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Getting a Grip: How Yankees relievers vary the same pitch

Two-pitch pitchers become more dangerous with tiny tweaks in their repertoires.

MLB: Baltimore Orioles at New York Yankees Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

When the Yankees signed Adam Ottavino, I was excited that the team had acquired a reliever coming off a dominant season. More importantly, though, I was thrilled at the chance to see his absolutely ridiculous stuff up close. Ottavino’s trademark slider produces some of the most desperate swings and misses you’ll see in the game today, such as this comical attempt by Dansby Swanson last year.

I fell in love with relief pitchers because they do things like that; you never look sillier as an MLB hitter than you do against guys like Ottavino, or Dellin Betances, or Aroldis Chapman. What a coincidence, all three of those guys pitch in the same bullpen.

Naturally, I was wondering who would be the first victim of Ottavino’s frisbee slider in 2019. Rio Ruiz was frozen by a pitch on Opening Day, but it looked a little different than either the two-seam or slider that Ottavino throws:

It doesn’t break as hard and is a couple miles per hour faster than the conventional Ottavino slider. PitchFX classifies is as a cut fastball, but Ottavino, a mad pitching scientist of sorts, varies pressure on the middle finger of his slider grip. Sliders are nonsense pitches, but there is a lot of similarity between the grip and spin of sliders and cut fastballs, with relative differences in velocity and break coming down to whether more pressure is placed on the index or ring finger and how much “snap” comes from the pitcher’s wrist on delivery.

In both 2018 and 2019, Ottavino’s slider has spun about 100 rpm faster than his cutter, and that provides enough of a difference in movement and speed for him to establish completely different sections of the plate for each pitch. Let’s look at that at-bat against Ruiz, that ended with the called strike three:

You can see how he focuses the cutter on the edges of the zone, and much higher than his slider, which sweeps down below the strike zone. The pitches play off each other well - the cutter breaks about the same distance horizontally, but 15 inches less vertically. What this means practically is a hitter might see a pitch from the same release point, pick up the rotation - the famous dime sized red dot - and have a margin of 15 inches or so of guessing where the ball will end up. Not exactly a recipe for success.

Dellin Betances also varies his grip and spin effectively. If you’ve watched him at all over the past couple seasons, you know that his primary breaking ball can vary in speed by 10 mph or so, and break in all kinds of different ways:

He can even throw the same pitch type, in three different locations, at three different speeds, with three different kinds of movement. All the while, the only thing that changes is slight pressure on the inside or outside of the baseball.

Pitch classification is incredibly difficult, and as players have access to high-speed cameras, Doppler systems and similar technology, the differences between traditional pitches can start to blur. Pitching whisperer Eno Sarris made this point a couple of weeks ago:

Sliders, cutters, slurves, they all start to bleed together at various points, and when you’re a reliever with a fastball and breaking ball, that bleed-over is actually what keeps you effective and unpredictable. I think we’ll be seeing a lot more wild misses and frozen batters against guys like Ottavino going forward.