When the Yankees signed Adam Ottavino to a three-year deal last winter, fans had an idea of how dominant the right-hander could be. One look at the back of his baseball card made sure of that. Ottavino managed a 2.43 ERA in 2018 despite a huge workload and calling Coors Field his home. The thin air and offensive environment were no match for him, and he struck out nearly 13 batters per nine.
Yet I’m not sure the Bronx faithful really grasped just how Ottavino achieved that dominance until he took the field in pinstripes. It didn’t take more than a few minutes with Ottavino on the mound in Yankee Stadium for him to make obvious just how filthy his stuff was. I know I personally hadn’t seen much of Ottavino when he played in Colorado, but once he started snapping off sliders from hell on Opening Day against the Orioles, it became pretty obvious how he managed to break out with the Rockies:
Ottavino missed his spot there in his first appearance with New York, but the mind-bending movement on that breaking pitch is unmistakable. He’s gone on to induce many swings and misses with that slider since that first game:
To go along with some whiffs with his high-spin fastball:
Thanks in no small part to those seemingly untouchable pitches, Ottavino didn’t allow a hit through his first five appearances as a Yankee, and has maintained a sparkling 1.77 ERA overall. With that fastball spinning in on their hands and that slider darting away from them in the blink of an eye, opposing hitters are probably asking: How are we supposed to hit this guy?
It appears those opponents have begun work on an answer; don’t try to hit him at all. There’s the old phrase, “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.” Well, in this case, opposing batters might have just thrown up their hands and decided that if they can’t beat him, they better hope he walks them.
It’s certainly not the most courageous move, but the proof is in the pudding; per FanGraphs, Ottavino has generated by far the lowest swing rate in the league, among starters or relievers. Sonny Gray has posted the lowest swing rate among starters at 38%. Rangers closer Jose LeClerc stands at second-lowest among relievers with a 37% swing rate. Ottavino’s swing rate clocks in at a scarcely imaginable 33%.
Two-thirds of the time, opposing hitters have decided that the best course of action is no action at all. If he keeps this up, Ottavino will be come the first qualified reliever this decade to post a swing rate below 34%, and if you’ve ever seen his stuff, you can understand why.
This strategy has yet to truly hurt Ottavino, as you can see in his run prevention numbers, but the cracks are showing. Ottavino has never had great control (how could he?), but his walk rate, thanks to his middling command and his opponents’ patience, has ballooned to 18.1% this season. That’s a career high and the sixth-highest figure among relievers in 2019. His scintillating ERA has been held down partially because of a microscopic BABIP and a high strand rate. If Ottavino continues to issue free passes at this rate, and he starts to get a little less fortunate when it comes to balls in play and stranding runners, his ERA will quickly rise.
The decrease in swing rate has occurred both in the zone and out of the zone for Ottavino. Last year, during his breakout, he generated swings on pitches out of the zone 26% of the time, and swings on in-zone pitches 56% of the time. Neither of those figures are quite league average, but they were enough for Ottavino. Both those marks have fallen by about five points in 2019.
What’s perhaps most concerning is that we’ve seen this from Ottavino before, and not long ago. In 2017, both his zone and out-of-zone swing rates sat just about a point above where they sit now. That year, Ottavino fanned more than a batter per inning, but he walked over six batters per nine, ran a BABIP and strand rate close to league average, and got burnt to the tune of a 5.06 ERA.
This isn’t to say that if opposing pitchers continue to leave the bat on their shoulders, Ottavino is destined to see his ERA shoot up to above five again. Ottavino’s stuff has in all likelihood improved since his earlier-career struggles. He’s working with a stronger base of skills. And who knows, maybe hitters’ pride will get the best of them, they will start trying to hit what is unhittable again, and Ottavino will be more than fine.
But it does seem clear that Ottavino may need to find a counter for the tact his opponents have taken. He’s looked great so far, but he’s walking a fine line. If a few more batted balls start dropping in for hits, those runners that he has walked will start to score. Either opposing hitters need to decide to start swinging again, or Ottavino needs to force them to by finding the strike zone a bit more. Whether he does could determine if he’s an electric but erratic bullpen arm, or one of the most fearsome late-inning pitchers in the game.