Last season the Yankees rostered one of the best and deepest bullpens in baseball, especially after acquiring Zack Britton at the trade deadline. At least one metric says it was the best bullpen in baseball history. They could trot out power arm after power arm after power arm. The Yankees clearly prioritize a deep and powerful bullpen, and they invested heavily in their relief crew this past offseason.
Two weeks after re-signing Britton to what amounts to a two-year contract with a one-year player option and a two-year club option, the Yankees signed native New Yorker Adam Ottavino to a straight three-year contract. The Manhattan-born and Brooklyn-raised right-hander will make $9M annually and essentially replace David Robertson as Aaron Boone’s right-handed strikeout specialist.
“When he called me two nights ago and told me, he had the sound of happiness in his voice I haven’t heard in a very long time. He could not possibly be happier,” Ottavino’s father said after the signing. “I’m happy whenever anybody gets what they want, and he really got what he wanted. Playing for the Yankees was worth an awful lot to him. At the end, playing for the Yankees was very important to him.”
Ottavino has generated headlines the last two offseasons and for different reasons. Last offseason he rebuilt himself in a vacant Harlem storefront. He immersed himself in analytics following a miserable 2017 season (5.06 ERA and 5.16 FIP), and the result was a 2.43 ERA (2.74 FIP) with 36.6% strikeouts in 77.2 innings last year. Then, this past winter, Ottavino said he would strike out Babe Ruth every time, which was a thing that made the rounds. That has since blown over (I think?).
I’m very much looking forward to what an open-minded player like Ottavino can do with an analytically-inclined organization like the Yankees. Maybe he can be even better than last season! Or maybe he just maintains that level of performance as he gets deeper into his 30s. The stathead native New Yorker hooking up with the Yankees is a match made in baseball heaven. Let’s preview Ottavino’s season.
What’s Ottavino feature?
Thanks to his cartoonish slider, Ottavino is one of the most GIF-able pitchers in baseball. I suppose this is where I should embed the obligatory slider GIF, so let’s get this out of the way:
Let’s try that another way. This is where Ottavino’s slider starts …
… and this is where it ends:
Spoiler: Ottavino is going to throw a slider like that at some point this season, Gary Sanchez won’t be able to block it, and Yankees fans will melt the hell down. Take it to the bank. Can’t predict baseball? Oh no, this is as predictable as it gets.
Anyway, Ottavino is much more than a video game slider. He works in the mid-90s with a comeback two-seamer and also throws a cutter that is effectively a shorter version of his slider. Ottavino has that big-breaking slider he sweeps away from righties and also a cutter with less break he can use closer to the zone. Here are some 2018 numbers on Ottavino’s stuff (MLB averages in parenthesis):
|% Thrown||Velocity||Spin Rate||Whiffs per Swing|
|Slider||46.8%||81.4 mph (84.4 mph)||2,787 rpm (2,397 rpm)||37.2% (35.5%)|
|Two-Seamer||41.9%||93.8 mph (91.7 mph)||2,288 rpm (2,125 rpm)||24.5% (16.0%)|
|Cutter||9.8%||87.1 mph (88.7 mph)||2,605 rpm (2,345 rpm)||48.1% (25.2%)|
I think it’s pretty interesting Ottavino has above-average fastball velocity but below-average slider velocity. We’re talking a 12.4 mph separation between the two pitches, on average. That is enormous. The league average separation between all fastballs (not just two-seamers) and sliders is 8.4 mph. Ottavino fastball-slider separation is roughly 50% larger than the league average. That absolutely contributes to his effectiveness. He really changes speeds.
Also, Ottavino mentioned a few weeks ago that he is excited to get away from Coors Field, but not because of all the hits and home runs. He’s looking forward to pitching at sea level full-time so the movement on his pitches is consistent. Pitches do not move as much at altitude the same way they do at sea level. I ran the numbers a few weeks ago and the difference is noticeable. We’re talking 3-4 inches of break on Ottavino’s pitches in some cases.
Ottavino will give out some walks (11.7% last year) and I can’t help but wonder how much the constant altitude changes contributed to that. Imagine getting certain movement on your pitches at home, then going out on the road and getting more movement on those same pitches (or vice versa), and doing it over and over again all season. Can’t be fun. Can’t be easy. Ottavino doesn’t have to worry about that anymore now.
For all intents and purposes, Ottavino is a two-seamer/slider pitcher with a show-me cutter. He recently said he worked on developing a new pitch over the winter without saying what it is (splitter?), though he hasn’t pitched enough in televised Grapefruit League games for us to see a potential new pitch in action, if he’s even thrown it. But yeah, it’s a heavy two-seamer and a soft slider, both with a ton of movement. Ottavino’s fun.
What will his role be?
If nothing else, the Yankees are believers in having a set Eighth Inning Guy™. Aroldis Chapman is going to close, we know that much, and Dellin Betances will undoubtedly begin the year as Chapman’s primary setup man after the season he had last year. That leaves Ottavino, Britton, and Chad Green for the sixth and seventh innings. I wouldn’t be surprised to see one of them lock in as the set Seventh Inning Guy™.
Ottavino did a little of everything during his time with the Rockies. Last season he typically pitched the eighth inning ahead of closer Wade Davis. He’s closed some in the past, he’s pitched in middle relief, he’s done it all. There isn’t a role he is unfamiliar with, which is good. Perhaps that means Boone will be flexible with him and use him as a true fireman in different spots rather than lock him into one inning.
“We have some guys who have a little more strength versus left-handed hitters, even though they’re right-handed pitchers, like Chad Green and Dellin Betances,” Ottavino said a few weeks ago. “I’ve been pretty tough on righties in my career, so I expect to get a lot of righty-on-righty matchups given our bullpen depth.”
As you’d expect given that slider, Ottavino was indeed more effective against righties than lefties last season. That isn’t to say he was bad against lefties. Not at all. They hit .174/.319/.241 (.252 wOBA) against him with a 32.4% strikeout rate. It’s just that Ottavino held righties to a .138/.231/.236 (.215 wOBA) batting line with a 39.4% strikeout rate. He was outstanding against righties and he didn’t need to be sheltered from lefties either.
The perfect world scenario would be using Ottavino as the top right-handed matchup guy. Mookie Betts at the plate in a big spot in the sixth inning? J.D. Martinez in the seventh? Tommy Pham or Vlad Guerrero Jr. in the fifth? With Betances locked into the eighth inning for the time being, Ottavino is best equipped for those situations. The pure stuff is enough to overwhelm any right-handed batter. Matching up against top righty bats rather than being married to one set inning seems like the best way to use Ottavino.
Bullpen roles tend to develop organically as the season progresses — who had Betances being the team’s no-doubt Eighth Inning Guy™ at this time last year? — and my guess is Ottavino will be in that seventh inning mix with Britton. Perhaps they’ll share the role, with Ottavino facing tough righties and Britton facing tough lefties as necessary. That’s probably easiest. Of course, there will also be days he’s needed in the eighth inning, or the fifth. That’s baseball.
* * *
Replacing Robertson with Ottavino is very similar to replacing Robertson with Andrew Miller. In both instances the Yankees let Robertson, a very effective homegrown reliever and a known quantity, leave as a free agent so they could replace him with a cheaper player (in terms of annual salary) with a much shorter track record, but also someone who had a chance to be just as good as Robertson, if not better. Same idea both times.
Miller had one elite season under his belt when the Yankees signed him and the same applies to Ottavino now. Trading Miller for prospects in year two of his four-year contract was definitely not part of the plan, and boy, if the Yankees have to trade Ottavino for prospects at some point, it would mean something really went wrong. The logic is the similar though, and the Miller/Robertson move worked out pretty well. A repeat with Ottavino would be splendid.