With the acrimony between owners and union dominating the baseball headlines, I figured it was a good moment for a distraction in the form of the good ol’ free agent target series. We’ve proposed some wacky free agent and trade targets, so why not go all-in with perhaps the most out-there scenario? That’s right, I’m talking about Adam Ottavino.
2021 Stats: 69 games, 62 IP, 4.21 ERA, 3.96 FIP, 4.70 xFIP, 10.3 K/9, 5.1 BB/9, 0.5 fWAR
Now before you get all angry in the comments, remember that these target posts exist to profile the abilities of free agents who remain unsigned. Simply writing this does not stand as a advocation for or against signing a certain player. I’m just providing context to spark discussion about the merits of pursuing vs. turning away from said player.
Good, now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s talk about Ottavino one year removed from the last time we saw him in pinstripes. The Yankees originally brought him in on a three-year, $27 million deal after he established himself as one of the premier high-leverage relievers with the Rockies. Along with Zack Britton, he was part of Brian Cashman’s bid to assemble an uber-bullpen capable of locking down any game from the seventh inning on.
Ottavino has always marched to the beat of his own drum, including custom-building a pitching lab between a Dollar Tree and Chuck E. Cheese’s on St. Nicholas Ave. between West 124th and 125th streets in Harlem. And between claiming he would “strike Babe Ruth out every time,” and his insistence on wearing a single-digit as a Yankee (he settled on No. 0), it’s fair to say he was never all that concerned with engendering sympathy among Yankees fans. The mercurial righty was a polarizing figure even before throwing his first pitch in pinstripes, and he’d have to perform on the mound, perhaps more than others, to prove his worth.
In his first season in the Bronx, perform he did, sporting the seventh-lowest ERA (1.90) of any qualified reliever. Unfortunately, all that hard work during the regular season soured in an instant as he imploded in the ALCS against Houston. He gave up the tying run in the fifth inning of the Yankees 3-2 Game 2 Loss, and then surrendered two runs in the seventh the next night without recording an out as the Yankees would go on to drop Game 3, 4-1.
2020 wasn’t nearly as kind to Ottavino, although his top-line numbers are distorted by the small sample size. He owned a 5.89 ERA and 3.52 FIP on the year, but without the September 7th blowup against the Blue Jays in which he allowed six runs including a Danny Jansen grand slam without recording an out, his ERA falls to 2.95 and FIP to 2.48. Obviously, that’s not how things work, but the point remains that Ottavino was effective for most of the season. That is, until the playoffs rolled around. In Game 2 of the ALDS against the Rays, he got saddled with a run in the fifth while getting only two outs, and the Yankees would go on to lose the game 7-5.
Apparently, Brian Cashman had seen enough, and on January 25th, 2021, traded Ottavino to the Red Sox — only the second trade between the rival franchises since 1987 — for the right not to pay him his $9 million salary, even throwing in prospect Frank German as a sweetener.
Ottavino appeared to be undergoing a mini career renaissance in Boston, and was one of the best relievers in baseball with a 2.54 ERA and 2.58 FIP through mid-July. Things weren’t quite as smooth sailing after, with the righty pitching to a 7.04 ERA and 6.30 FIP the rest of the way out. He was quite effective in the playoffs, giving up only one run in four innings across five outings.
So, what’s the book on Ottavino at this point in his career? It’s always felt like he’s walked a tightrope with his pitching style. Since 2017 he owns the 16th-highest walk rate (13.3 percent) of any qualified reliever. Pair that with a home run per fly ball rate below 10 percent and it’s easy to question when his good luck will run out. That said, he did add roughly one mph on his fastball with Boston relative to his time in New York, which allowed his ever-lethal frisbee slider (11th-most horizontal movement in MLB) to play up even more.
This likely was all just a hypothetical exercise, as a non-reunion between the Yankees and Ottavino is probably one of the surest predictions one can make this offseason. He failed to ingratiate himself with the fanbase and the front office, and the trade to Boston for peanuts likely soured any remaining goodwill Ottavino felt toward his former employers. The Adam Ottavino experiment produced mixed results the first time around, and there’s no reason to expect a different outcome a prospective second time around.