Two weeks ago the Yankees made their latest (final?) free agent splash when they signed righty reliever Adam Ottavino to a three-year contract. Ottavino is fascinating from a stathead perspective because he’s into analytics and used them to get better last offseason. He’s also a native New Yorker like Dellin Betances, which is pretty cool. Only six players from the five boroughs appeared in a game last year.
Ottavino and Betances have something in common besides their hometown: They’re prone to stolen bases. Dellin’s stolen base issues really came to a head in 2016, when runners went 21-for-21 against him, but, to his credit, he has gotten better at combating the stolen base. Look:
- 2016: 21-for-21 (stolen base attempted in 17.9% of opportunities)
- 2017-18: 21-for-26 (stolen base attempted in 13.9% of opportunities)
Betances is still way worse than the league average — runners attempted to steal in 5.2% of their opportunities in 2018 — but there has been some improvement and that’s not nothing. Dellin shortened up his leg kick to be quicker to the plate and we’ve even seen him make pickoff throws to first base. Not great pickoff throws, but pickoff throws nonetheless. It’s the thought that counts.
Ottavino’s stolen base issues last year were about as bad as Betances’ were in 2016. Runners went 24-for-27 (89% success rate) against him and they attempted a steal once every four opportunities. That was the highest attempt rate in baseball and it wasn’t close either. Here are the highest attempt rates (min. 15 attempts):
- Adam Ottavino: 27 attempts in 108 opportunities (25.0%)
- Sam Dyson: 19 attempts in 101 opportunities (18.8%)
- Tyler Glasnow: 27 attempts in 146 opportunities (18.5%)
- Dellin Betances: 15 attempts in 95 opportunities (15.7%)
- Noah Syndergaard: 35 attempts in 226 opportunities (15.5%)
One of the three runners who was caught stealing with Ottavino on the mound was Matt Wieters, a slow-footed catcher. Another was Paul DeJong on this play. DeJong beat the throw and was safe, but he overslid the bag and was called following replay. The only “legitimate” caught stealing with Ottavino on the mound last year was this play, when Freddy Galvis got a terrible jump:
We have data on a lot of things these days but one of those things is not pitcher delivery times. To the untrained eye, Ottavino looks pretty slow to the plate. Colorado’s primary catchers (Chris Iannetta and Tony Wolters) are not particularly good throwers, which didn’t help matters. I’m not sure whether Ottavino has pickoff throw issues. Being slow to the plate seems like the primary culprit here. That makes Ottavino an easy target.
A late-inning reliever who is slow to the plate and prone to stolen bases is suboptimal. It’s not the end of the world — Betances and Chad Green (12.4% attempt rate) allowed plenty of stolen base attempts last year and they were great — but it’s not ideal either. The league catches on quick. Once a weakness is found, teams will exploit it until the player adjusts or is out of the league. You can be sure the Rays and Red Sox are aware of Ottavino’s stolen base issues already.
Gary Sanchez is one of the best throwing catchers in baseball, far better than Iannetta and Wolters, which could help Ottavino to some degree. The 2018 throwing data:
- Sanchez: 1.94 second pop-time and 86.8 mph average throw
- Romine: 2.04 second pop-time and 84.5 mph average throw
- Iannetta: 2.04 second pop-time and 81.4 mph average throw
- Wolters: 1.99 second pop-time and 78.5 mph average throw
Sanchez had the fourth highest average throw velocity and the sixth highest average pop-time among the 67 catchers to make at least ten throws last year. Gary, Jorge Alfaro (1.94 and 90.8), and J.T. Realmuto (1.90 and 87.8) are in a class of their own when it comes to throwing. They rank top six in both pop time and throw velocity. No one else is particularly close to doing both that well.
Throwing to Sanchez rather than Iannetta and Wolters could help Ottavino avoid stolen bases going forward, but remember, Gary spent time behind the plate with Betances in 2016, and that didn’t stop the steals. Runners went 6-for-6 stealing bases against Dellin in his 12 innings with Sanchez in 2016. When the pitcher is slow to the plate, there’s only so much the catcher can do to prevent steals.
The potential x-factor here is Ottavino’s ability and willingness to make pickoff throws. Some pitchers are just flat out terrible throwing over to first base. They’re uncomfortable doing it for whatever reason. The Yankees got Betances to make some pickoff throws the last two years and, if Ottavino has an issue with them, the club might be able to help him get over it too. If Ottavino is okay with pickoff throws, well, that’s one fewer potential solution.
Ottavino has always been an easy target for stolen bases — he went into the 2018 season with a career 10.3% attempt rate — but last season was extreme even for him. Perhaps it was a fluky outlier year? Betances allowed 21 steals in 2016 and 21 steals total in the two years since. Stolen bases are on the decline league-wide and, in this era of launch angle, I see no reason to believe that trend will reverse anytime soon. That is now how the game is played nowadays.
The threat of a stolen base always seems to cause more panic than an actual stolen base. Even if we are talking about 20-ish stolen bases, it’s 20-ish stolen bases across 70-something innings, and not every stolen base leads to a run. (Nine of the 24 steals Ottavino allowed last year led to a run.) The few extra runs they do create hurt, especially with Ottavino likely to see high-leverage work, but the steals are a nuisance more than a fatal flaw.
Ottavino’s stolen base issues may be somewhat curbed going forward thanks to having Sanchez behind the plate and the chance teams won’t attempt that many steals again. Also, the Yankees are not stupid. They knew what they were getting into with Ottavino and likely have some ideas to help him better hold runners. Pickoff throws, varying times, etc. They have experience with stolen base prone pitchers and will put it to work with Ottavino.