He hasn’t gotten a ton of recognition for it, but Adam Ottavino has quietly put together a fantastic season out of the Yankee bullpen so far this season. Sure, he had a rough outing in the London Series, but every pitcher did. The narrative ought to stay the same: Ottavino has put up some great results so far.
Few pitchers have a better Statcast profile. Hitters don’t get the bat on the ball too often when facing Ottavino because he strikes out batters 34% of the time, putting him in the 95th percentile around the league. That’s definitely a testament to his stuff. We all know how dominant his slider can be. Here’s a reminder, in case you need a refresher:
Adam Ottavino, Unhittable 86mph Slider (w/ tail). pic.twitter.com/FTd995SSUx— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) June 2, 2019
Statcast measures the horizontal break at 142% better than average, which, for lack of a better word, is wild. There’s also his sinker, or two-seam fastball depending on who you ask. Statcast calls this pitch a sinker:
This combination has proved lethal to hitters. When they do make contact, it doesn’t often hurt. Ottavino ranks 39th out of 425 in barrels per plate appearance, is in the top 10% of the league in hard-hit percentage, and has the eight best average exit velocity in all the league. This is all to say Ottavino doesn’t often get hurt when he allows contact. He’s got pure swing-and-miss stuff, and that stuff also avoids barrels. There isn’t much more teams can ask out of a late-inning reliever.
For how dominant he’s been, there are some “red flags” in Ottavino’s stat line that traditionally indicate he might come down to Earth a little.
First, there’s his xFIP, which is generally thought of as one of the best predictive stats for ERA. Right now, Ottavino is wildly outperforming his xFIP based on his ERA. His 1.51 ERA is obviously fantastic, but his xFIP is 4.17. An xFIP that high puts him in the neighborhood of Luis Cessa and Jonathan Holder, and Yankees fans have seen how badly those two pitchers have struggled this season.
Additionally, Ottavino leaves 99% of his runners on base, a remarkably above-average number. This figure is likely unsustainable over the course of a season because at 99%, there’s really only one way that stat can go—down. To be fair, big time strikeout pitchers like Ottavino can certainly maintain a higher LOB% than other pitchers, but between 2017 and 2018, only seven qualified relievers maintained a LOB% higher than 90%. Ottavino’s career average is about 77%.
These numbers could indicate some regression is on the horizon, but that might not be the case. We know Ottavino has incredible stuff, and we know that when hitters make contact, it generally doesn’t hurt too bad. This combination likely means his high xFIP rates are caused by something else and his current stat line isn’t driven by luck. I suspect the reason the LOB% and xFIP numbers are so bad is because Ottavino likely has an higher-than-normal walk rate this year. Increased walks are driving up his xFIP, and more free passes are putting more runners on, which brings up his LOB%.
Right now, Ottavino’s walk rate is about six walks per nine innings, or about 16% of the batters he faces. This is about two more walks per nine innings than his career average. Statcast shows about a 2% drop in In-Zone% on his slider, but every other pitch he throws has seen improvement from last season, where he posted a 4.17 BB/9. Moreover, he’s had an increase in Edge% with all of his pitches, meaning he’s had no problems throwing to the corners this year. Here’s an image:
Either he’s just missing the zone, or he’s not getting enough called strikes on the corners. Regardless, the increase in walks hasn’t meant he’s been wildly off base with his pitches. He’s just missing to the point where this “problem” doesn’t seem like one that will plague him all season long.
Granted, the 4.17 BB/9 rate from 2018 isn’t a fantastic number to emulate, but his current rate of about 6.0 BB/9 probably isn’t the real Ottavino. This problem is similar to the one Dellin Betances had back in 2017. He too had an elevated xFIP because of high walks, but he wasn’t in the zone with his pitches as much as Ottavino is this season. Betances was still good that year, but the walks did hold him back at times. This seems to be where Ottavino is right now, and like Betances, he’s likely a tweak or two away from correcting the problem.
Overall, Ottavino has been a fantastic pitcher for the Yankees. His pure stuff is some of the best in the league, and it consistently fools hitters out of making serious contact against him. Some of his peripherals suggest he might come down to Earth, but I’m not so sure that’s the case because of a suspiciously high walk rate this year. The high number of walks could stem from a couple of different factors, but some graphics indicate that he’s just missing the zone. A mechanical adjustment, some friendlier strike calls, or a combination of the two could start turning the tide on the walk rate, and hopefully some of Otto’s scarier stats will normalize.