The New York Yankees have been assembling a super-bullpen over the past few years, from the development of Dellin Betances and Chad Green to the additions of Aroldis Chapman, Zach Britton, and the since-departed David Robertson. Thursday afternoon, the Yankees signed another top bullpen arm, Adam Ottavino, to join the relief corps in the Bronx.
Most New York-area fans probably aren’t too familiar with Ottavino and what he brings to the table, given his exclusively National League career to date. After beginning as a starter with the St. Louis Cardinals, Ottavino spent his next seven years in the bigs in a Colorado Rockies uniform, playing alongside recent Yankees signings Troy Tulowitzki and DJ LeMahieu. What do the Yankees see in a 33-year-old reliever who has never made an All-Star team and has only pitched 3.2 postseason innings to date? If you look past those perceived shortcomings, you’ll find that Ottavino is a Statcast darling who excels at missing bats and generating soft contact.
Ottavino has been something of a late bloomer as a big-leaguer. The New York native was a fairly ordinary reliever early on with the Rockeis, with a knack for groundballs and avoiding home runs, essential traits for success at Coors Field. After earning the closer’s job in 2015, Ottavino only lasted about a month on the job before he required Tommy John surgery.
Returningfrom major surgery at age 30, Ottavino faced long odds, yet he’s actually performed better in his 30s. After returning from the DL in 2016, he worked 37 straight scoreless appearances, setting a Rockies franchise record. He’s also been a workhorse since the injury, throwing 77.2 innings last year, a figure that would have topped all Yankees relievers. Fortunately, Ottavino has answered all potential durability questions since his surgery.
Ottavino’s greatest strength is his ability to miss bats. He struck out 112 batters last year, good for the fourth-highest total in the league and more than pitchers like Blake Treinen, Craig Kimbrel, Aroldis Chapman and Kenley Jansen. He generates whiffs as well as anyone in baseball, and when batters do make contact, it’s usually of the weaker variety. Ottavino’s 2018 average exit velocity of 84.9 mph was 3 mph softer than the MLB average, and the 10th-best figure in the league. Hitters only “barreled up” on six of Ottavino’s pitches last year, top 10 league-wide. When Ottavino’s not missing bats, he’s generating weak contact. That is a recipe for success at hitter’s parks like Coors and Yankee Stadium.
The key to Ottavino’s success is his slider. Ottavino throws his slider almost 50 percent of the time, and with good reason. He generates above-average movement on the pitch thanks to his absurd spin rate. Out of the 401 qualified pitchers last year who threw sliders, Ottavino’s spin rate was in the 95th percentile. His fastball has some pop too, averaging 94 mph. There’s movement on almost all of Ottavino’s pitches, as he rarely throws straight four-seamers, often opting for sinkers or cutters. This steady pitch mix keeps hitters guessing, and Ottavino on top.
Control stands out as Ottavino’s main weakness. Like any reliever that throws mostly breaking balls, Ottavino is prone to free passes, though his walk rate appears a little too high. Over the last three years, Ottavino’s walk rate of 4.67 BB/9 is in the bottom 10 percent of the league. There are some other decent pitchers at the bottom of that list, like Greg Holland, Kyle Barraclough, and Carl Edwards Jr., but there are also plenty duds to be found. Ottavino has the tools to be effective when he’s in the zone, but if his location is off, he can get himself into trouble. As long as his pitches start in the strike zone before breaking out, Ottavino can continue generating whiffs instead of letting the hitter watch pitches go by out of the zone.
The Yankees more or less chose Adam Ottavino over David Robertson this offseason. They got similar contracts and are close in age (Ottavino is one year younger at 33), but Ottavino exhibited mores signs of pure dominance last year. Ottavino definitely misses more bats than Robertson, although he has less command of his pitches. The league is morphing into a strikeout league, however, and Ottavino gives the Yankees one more weapon out of the bullpen. He can be used as a setup man, or as a fireman with Britton, Betances and Chapman waiting in the wings. It’s hard not to like this signing for the Yankees, who only continue to add to their bullpen brilliance by inking one of the game’s preeminent strikeout artists and sabermetric darlings in Adam Ottavino.