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The small change that fueled Adam Ottavino’s breakout

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The Yankees’ newest relief ace is coming off a breakout season. How did the 33-year-old reach a new level of performance?

MLB: San Francisco Giants at Colorado Rockies Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

It’s become cliché to say the Yankees have assembled a bullpen of doom. Even when their relief corps consisted only of Dellin Betances, Aroldis Chapman, and Chad Green, the Yankees already projected to have an outstanding bullpen. Adding Zach Britton and, most recently, Adam Ottavino was borderline overkill, giving the Yankees five potential relief aces.

Of course, Ottavino’s time in the relief ace club has been relatively short. The 33-year-old right-hander has only had one elite season in his career, coming last year in 2018. He posted sterling park-adjusted figures, a 52 ERA- and 63 FIP-, while his strikeout rate ballooned to nearly 13 per nine innings. The year prior, his ERA was over five, and he walked over six per nine innings. His career ERA- entering 2018 was a good but not great 88.

Ottavino’s 2018 was an excellent season from a pitcher who previously had only been decent, and in 2017 had been actively harmful to his team. We know he improved mightily, but how exactly did he achieve such a huge jump in performance?

Many stories about breakout campaigns focus on pitchers who see sudden velocity jumps. This is not one of those stories. Per Baseball Savant, the velocity on Ottavino’s sinker actually fell just a bit, from 94.2 mph in 2017 to 93.8 mph in 2018. His four-seamer velocity also dipped, from 94.4 mph to 94.2 mph. Small differences, but decreases nonetheless.

Ottavino fueled his particular breakout in ways unrelated to pure power. Perhaps the most important change he made appears to be a conscious one to all but kill his four-seam fastball. In 2017, Ottavino used his four-seamer a third of the time, twice as much as his sinker, while relying on his slider as his primary pitch.

In 2018, Ottavino continued to pitch backwards, using his bendy breaking pitch 47% of the time, up one point from 2017. Four-seamers, however, accounted for just 1% of his pitches, while he jacked his sinker usage up to 42%. Ottavino essentially molded himself into a two-pitch pitcher, a sinker/slider right-hander.

That change was crucial. Ottavino’s weakness entering 2018 had always been his relatively poor fastball. From 2010 to 2017, he allowed an opposing wOBA of .375 with his four-seamer, an ugly figure that almost makes one wonder why he hadn’t cut back on the pitch earlier. In 2018, when Ottavino featured his sinker almost as his only fastball, he held hitters to a microscopic .191 wOBA with the two-seamer. He allowed only three extra-base hits all year with the pitch and generated a 41% strikeout rate.

The reliever’s slider had always flummoxed hitters, and that continued in 2018. He held hitters to a .257 wOBA with the slider, after limiting them to a .233 wOBA in all years prior. Yet instead of having a punishable fastball backing up his dominant slider, last year, Ottavino threw an equally stingy sinker. The difference was night and day.

It’s hard to pin down exactly how Ottavino was able to improve so much with his fastball. His sinker didn’t flash much more sink in 2018 than it did in 2017, and it actually had a little less horizontal movement, per Brooks Baseball.

Instead, it seems plausible that improved command helped Ottavino with his fastball. According to Baseball Savant, 18% of his sinkers were on the edges of the zone last season, while he hit the edges of the zone just 11% of the time with his four-seamer in the five seasons prior. Plus, for what it’s worth, the right-hander ranked in the 92nd percentile in Baseball Prospectus’ command metric, which quantifies a pitcher’s ability to avoid the most dangerous parts of the zone. More fastballs in difficult-to-hit locations could have helped Ottavino generate more whiffs and weaker contact.

Check out the plane and location on this two-seamer from last August:

That pitch, in that location, with the thought of Ottavino’s devastating slider always percolating in the back of the hitter’s mind, is borderline impossible to hit. Speaking of that devastating slider, let’s drop in a GIF of Ottavino forcing a whiff with the pitch, as there’s never a bad time to bask in the light of one of the most filthy breaking pitches on the planet right now:

It’s not hard to imagine how a pitcher who shaped his arsenal to feature more of those pitches was successful.

When a player makes a sudden leap in performance, the question always lingers regarding his ability to repeat. Should Ottavino continue to throw an impressive sinker to go along with his mind-bending slider, he just might be able to. The decision to become a two-pitch pitcher seems to have been a tactical one, and one that fueled one of the game’s biggest breakouts in 2018. Ottavino will have every chance to dominate for the Yankees going forward.