Adam Ottavino was supposed to be yet another relief ace in the Yankees’ super bullpen. His regular season numbers in 2019 look terrific, but things began to go downhill toward the end of last season. Those troubles spilled over into 2020. The 34 year-old’s homecoming hasn’t gone as hoped. What happened?
One really bad outing
Ottavino gave up 12 runs in 18 1/3 innings this season, but half of those came in one outing against Toronto. On September 7th, the righty faced six batters and didn’t record a single out, capped by a Danny Jansen grand slam.
That performance was the difference between Ottavino ending his season with a 2.95 ERA and a 5.89 ERA. Now, that doesn’t mean this game doesn’t count or that Ottavino had some hidden good season. It happened and can’t be erased. But maybe we can acknowledge that the 34 year-old’s end of season numbers are a bit skewed.
Some of Ottavino’s underlying numbers are still quite good, even including that horrendous game in Buffalo. He still struck out 29.4 percent of hitters, a little below the 31.1 percent mark from 2019. He also walked 10.6 percent of opponents — not good in a vacuum — but good for Ottavino, who allowed 14.1 percent of hitters to reach base on balls last year and has always struggled with control.
Still, Buffalo outing or not, it’s tough to be satisfied with what Ottavino’s become for the Yankees. He came to the Bronx looking like one of the top relievers in the sport, but instead, he’s been relegated to middle inning work mostly. As I’ll touch on momentarily, he’s become almost useless against left-handed hitters and has fallen out of Aaron Boone’s circle of trust.
Splits against lefties
Before the season, I had some hope that Ottavino could rediscover effectiveness against left handed hitters. No such luck, though. It’s looking more and more like the reliever’s final season in Colorado was the exception to the rule against lefties. Take a look:
|Year||LHB Faced||% of Total BF||wOBA||xwOBA|
This year, because of the three batter minimum rule, it became harder for any manager to play the matchup game out of the bullpen. And yet, Boone still managed to avoid using Ottavino against lefties even less often than before.
In the season preview for Otto, I suggested that he throw more sliders to lefties. He didn’t. My logic was: his slider is his nastiest pitch and it was extremely effective against lefties back in 2018. Take a look:
|Year||Slider Usage (%)||wOBA||xwOBA||Whiff %|
His slider was pretty darn good against lefties this year and I’d argue he didn’t go to it enough. Then again, I’m absolutely not an expert here. Maybe he’s just lost confidence in throwing the pitch to opposite sided hitters.
Whether it’s his slider or something else, it’s difficult for Ottavino to be a useful option out of the bullpen without a way to get lefties out. Maybe it’s too much to ask for the Ottavino of 2018 to show up, but I think the Yankees expected him to be usable against hitters from the opposite side of the dish. For now, he’s a glorified righty specialist.
On the outside looking in
Ottavino has really fallen out of favor since the end of last season. We really noticed this in the 2019 postseason when Boone had an incredibly short leash with him. He appeared in eight games that October, but only threw 3 1/3 innings as a result of poor performance and Boone’s hesitance to have him face lefties.
Boone didn’t seem to give Ottavino much of a chance to regain his footing as a high leverage reliever, either. As you’ll see below, his game entrance leverage index (1.0 = average leverage) has steadily declined during his time in pinstripes.
Again, this is not what was hoped for with Ottavino. He was essentially out of Boone’s circle of trust all of 2020. He entered 9 of 20 games with the Yankees ahead or behind by 4 or more runs. He pitched once in the postseason. None of this is what you want.
2021 is the final year of Ottavino’s three-year, $27 million contract. He may not finish the deal in New York, though. Rumblings of a salary dump have come up given Ottavino’s struggles and the apparent lack of willingness to use him in big spots. We moved on from Ottavino in our plan, for whatever little it’s worth.
On the bright side, ZiPS still likes Ottavino a decent bit. It projects a 3.48 ERA and 3.51 FIP in 62 games next season. The system also expects a stellar 32.3 percent strikeout rate and throws a Jeff Nelson comp on him. It wouldn’t shock me to see Ottavino rebound. He still has the nasty slider and is known to work hard on his craft. It’d be a really plus if he could do it for the Yankees.