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It feels a bit weird to churn out another season preview at the moment. As Bobby argued this morning, the beginning of the regular season should be delayed. It absolutely stinks that it’s come to this point — I think we all need something to look forward to given the current events — but postponement looks like the smart move. Better to get a handle on things now than for COVID-19 to cause a midseason stoppage.

Anyway, at some point hopefully not too long from now, Adam Ottavino will trot in from the bullpen for his first regular season appearance. Year one of his three year deal was mostly a success, though he seemingly ran out of steam once the postseason came around. The Brooklyn-native had an excellent 1.90 ERA in 66 1/3 regular season frames, though his high walk rate (14.1 percent) kept his FIP up at a still-good 3.44.

Once October rolled around, Ottavino struggled. Aaron Boone called upon Otto eight times, but the righty only recorded ten outs. Whether it was fatigue or unusual usage (he basically became a ROOGY), the 34 year-old floundered in the playoffs.

Ottavino enters 2020 with a clean slate, though he assuredly wants to get the bad taste of the postseason out of his mouth. There’s little doubt that he’ll be very effective once again, though that doesn’t mean he can’t get better. If he and the Yankees can answer some or all of the following questions, Ottavino can have a better 2020 from wire to wire.

Can he get lefties out?

Aaron Boone changed the way he used Ottavino quite dramatically in the postseason last year. After facing lefties and righties all season, Ottavino became a righty specialist. In retrospect, it made sense. The righty reliever had a 142 tOPS+ against left-handed hitters compared to a 79 tOPS+ against righties. tOPS+, for those unfamiliar, measures a player’s split against their overall performance. That said, his sOPS+ (performance in a split vs. league in same split) was 100 against lefties, making him league average in those situations. Not terrible, but there’s still a huge gap in performance depending on who he faced.

Ottavino’s historically been better against righties, which isn’t a surprise. He’s got a funky delivery, lower arm angle, and an absolutely nasty slider. Those same features also make him a bit easier to see from the left side of the plate.

Good luck with that!

Still, the difference in his performance against either side wasn’t always a stark as 2019. In 2018, Ottavino was terrific against left-handers. He was still better against righties, as evidence by his tOPS+ split of 119/85. However, lefties hit .179/.319/.241 against him in ’18, or a 57 sOPS+. So we know he’s capable.

Here’s the interesting thing: some of the underlying data against left-handed hitters hasn’t changed. Last season, hard hit percentage and exit velocity against are virtually were virtually the same as 2018 against lefties.

However, Ottavino struggled to miss bats against left-handers last season. His whiff percentage and strikeout rate dropped by 6 and 11 percent, respectively.

(Baseball Savant)

As you can see, he became pretty sinker-reliant vs. lefties last season. Perhaps because they had better success against his slider than usual. Which is odd, because his slider has neutralized lefties in recent seasons too:

YearwOBA vs. LHBxwOBA vs. LHB

Weird! All prior data suggests that Ottavino can deploy his slider very effectively against lefties, so what gives? It’s hard to say. I’d like to believe it was a fluke, though the xwOBA against suggests otherwise.

Even so, I’d like to see the righty try to re-establish his slider against lefties. It’s unequivocally his best pitch regardless of what side the batter stands, so he should try to avoid shelving it. He’s had plenty of success with it in the past, so it’s not time to give up on the pitch against lefties yet.

Should the Yankees lighten his workload?

If the season is delayed due to COVID-19, this won’t be quite as much of a concern. Nonetheless, as long as the season is still officially a go, let’s look at this as if all 162 games willbe played.

Ottavino pitched a lot last year. He appeared in 73 games, two short of his career-high 75 in his final season with Colorado. That’s not 2004 Paul Quantrill level, but it’s still less than ideal.

The Yankees were able to taper Ottavino’s workload down the stretch last season. Through July 31st, the righty had appeared in 51 of the team’s 107 games, or a 77 appearance pace. From there on out, Ottavino was summoned 22 times, or a 65 appearance pace over a full season. I have to imagine the Yankees would prefer the latter in 2020.

Hopefully, the addition of Gerrit Cole along with the emergence of another multi-inning reliever (Jonathan Loaisiga, please) can reduce some of the pressure the Yankees’ bullpen faces. In 2019, Ottavino and others had no choice but to save the Yankees’ starters from shorter outings. The Bombers may still run into that situation again this year, especially with Luis Severino and James Paxton out for extended periods, but Cole should mitigate that to some degree.

It’s not that the 34 year-old isn’t up to the task of another 70-plus outings, but rather, cutting back would be the smart course of action. Whether or not fatigue was an issue for him come last postseason is up for debate, but he certainly didn’t pitch well.

Will he be able to keep his walk rate in check?

As previously noted, Ottavino finished 2019 with a 14.1 percent walk rate. That’s pretty bad! It was seventh-worst among qualified relievers and 67 percent higher than the league average walk rate. Yet, Ottavino’s control wasn’t bad all season.

(Baseball Savant)

By the second half of last season, the reliever was able to get his walk rate down to a far more reasonable level.

Ottavino will probably never develop good control, but if he can keep his walk rate closer to where he was in the second half of 2019, he’s a better bet going forward. Obvious statement, I know. It’s just that the righty posted a career high 87.8 percent strand rate last season and no prior years really come close. Chances are that rate regresses a bit this season, so limiting baserunners by free pass will help mitigate some of the regression.

Now, with fewer walks also came fewer strikeouts for Ottavino toward the end of last year. His strikeout rates, from April to September, progressed as follows: 31.1, 30, 40.9, 32.6, 27.9, 26.3. Now, I don’t think this has anything to do with Ottavino walking fewer batters. It’s not like Ottavino was throwing more pitches in the strike zone in order to avoid base on balls and thereby giving opponents more pitches to hit. Aside from a 44.4 percent zone rate in June, the righty’s zone rate hovered right around 50 percent all season. It’s just that his whiff rate declined as the season went on, which is a bit peculiar. Again, might want to chalk that up to workload fatigue.

In any event, a lower walk rate doesn’t have to mean fewer strikeouts for number zero. In 2018, Ottavino managed a 11.7 percent walk rate while punching out a career best 36.3 percent of batters faced. Granted, it’s not easy to just go out and match what he did in 2018, but it’s certainly possible. Ottavino can probably get away with another free pass rate similar to 2019’s, but I’d expect his good fortune to lessen a bit in return. It’ll be hard to repeat a 1.90 ERA and 87.8 percent strand rate with another walk percentage north of 14.

2020 Outlook: What They’re Saying

Here is what the projections are saying going into the season:

  • PECOTA (70 IP): 10.9 K/9, 4.3 BB/9, 1.2 HR/9, 3.46 ERA, 4.01 FIP, 0.7 WARP
  • ZiPS (59 1/3 IP): 12.7 K/9, 5.3 BB/9, 1.1 HR/9, 3.49 ERA, 3.89 FIP, 0.7 WAR
  • Steamer (68 IP): 11.1 K/9, 4.6 BB/9, 1.4 HR/9, 4.33 ERA, 4.40 FIP, 0.4 WAR

I don’t think it’s a surprise that the projections are bearish on Ottavino. His walk rate is pretty scary and these systems don’t take that lightly. PECOTA and ZiPS still think his run prevention skills will be solid, albeit not at the level of 2019. Steamer thinks he’ll be pretty lackluster all around.

I think there’s good reason to be optimistic about Ottavino entering this season, whenever it begins. His stuff is still nasty as ever and it looks like the Yankees realized they needed to slow down his usage toward the end of last season. Plus, I’m not ready to write him off against left-handed hitters even though he struggled against them last season. He still has a history of success against them, even if he’s still far better against righties. All told, expect Ottavino to be a key cog in a yet again dominant Yankees bullpen.