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Under the Hood: Adam Ottavino has made huge in-season strides with his control

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The reliever has severely cut walks since the start of July

MLB: New York Yankees at Tampa Bay Rays Douglas DeFelice-USA TODAY Sports

Adam Ottavino came to the Yankees in the offseason with high expectations following a fantastic 2018 with the Rockies. The right-hander had a shiny 2.43 ERA in 77.2 innings, with 112 strikeouts and a career-high 1.9 fWAR. He was flat-out dominant, and the supporting stats—most notably a 2.74 FIP—confirmed it.

The high-leverage reliever has pitched as advertised with the Yankees, although not quite at his 2018 level. This time around, he has an even better ERA at 1.64, but a slightly worse FIP of 3.19.

Nearly all of his Statcast numbers confirm he has been a dominant force: he has limited hard contact (96th percentile) and both his xAVG (.174) and xSLG (.276) are in the top one percent of the league.

A noticeable improvement

It is fair to say, however, that the native New Yorker has managed to achieve a rather significant in-season improvement in his walk rate. For the season as a whole, he has a well below-average 5.24 BB/9, compared to the 4.17 rate he had last year.

That said, here are Ottavino’s BB/9 marks before and after July 4th, 2019:

From March 28 to July 4: 6.34 BB/9
From July 6 on: 2.70 BB/9

While the sample size in the second line is notoriously smaller than the first timeframe, the improvement is outstanding. From July 6 to this date, Ottavino has thrown 16.2 innings and has only five bases on balls, compared to 22 strikeouts.

Adam Ottavino’s 2019 splits

Date IP K/9 BB/9 ERA FIP xFIP BABIP Strand Rate
Date IP K/9 BB/9 ERA FIP xFIP BABIP Strand Rate
March 28 - July 4 38.1 12.68 6.34 1.88 3.94 4.41 .256 92.7%
July 6 - August 23 16.2 11.88 2.70 1.08 1.47 3.62 .350 89.5%

Since the start of July, Ottavino has trimmed his BB/9 by more than half. The 2.70 mark is closer to his career average of 3.96 and more indicative of his talent than the 6.34 figure. While he may not be a true talent sub 3.00 BB/9 guy at this point in his career, he did manage that feat twice with the Rockies.

Being a more controlled pitcher has resulted in a marked improvement in ERA, which was excellent prior to July 6 despite all the walks and now is otherworldly. Perhaps being around the zone more often has resulted in a near .100 jump in his BABIP, but as his overall line suggests, he is a much better hurler while handing 2.70 walks per nine innings.

He threw first-pitch strikes to 50% of the batters he faced from the start of the season until July 4, and the number has gone up to 53.7% since July 6. Not a whole lot better, but better nonetheless.

For a more traditional approach to the situation, he has cut his WHIP from 1.33 to 1.14 in the timeframes selected above, and while he has lost a little bit of strikeouts, the drop is hardly noticeable.

Damage control

The adjustments that Ottavino has made while throwing strikes more consistently are vital for the Bombers. They are fighting to fend off the Astros for the best record in the American League, which is significant, and every contribution counts.

For the stretch run, and if the Yankees seal their ticket to the postseason, it is vital for the team’s high-leverage relievers to not put free runners on base. Walking the ballpark and then allowing a three-run home run or a grand slam can considerably lower the odds of winning a tight game.

Not that Ottavino is especially prone to giving up homers, but he can walk people in bunches. If he keeps showing consistent control in the late part of the season, the Yankees will enjoy a formidable and trustworthy bullpen weapon.