Adam Ottavino was the poster child for the Yankees’ dynamic bullpen approach of the past few years. He’s big and throws hard, releases from a wonky angle, and has such excellent breaking stuff that he actually uses it more than his fastball. At least, that was Adam Ottavino before the 2020 season.
In a bizarre twist, Ottavino has changed up his pitch mix drastically this year, and the results really haven’t been that great. Ever since becoming a reliever in 2012 for the Colorado Rockies, Ottavino has thrown his slider more than any other pitch. That is, until this year. Ottavino is relying on his sinker more than ever in 2020, and it hasn’t been a positive change for him.
The right-hander has upped his sinker usage over the past three seasons, but it has never surpassed that of his slider. This year, he’s throwing the sinker 50% of the time, with the slider sitting at 39% (miscellaneous cutters, changeups and four-seamers make up the remaining 11%).
Ottavino’s slider is one of the nastiest weapons in the game, so why would he minimize it? Chances are, he and pitching coach Matt Blake probably thought that throwing more sinkers would lower his walk rate and raise his groundball rate, and one of those things has been true. Ottavino is generating more groundballs this year – his 48.6% groundball rate is a nine-percent improvement over last year, and his highest since 2016. Getting more groundballs is good, because the hope is that it leads to fewer fly balls and ultimately fewer home runs.
However, Ottavino’s home run rate is the highest it’s ever been. It’s been an admittedly small sample size, but his average exit velocity against is also getting worse, particularly on the sinker. The pitch just isn’t working out the way the Yankees hoped it would. Ottavino hasn’t seemed comfortable at times this year, and tweaking his approach may have something to do with it.
The good thing for Ottavino is that he still has his trademark slider – he just has to get back to throwing it more often. The whiff rate on Ottavino’s slider this year is identical to where it was last year, when it was one of the filthiest pitches on the Yankees’ staff. The opponent’s batting average and exit velocity is slightly higher this year on the slider, but not alarmingly so. It’s still been an excellent offering, he’s just throwing it less.
This is a similar conundrum that Gerrit Cole famously went through in Pittsburgh. The Pirates told him to throw more sinkers, which got him more groundballs, but limited him from using his excellent strikeout stuff too much. Ottavino has the slider to get guys out at an elite clip, and every time he doesn’t use the slider, he’s letting the opposing hitter off the hook.
The Yankees’ bullpen hasn’t been elite this year for many reasons, including injuries, overuse and an overextension of depth. However, there’s also been underperformance from some of the top guys, including Ottavino. For the Yankees to get back to their winning ways, they need their bullpen to close out games, and getting Ottavino’s trademark slider back on track is a huge piece of that puzzle.