The new baseball season is going to bring with it a number of new rule changes, with one of the most significant being the new extra innings rule. Remember, after the 9th inning, each team will start with a runner on 2nd base. That runner will be the last batter to hit in the last half of the previous inning. It will be a big adjustment.
I’m not a huge fan of the change, but that makes no difference: it’s here, and it’s probably here to stay. Teams will adapt unique extra innings strategy to capitalize the rule changes. New strategies are always interesting to think about, at least. The Yankees themselves tried it out yesterday:
I have thoughts about the Yankees bunting – in 9 out of 10 situations, they should not do it –but will save those for another day. In yesterday’s workout, Wade stole 3rd, which prompted me to consider Adam Ottavino and his usage in extra innings. Otto’s inability to hold runners on might turn into a real extra innings liability. Let’s get into this.
Ottavino and Stolen Bases
Let’s start with the basics: one of the biggest weaknesses in Ottavino’s game is his inability to hold runners on base. It’s actually a glaring hole. With a major assist from Baseball Prospectus’ Lucas Apostoleris, I put together some stolen base against leaderboards for relievers that really underscore this problem. The leaderboard on the left is stolen base attempts against relievers and the one on the right is stolen base attempts of third. In both instances, the number in parentheses is the success rate. Check it out, limited to MLB relievers in 2016-19:
Stolen Base Attempts Against
- Adam Ottavino: 51 (88%)
- Dellin Betances: 44 (91%)
- Sam Dyson: 39 (72%)
- Chris Devenski: 37 (84%)
- Jared Hughes: 37 (76%)
Stolen Base Attempts of 3rd
- Adam Ottavino: 11 (91%)
- Jared Hughes: 7 (71%)
- Justin Wilson: 7 (86%)
- Juan Minaya: 6 (83%)
- Kyle Crick: 6 (83%)
It is worth noting a few factors. First, this is not a function of opportunity. Ottavino has faced 942 batters since 2016, which is actually the second lowest among the group on the left. (Among the group on the left, it is second highest, to be fair.) This strongly suggests that opponents view this as a real weakness that can be exploited. Second, the success rate is extremely high. Teams are successfully exploiting it. Third, and most importantly, there’s a very visible reason why he struggles so much here.
Check out this video of Ottavino throwing from the stretch last September against Texas:
See that double tap around the 0:02 mark? It really elongates what is an already slow delivery. Here is another example in bases loaded situation from May. In this case, you can really see it:
That is really, really slow! Granted, the bases were loaded here, so Ottavino didn’t have to worry about holding guys on, but it does imply that when Ottavino is really trying to focus on his delivery that he really slows down and is deliberate.
For his part, Ottavino knows it. It was a minor storyline this March. He tweaked his delivery to remove the glove tap, saying that he “was just so sick of my glove tap and I had to break this habit.” When it comes to stealing bases, pitcher delivery time is crucial. Historically, according to Ottavino, his delivery time is 1.7 seconds. That’s much higher than the average, as you probably could have guessed.
Ottavino says that he’s now down to about 1.3 seconds, which should make a huge difference in theory. Unfortunately, there’s no way to validate this yet. We’ll have to take his word on it until we get some clearer video. (It looks like his usual delivery in GIF posted above, but I can’t tell.) It’s a good sign that he is working on this, though.
Extra Inning Strategy
Until we know for sure, this weakness could really come into play as teams deploy new extra inning strategies. We’re already hearing about how teams will probably bunt the runner over to 3rd in many cases. The idea is straightforward. A runner on second with no outs scores 61% of the time. By bunting him over, you get a guy on 3rd with one out. That runner scores 66% of the time. A seemingly small advantage, to be sure, but one teams will exploit. (Again, the Yankees should not do this most of the time.)
With Ottavino on the mound, though, opponents might not even bother. Since most teams will pinch run their designated “fast guy” to be this baserunner, why wouldn’t they steal third? If successful, the run expectancy jumps to 84%, which is considerably higher than either above scenario. Also, teams have already shown a willingness to steal on Ottavino. It’s not like this would be some new approach. It already works.
Ottavino has never been able to hold runners on. Maybe the new tweak helps, but that’s far from a guarantee. Every year, a player makes some adjustment in camp that doesn’t hold. Pitchers are creatures of habit and making these adjustments stick under the adrenaline of a real game is a different animal than bullpens in camp. At the very least, we should expect teams to to try this if Ottavino is pitching in extras. I know I would.
This leads us, finally, to Ottavino’s usage. Given the fact that he’s trying to repair this hole in his game, it’s clear that both he and the Yankees are aware. It makes me wonder if the Yanks will go to Ottavino earlier in close games to minimize his exposure to extra innings and save other, less vulnerable options for later.
Of course, I’d rather use him than not – he is a dangerous weapon out of the bullpen. It would be dumb to not utilize him in close games and the Yankees should absolutely not limit his usage. With that said, these otherwise marginal advantages take on even more importance in an unprecedented season where games count even more than normal. It is going to be worth watching, at least.