From a stathead standpoint, the Yankees made their most interesting move of the offseason two weeks ago, when they agreed to a three-year contract with Adam Ottavino. Ottavino is very much into analytics. The native New Yorker used state of the art tracking equipment to rebuild himself in a Harlem storefront last winter. The result was a dominant season and a nice three-year contract. It worked so well he did it again this offseason.
“I still have my same space (in Harlem),” said Ottavino to Bryan Hoch last week. “The way I developed my practice plan last year was very effective. I just tried to continue what I was doing and build off of it with some small changes to see if I can get a little bit more out of myself. I’m still working on a new pitch. Not sure if it’ll be game-ready or not this year, but I’ve been working to expand my arsenal. I’m just trying to take a growth mindset into every day.”
Ottavino has three pitches but he doesn’t use his cutter a whole lot, so he’s essentially a two-pitch reliever with a show-me third pitch. Perhaps the pitch he’s working on this winter is a splitter? Not sure. I hope we find out. Ottavino’s moneymaker is a big low-80s slider that darts away from right-handed batters. He also uses a two-seam fastball …
… that has power to it. His slider gets so much attention because of its cartoonish movement that it’s easy to forget this dude has a mid-90s two-seamer that runs all over the place and topped out at 98.5 mph last year. Last year Ottavino used his slider 45% of the time, his two-seamer 40% of the time, and his cutter 10% of the time. The other 5% was get-me-over four-seamers and pitches Statcast probably misclassified.
Weirdly, Ottavino was more effective at home in Coors Field than on the road throughout his career. Last year he posted a 2.10 ERA (2.49 FIP) at home and a 2.70 ERA (2.93 FIP) on the road. From 2012-18 he had a 3.36 ERA (3.32 FIP) in 206 innings at Coors Field and a 3.46 ERA (3.53 FIP) in 184.2 innings on the road. Huh. I mean, it’s not a huge difference, but the fact Ottavino was better at Coors Field than on the road is unusual.
Although he didn’t come out and say it, Ottavino indicated he’s looking forward to getting out of Coors Field during his introductory conference call last week. I can’t blame him. It must feel like walking on eggshells pitching in that park. Ottavino said he’s especially excited about the movement on his pitches away from Coors Field and specifically the consistency of that movement.
“There are some adjustments you have to make with altitude, and understanding how a pitch will break there compared to at sea level and calibrating,” Ottavino said to Dan Martin. “(My slider) should move more at home this season. I’m especially excited about the movement on my other pitchers, the two-seam fastball and cutter. It should be a little easier to be consistent.”
Real quick physics crash course: Gravity pushes oxygen closer to the Earth’s surface, so the higher the elevation, the less oxygen. Air resistance against the seams of a thrown (or hit) baseball create movement. Change the ball’s spin and spin axis and you create different movement. That’s how you get fastballs, sliders, etc. Because there is less oxygen at altitude, there is less resistance, and pitches do not move as much as they do at sea level. Got that? Good.
This is the crux of the Coors Field hangover argument. Rockies hitters see different break at home than on the road, so while Coors Field undoubtedly boosts their numbers because the ball carries more and the outfield is huge, they also have to make an adjustment each time they go out on the road because they’re seeing different movement. It’s tough. Pitching is no different. Check out the difference in movement on Ottavino’s pitches last year:
|Spin||H Mvmt||V Mvmt||Spin||H Mvmt||V Mvmt||Spin||H Mvmt||V Mvmt|
The difference in spin rate on the two-seamer and slider is relatively small. About 2.3% on the two-seamer and 1.7% on the slider. That’s nothing compared to the difference in movement. On the road Ottavino’s two-seamer had 2.5 inches of extra horizontal break* in on righties, on average, while his slider had 3.7 inches of extra horizontal break away from righties. That’s huge! His cutter, his seldom used third pitch, also had more horizontal movement on the road. Everything Ottavino throws moves a lot. It moves more away from Coors Field.
* Positive horizontal movement is movement away from righty batters and negative horizontal movement is movement away from lefty batters. Vertical movement tells us how much the pitch deviates from a straight line trajectory without considering gravity. Positive vertical movement doesn’t mean the ball is rising. It just means it’s dropping less. Fastballs with positive vertical movement are fastballs with “life,” so to speak.
On average, right-handed Rockies pitchers other than Ottavino saw their two-seamer move an extra 4.2 inches (!) horizontally on the road than at Coors Field last year. That’s an even larger difference than Ottavino’s two-seam fastball. Their sliders only picked up an extra inch or so horizontally, which isn’t as significant as the two-seam movement, but it’s not nothing either. Ottavino gains almost four inches on the slider on the road.
Extra movement sounds pretty cool, though I have to think getting different movement on your pitches at home than on the road can be a challenge. Ottavino’s unintentional walk rate was 8.5% at home and 11.4% on the road last season. What are the chances all that extra movement — several inches of movement on his two main pitches — contributed to the increase walked rate on the road? I think the chances are pretty good.
Ottavino said his slider “should move more at home this season” and that’s pretty cool. I think the most important thing Ottavino said is it “should be a little easier to be consistent” with his pitches. Imagine having a nice ten-day homestand, then going out on a seven-day road trip and having to adjust to your pitches having more movement, and then going back home and adjusting to less movement, over and over again all year. Has to be tough. Has to be.
We’ve never seen this version (or any version) of Ottavino away from Coors Field for an extended period of time. Only bits and pieces, and only when there was the hangover effect to consider. There will be no hangover effect going forward. Ottavino won’t have to deal with pitching at altitude. In theory, it’ll make him more consistent because his pitches will move the same at home and on the road. And, in theory, that’ll make him more effective overall.
Ottavino pitched well enough in Coors Field that pitching at sea level full-time and developing some consistency may not improve his performance. He might just stay the same pitcher as he ages and hey, that’s fine with me. Ottavino is really good. That he’s willing to use analytics to get better and is getting away from altitude makes me think he can still take his performance to another level. He’ll have that many fewer in-season adjustments to make because he won’t have different movement at home as on the road, and that’ll make life much easier.