When the Yankees first signed Adam Ottavino, fans were excited. However, there also existed some sentiments of, “Do the Yankees really need to spend more money on the bullpen?”
While the Yankees’ spending is a topic for another day, Ottavino appears to be a strong investment for the team. He signed a contract somewhat late in the offseason, and ended up with a smaller deal than Zack Britton, who has struggled so far.
The real key to Ottavino’s resurgence at age 33 has been his emphasis on movement. He rarely throws four-seamer fastballs or changeups; his offerings instead dip and dart around the strike zone. Whether it’s a sinker, slider, or cutter, it looks like Ottavino is out there playing wiffle ball sometimes.
This leads to an interesting push-pull relationship for the right-hander. For one, his focus on movement generates a lot of swings and misses. He’s averaging a ridiculous 14.00 K/9 so far, which is in the top seven percent of the league. He also generates low average exit velocity against, at just 83.9 mph.
Ottavino has actually changed his pitch selection a little bit this season. He’s throwing fewer sliders and sinkers, and more cutters. The relationship of these pitches is interesting because, while they all move, they sit at different speed ranges. For example, his sinker averages 93 mph, while his cutter 87 mph and his slider 82 mph. This keeps hitters on their toes and prone to guessing.
For all the talk of Ottavino’s sweeping slider, his cutter has actually generated the highest whiff rate of any of his pitches over the last five years. After throwing it no more than 10 percent a year from 2015-2018, Ottavino is throwing his cutter 27 percent of the time this year. The change appears to have worked so far.
However, Ottavino’s trademark movement has also hurt him in some ways. He has always been a pitcher with a high walk rate, but it’s absolutely through the roof so far this year. He is averaging a 7.00 BB/9, which is astronomically high. While I’m sure that figure will come down over the season, it is still troublesome.
Ottavino comes into games oftentimes as a fireman, the guy who inherits runners on base and has to get out of jams. While his strikeouts and low exit velocity fit that role perfectly, his walks sometimes complicate things. His 1.22 WHIP is a little high for an ace reliever, particularly one in his role. To truly reach his full potential, Ottavino needs to reduce his penchant for free baserunners a little bit.
Still, that’s really the only gripe that anyone could have with Ottavino over his first three weeks as a Yankee. On a team where Dellin Betances is injured and Britton and Chad Green have been ineffective, the rise of Ottavino has been a pleasant surprise for Aaron Boone’s squad.
Adam Ottavino came into the season with high expectations. For a guy who said he could strike out Babe Ruth (a statement he later retracted), he has mostly lived up to the billing. If Ottavino can control his walks just a little bit more, he could truly become one of the American League’s top relievers.