Heading into 2019, Adam Ottavino looked to be a fairly savvy free agent signing. For just $9 million annually, the Yankees had imported the rare pitcher who dominated in the thin air of Coors Field. Moreover, Ottavino brought video game-like stuff to the table, the kind of raw clay the Yankees’ new-age coaching staff surely wants to get its hands on and mold.
In each of his two seasons in the Bronx, Ottavino got off to strong starts and appeared on his way to making good on his obvious potential. And in each of the past two years, the Yankees’ season ended in the same fashion: with Aaron Boone and his staff unable or unwilling to trust Ottavino in the moments that mattered most.
2020 Statistics: 24 games, 18.1 IP, 5.89 ERA, 3.52 FIP, 18.8% K-BB%, 0.2 fWAR
2021 Contract Status: Signed through 2021, $9MM
Of course, while Ottavino ended both of his Yankee seasons in similar spots, his 2019 and 2020 seasons didn’t take entirely similar routes. Boone lost faith in the right-hander in 2019 as he faltered down the stretch and in the playoffs, but Ottavino dominated for most of that year, turning in a sterling 1.90 ERA and 237 ERA+.
Boone likely lost trust in Ottavino this year simply because he had a poor season. The numbers speak for themselves: his ERA tripled, and he was more hittable, yielding more hits and home runs. That stat line left Ottavino glued to the bench as the Yankees fell to the Rays, as his only appearance in the playoffs came with the team trailing in Game Two of the ALDS. After facing three batters and allowing a run that night, Ottavino was pulled and didn’t enter the series again, even as the Yankees’ pitching staff desperately needed help wherever available.
It must be noted that most of Ottavino’s awful run prevention appears to stem from one miserable outing in Buffalo. Facing the Blue Jays at their makeshift homefield on September 7th, Ottavino allowed six runs without recording an out, culminating with a grand slam by backup catcher Danny Jansen.
Ottavino entered that game with a 3.55 ERA and a .594 OPS allowed in 16 games, and in seven games after the disaster, he posted a 1.59 ERA with a .746 OPS allowed. We obviously can’t just wish away a player’s worst performance, but we can acknowledge that in the majority of Ottavino’s outings, he was an effective reliever.
That Ottavino did pitch well for a chunk of the season is encouraging. Also promising is the fact that the 34-year-old didn’t seem to lose much of his pure stuff. His uber-bendy slider that looks like it was designed in a different dimension (it was actually designed in a vacant NYC storefront) was every bit as excellent in 2020 as in prior years. Ottavino’s spin rate on his slider was nearly identical in 2020 as 2019. The pitch generated a .278 xwOBA in 2020 per Statacst, compared to a .250 mark in 2019.
Just watching Ottavino on his better days, one could tell he still had an out-pitch that can slay the league’s best hitters:
Likewise, Ottavino didn’t lose much fastball velocity year-over-year, as a 93.9 mph average on his sinker in 2019 fell to 93.4 mph in 2020. Ottavino’s problem clearly wasn’t his stuff; it was his ever-present struggle with command. He walked over 10 percent of batters faced for the fourth straight season. Often, even when Ottavino generated a positive result, it came on a pitch that missed its spot, a slider that was whiffed upon even though it came in on the inside corner rather than the outside target.
Ottavino’s battle with command will likely always define his performance, and it should be said, he was no more wild in 2020 than typical. His walk rate actually fell this year compared to last, and according to FanGraphs’ zone rate, his pitches found the rulebook strike zone at a reasonable rate.
Put it all together, and there’s reason for hope regarding Ottavino’s time with the Yankees. He turned in a frustrating 2020 campaign, one marred by a singularly terrible outing and his trademark shaky control, but also one that still demonstrated his potent arsenal. Given that Ottavino has dominated before with excellent stuff that he can’t control, there’s certainly reason to believe that he can succeed again, even as it appears that he’ll never quite figure out how to reliably throw strikes.
All that said, for Ottavino to have a bounceback season with the Yankees, the team would have to go as far as keeping him for 2021. That’s no guarantee, with whispers abound that the team would like to get off his salary. In an ideal world, the Yankees would just lock in the guarantee on Ottavino for 2021 — because, after all, they are the Yankees — and look for a rebound campaign from a talented pitcher. In our actual pandemic-ravaged world, the last image we may have of Ottavino in a Yankee uniform is of him sitting on a bench, waiting for a call to the bullpen that’ll never come.