done," Hook said. "He wants to be a big league pitcher and he wants to do it soon. He's been open-eyed and open-eared to everything we've been telling him and showing him."

The attention has paid off. In 98 innings for the Timber Rattlers, Odorizzi was 6-2, 3.04 with 111 strikeouts and 33 walks. Those numbers earned him Midwest League all-star honors.

"Coming into the season, I wanted an ERA under 3.00 and an above-.500 record," Odorizzi said. "But the numbers don't really matter.

"I just want to put my team in position to win," Odorizzi said. "Whether I give up no runs or three runs or five runs, it doesn't matter. I just want to give my team a chance to win."

It's that approach that has Hook and Isom believing that Odorizzi will be in the bigs sooner rather than later.

"He's a top-line starter in the big leagues, no question about it," Isom said. "The sky is the limit with him."

Ben Diggle is a freelance writer based in Peoria