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What exactly happened to Adam Ottavino, the Yankees’ 27 Million Dollar Man?

In a contract year, Ottavino will need to either re-establish himself as a reliable reliever or pack his bags.

Division Series - New York Yankees v Tampa Bay Rays - Game Two Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

Following a pedestrian 2017 season, in which Adam Ottavino struggled with his frisbee-like slider control, Ottavino set out to make like the Six Million Dollar Man; with the technology, he rebuilt himself. Inside one of his father-in-law’s commercial real estate spaces in uptown Manhattan, Ottavino built a full-length bullpen with a high-speed camera for slow-motion film review and a pitch flight tracking camera, called a Rapsodo, to measure his ball flight analytics. After the offseason spent in the previously vacant Harlem lot, Ottavino used his newfound control to dominate opposing batters with sliders for strikes as a member of the Rockies. In a contract year, Ottavino edged out the titular TV star of the seventies, as the Yankees offered him a three-year, $27 million contract.

In 2019, Ottavino’s first season in navy pinstripes, he fulfilled the expectations standardized by his performance in purple pinstripes, pitching proficiently as a fireman/setup-man to the tune of a 1.90 ERA, even better than his 2.43 ERA in 2018. However, close observers might have seen signs of slippage, as his previously improved 2018 walk-rate of 11.7 percent had ballooned to 14.1 percent. Furthermore, some peripherals, like his FIP (3.44) and xERA (3.06), though still solid, suggested a slightly less overpowering arm than his ERA might have suggested.

This year, things fell apart, as Ottavino pitched himself out of Aaron Boone’s circle of trust with an ERA (5.89) more than three times his previous year’s mark. By the time the playoffs came around, Ottavino was all but lost, pitching just two-thirds of an inning and allowing a run against the Rays in Game Two of the American League Division Series. Even with Ottavino’s past regular season successes, he’s been a train wreck in every postseason, small sample sizes be damned. He currently owns a 7.04 ERA in 12 games.

Though a quantitative analysis of Ottavino’s 2020 suggests a total collapse, it’s hard to even notice a change between this season and last from some qualitative angles. His 3.52 FIP, 29.4% strikeout rate, and movement on both his sinker and slider hovered right around his previous two seasons’ marks. Additionally, he walked batters even less often than when he’d been dealing (10.6%), and threw pitches in the zone more often than he ever had in his career (58.5%).

Even with some predictable regression towards — and apparently beyond — Adam Ottavino’s career mean, the type of contact he allowed in 2020 is alarming in almost any way you frame it. Ranked in the bottom two percent of the majors, Ottavino allowed a hard-hit percentage of 50.0. As often as they did literally anything else against him, batters teed off Otto in 2020.

The greatest source of Ottavino’s 2020 woes was his propensity for throwing pitches down the middle. In 2020, he threw meatballs greater than 50 percent more often than he ever had before, piping pitches down the middle 12.4 percent of the time compared to his career average of 7.7 percent, just a hair above league average. It’s possible that as Ottavino leaned too hard into attacking the zone with his filthy sinker-slider combo, he allowed his mistakes to get clobbered while losing out on strikes won with painted corners and competitive misses.

While batted ball data tends to normalize at around 50 events, Ottavino allowed exactly 50 batted balls in 2020. Even though he technically reached that baseline, it’s still a small enough sample that it’s hard to extrapolate too wildly from it. Even so, Otto’s batted ball data may imply a lost cause at the same time that his peripherals portend a silver lining.

In the final year of his $27 million contract, Ottavino will certainly receive ample opportunities to clarify his status in the Yankees’ bullpen, for better or worse. If he cleans up his low-leverage early-season opportunities, re-entering Boone’s circle of trust, and goes on to dominate, he’ll provide support for the handful of arms ahead of him in the pecking order and earn another payday in 2022. If not, he might need to ask his father-in-law for some networking opportunities in the real estate industry.

In all likelihood, Ottavino’s true talent probably lies somewhere in-between each extreme—a solid middle-to-late reliever who’s close to, but not quite, one of the best relievers in the majors. Regardless, Ottavino’s performance in 2021 will have an enormous bearing on the state of the Yankees’ bullpen as well as his checking account.