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The Yankees need to get Adam Ottavino straightened out

The Yankees’ setup man has gotten rocked after a stellar regular season. The team still needs him to succeed in October.

League Championship Series - Houston Astros v New York Yankees - Game Three Photo by Emilee Chinn/Getty Images

Take a look at our recent highlights posts here, and you might notice a theme: Adam Ottavino has been taking it on the chin lately. The Yankees have flexed every muscle in their vaunted bullpen thus far in October, but out of all them, Ottavino hasn’t pulled his weight. The veteran right-hander has been the clear weak link in an otherwise shutdown relief unit.

It’s the playoffs, small sample size caveats apply as always, but the numbers are gruesome. Ottavino has appeared in all six Yankee playoff games, and he’s struggled every time out, allowing at least one baserunner each time, only twice recording three outs, and three times exiting without retiring a batter. He’s totaled 2.1 innings but allowed nine baserunners and three runs. Baseball Reference’s models estimate that across all his postseason appearances, Ottavino has cumulatively cost the Yankees 27 points of win probability.

In October, so much of a team’s success boils down to whether their most-trusted relievers do their job when it matters most. Chad Green, Tommy Kahnle, and Zack Britton have done so with aplomb. Ottavino has dropped the ball, and it has cost the Yankees chances to win playoff games.

Yet they cannot afford to dump him. Ottavino has proven himself one of the game’s top relievers over the past two years, and now is not the time for the Yankees to give up on their prized free-agent acquisition. With four consecutive battles against the Astros looming, the Yankees need to get Ottavino straightened out, not cast him aside.

As I wrote earlier this week, the Yankee bullpen was about to receive its sternest test of the year. The Yankees kept their relief arms fresh all season with the presumed purpose of unleashing them in the playoffs. This series with the Astros, and in particular this stretch in which they stand to play up to five games in six days, looked like the time when we’d see if the Yankee bullpen would step up to meet the challenge of a heavy workload or falter.

Should the Yankees play four straight games against Houston, they will need Ottavino. There’s no way around it. Luis Severino doesn’t seem quite prepared to go deep into games. Aaron Boone showed a short hook with James Paxton in Game Two. A full bullpen game looks like an obvious option at some point. Add it all up, and every one of the Yankees’ top-five relievers will almost certainly have to pitch, and pitch a lot, for the Yankees to win.

The good news is that Ottavino’s stuff doesn’t appear appreciably worse, even as playoff lineups have scored off him. Here’s the velocity and movement figures on his fastball and slider for the year, and just in October, per Brooks Baseball:

Adam Ottavino Regular Season vs. Playoffs

Pitch Season Velocity Playoff Velocity Season H-Movement Playoff H-Movement Season V-Movement Playoff V-Movement
Pitch Season Velocity Playoff Velocity Season H-Movement Playoff H-Movement Season V-Movement Playoff V-Movement
Two-seam fastball 94.1 93.4 -8.6 -9 3.8 3.5
Slider 82.0 81.0 10.7 11.5 -0.1 -0.2

Yes, his velocity is down somewhat, but it hasn’t plummeted, and his pitches still have their signature wicked movement. Moreover, Ottavino pitched the entirety of July, August, and September with slightly lessened velocity, with his fastball coming in beneath 94 mph and his slider below 82 mph during each month. While Ottavino performed a bit worse down the stretch than he did during his sparkling start, he was still quite effective, managing a 2.48 ERA and holding opponents to a .653 OPS from July onward.

We’ve seen Ottavino succeed with stuff similar to what he’s shown in October. Perhaps just as importantly, it doesn’t seem like Ottavino has just lost the ability to make pitches. It’s not like the Twins and Astros have ground him into dust, waiting out Ottavino’s notoriously shaky control. They’ve simply gotten a few hits to fall in against him.

Consider, Ottavino’s ALCS Game One outing, in which he allowed two hits in a scoreless inning. Here, Ottavino executes his pitch with a slider barely out of the zone, but Jose Altuve chops at it, and Gleyber Torres and Didi Gregorius fail to communicate, allowing a cheap single:

Or consider Altuve’s single in Game Two. Ottavino went with a cutter, which he placed perfectly on the outside black, but again his defense failed him:

Per Statcast, each of those batted balls had tiny chances of going for a hit. In fact, Statcast indicates that of Ottavino’s six hits allowed in the postseason, only George Springer’s Game Two home run was more likely than not to become a hit. Ottavino has walked three batters, and he deserves criticism for his lack of control, but much of Ottavino’s story in October boils down to poor fortune in a small sample.

Every October, we see previously trusted relievers end up in the doghouse across the league. Managers bench players they rode in the regular season because of a few shaky outings, only going with their most-trusted arms. We saw it bite the Dodgers last week, when Dave Roberts trusted his gut and gave the ball to Clayton Kershaw and Joe Kelly in relief, rather than the capable but less-trusted likes of Kenta Maeda or Julio Urias.

Aaron Boone shouldn’t make Ottavino the next reliever to get discarded. The Yankees need Ottavino, and he can still help them reach the World Series. His stuff is still nasty, and he still can make pitches when he needs to. If he can avoid walks a bit more in his appearances going forward, he should play a role in the Yankees’ success the rest of this series.