Solving Adam Ottavino

There are many contributing factors to the lackluster performance of Boston Red Sox reliever Adam Ottavino, who made headlines in 2018 after saying he “would strike Babe Ruth out every time.” Currently, Ottavino has a 3.68 ERA, a FIP of 3.27, and 58.2 innings pitched at time of writing, placing him 119th out of 283 qualifying pitchers. Some big reasons for his mediocre stat line includes his inability to get left-handed batters out, command struggle, and pitch selection.

Red Sox Manager Alex Cora has done well to put Ottavino in situations to succeed, and without Cora at the helm, Ottavino’s stat line would look much worse. The bottom line is that the right-hander has been an abomination against lefties in 2021. In 19.2 innings pitched, he has allowed 10 earned runs, 22 hits, and 10 walks. Ottavino’s comments to the Boston Herald earlier in the season did not age well:

“I have no idea what they’re looking for these days in terms of roles and stuff like that, but I do think it would benefit me to get a full season in facing as many lefties as possible so I can put that kind of narrative to bed.”

This is even more unfortunate in hindsight given Cora put faith in his reliever during the first week of the regular season. “One thing for sure, we’re going to give him the ball, clean innings, and he’s going to face lefties and righties,” Cora said at the time. Given that Babe Ruth was a lefty, I doubt Ottavino would whiff him this season. Here’s Ottavino’s line against lefties this year (click to enlarge).

A potential cause for Ottavino’s lefty struggle is his command issues. So far in 2021, Ottavino’s BB% is in the bottom eighth percentile in the league, his chase rate is in the bottom sixth percentile, and his whiff percentage is 58th percentile. This is pretty detrimental to the righty given that his signature sweeping slider makes up 47% of his pitches. Ottavino makes his money fooling hitters into swinging at pitches that look like strikes but dive out of the zone. If he’s unable to do so, he will have difficulty getting guys out, especially lefties.

When Ottavino’s sliders miss glove-side to lefties, they hang up, right in the middle of a lefty’s bat path. Ottavino’s other big miss is a yanked slider, which has become the root cause of his walk rate. It is a different story for righties; when Ottavino misses the initial glove-side target, the slider is still far enough away from a righty batter (in most cases) in which they would either swing right over it, make weak contact to the right side, or take it for a ball. Despite having 8.1 inches above average of horizontal break, Ottavino has had a -6 run value from his slider in 2021.

If you look at Ottavino’s best years from an ERA standpoint, you notice that his two seasons with the Yankees in 2018 and 2019 were elite. A critical difference between those campaigns and the current one is his pitch repertoire. Although most of it has stayed the same, he has almost stopped throwing his cutter entirely. In 2018 and 2019, he threw his cutter 9.8% and 13.8%, respectively. In 2021 he has thrown it just 1.9% of the time. This is notable because his cutter is essentially a shorter, tighter version of his slider that would seemingly be easier to control. On top of that, in 2018 and 2019, his cutter produced a whiff percentage of almost 50% and nearly 40%, respectively.

Also, in 2018 his cutter had 6.1 horizontal inches of break, or 3.6 inches above average (143% break above average). It wasn’t nearly as good in 2019 but was still respectable at 3.2 inches of horizontal break, 1.2 inches above average. Ottavino has thrown his cutter 20 times in 2021 and it has had a similar break to 2019.

If Ottavino were to increase his cutter usage, he could have a complementary put-away pitch that could be an excellent 1-2 punch when combined with a slider that fools batters. Given that they move in the same direction, hitters would have to make an early decision whether to swing based on whether they think the ball will stay in the zone or not.

Another flaw in Ottavino’s game is his time to home plate. In 2019, Ottavino had a “time to home” of 1.7 seconds, allowing base-stealers to run on him successfully 89%of the time. This is bad, and Ottavino was aware of it, so he switched up his mechanics to have a faster delivery.

According to the New York Post, Ottavino worked to bring his time down to 1.3 seconds during the off-season. This may seem like a good thing, but it turned out to be the opposite.

Ever since he switched mechanics during spring training of the 2020 season, his ERA has ballooned. This could explain the fact that Ottavino has struggled to consistently locate his pitches — a change like this can alter the timing of the delivery and causes a pitcher’s arm to be late. The result is often hanging breaking balls and pitches that miss to the arm side, two things we’ve commonly seen from Ottavino this year.

Ottavino has flaws in his game that have made his ERA skyrocket from his dominant 2018 and 2019 seasons. He has always struggled against lefties, but there is still a bright side for him. Despite Ottavino’s lefty woes, he has been dominant before, and if he can work on locating his slider better or finding confidence in his cutter again, his ability to limit hard contact could make him a dominant pitcher once again.

So far in 2021, his xSLG against is in the 95th percentile, he has a barrel percentage in the 97th percentile, a hard-hit rate in the 97th percentile, and finally, his average exit velocity is in the 97th percentile. However, when you walk a guy and allow him to steal, even a bloop single scores a run.





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Jim
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Jim

You need to deliver context on the Ruth quote. He was pointing out that players are so much better today than they were in Ruth’s time that even he could strike the Baltimorean out.

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newsense

Ottavino may be walking lefties at a high rate but he’s also striking them out and not allowing any HRs (4.6 BB/9, 12.8 K/9). I calculate his FIP against lefties as 1.84. I think you’re over-reacting to hius ERA with a small sample size.