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Adam Ottavino has a worm-killing sinker

The slider is his calling card, but Adam Ottavino’s sinker has become an important part of his repertoire.

San Francisco Giants v Colorado Rockies - Game Two Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images

Most of baseball’s elite relief pitchers have a single pitch that strikes fear into their opponents. Kenley Jansen’s cutter, Andrew Miller’s slider, and Aroldis Chapman’s fastball immediately come to mind. Some of the best relievers have that one special pitch and use their other offerings simply to mix things up and buy some time until they can hit you with that signature pitch again. Rockies reliever Adam Ottavino is one of those types of pitchers.

Ottavino does not care who you are or what the count is, he will throw you a slider. It’s a pitch he doesn’t have trouble getting a feel for, and has little difficulty manipulating. It’s both his out-pitch and his most relied upon offering. If you face Ottavino, you will get a taste of his wipe-out slider.

Adam Ottavino Career Slider Usage
Data via Brooks Baseball

Any discussion of Ottavino’s arsenal has to start with his slider because it’s the featured pitch. But we’re not here to break down his slider; it’s great and everybody knows it. Today we’re going to take a look at Ottavino’s sinker, the development of which has given him another powerful weapon. The slider is still his bread and butter, but the sinker’s effectiveness has become a big part of his success.

Before we proceed it’s important to acknowledge that we’re parsing individual pitch data from a reliever who threw only a partial seasons in 2015 and 2016, and we’re definitely viewing this data through the possibly skewed lens of a small sample size. That said, there still looks like there’s something here.

Prior to undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2015, Ottavino began to use his sinker more often, cutting into his use of the four-seam fastball. You can note on this pitch type usage chart how 2015 sees their lines join together in sweet embrace.

Chart via Brooks Baseball

Ottavino’s sinker has seen a big uptick in usage because it has proven to be FAR more effective than his four-seamer, for one glaring reason.

Adam Ottavino 2016 FA vs. SI

Pitch Type Velo xMov (pfx) zMov (pfx) GB% SwStr% wOBA wRC+
Pitch Type Velo xMov (pfx) zMov (pfx) GB% SwStr% wOBA wRC+
Four-Seam Fastball 94.3 -4.8 6.2 45.5% 8.5% .364 131
Sinker 93.6 -6.7 2.7 85.7% 6.0% .239 51
Data via FanGraphs

The sinker is just one tick below his four-seamer velocity-wise, but has a couple more inches of arm side run and significantly less rise. The real difference between the two pitches is the 40.2 percentage point disparity in ground ball rate. That is staggering, and the effect was seen in the wOBA and wRC+ outcome marks against each pitch.

The variation in ground ball rate is certainly due in part to the difference in movement of each pitch, but it’s also because since his return from Tommy John surgery, Ottavino has made a concerted effort to keep the pitch down in the zone. On the left is his pre-Tommy John sinker usage and on the right is 2016, post-surgery. A significantly smaller percentage of pitches have been over the heart or up in the zone.

Adam Ottavino sinker percentage
Heatmaps via Brooks Baseball

Despite the presumed focus on keeping it down, the sinker’s effectiveness remains curious for two reasons; it generates a low swinging strike rate and has a high average exit velocity against. It would stand to reason that not missing a ton of bats while also giving up hard hit balls in play is a recipe for disaster. Opposing hitters averaged a 94.1 mph exit velocity on his sinkers, absolutely crushing the pitch. Luckily for Ottavino, exit velocity is not the only important characteristic of a batted ball.

FT and SI (min. 25 balls in play)
Chart via Baseball Savant

*Baseball Savant and FanGraphs call Ottavino’s sinker a two-seamer, but Brooks Baseball and the man himself call it a sinker. So for the purpose of any league-wide comparisons in this article, the two are combined.

This above scatter plot shows every pitcher who had at least 25 two-seamers or sinkers put into play. You can see that Ottavino’s sinker had one of the highest exit velocities against, but by far the lowest launch angle allowed. In fact, not only did the pitch wear the low launch angle crown among just two-seam fastballs and sinkers, it had the lowest average launch angle of any pitch in baseball, by a wide margin.

Lowest Launch Angle by Pitch Type

Pitch Type Pitcher Avg. Launch Angle
Pitch Type Pitcher Avg. Launch Angle
Sinker/Two-Seam Adam Ottavino -9.3°
Knuckle Curve Mark Melancon -6.4°
Four-Seam Fastball Ryan Tepera -5.5°
Curveball Will Harris -4.7°
Changeup Corey Kluber -2.9°
Slider Dustin McGowan -0.9°
Cutter Ryan Garton 1.0°
Minimum 25 balls in play Data via Baseball Savant

When sifting through individual pitch types — again with a minimum of 25 balls in play — new Giants closer Mark Melancon’s knuckle-curve had the next lowest launch angle, a full 2.9 degrees higher than Ottavino’s sinker. The next closest sinker belonged to Mets closer Jeurys Familia, which had a -6.3 launch angle against, three degrees higher than Ottavino. His sinker stands alone at the bottom of the launch angle heap, which in this case is a good thing.

Hitters are beginning to change their approach by trying to elevate and “launch angle” has become the newest offensive buzz-term as we enter the 2017 season. Ottavino’s sinker demonstrates why: exit velocity is useless unless paired with optimal launch angles. Even the hardest hit balls can turn into routine groundouts. Observe as Ben Zobrist puts this Ottavino sinker in play with an exit velocity of 106.7 mph but a launch angle of -8.12 degrees.

*Cues The Price Is Right losing horn for Mr. Zobrist*

It’s often said that some of baseball’s best pitches generate weak contact. In the case of Ottavino’s sinker it’s not weak contact, it’s bad contact. As someone who calls Coors Field his home, it’s been a big part of why he’s been successful. If Ottavino just had his deadly slider and his four-seam fastball, he’d still probably be a solid reliever. Finding another weapon and increasing it’s usage to pair with his other offerings is what has taken him from good to great.

Despite his demonstrated effectiveness and ability to handle the ninth inning, the Rockies have apparently decided to hand closing duties to Proven Closer Greg Holland. You’re not going to get a fiery hot-take or impassioned plea to make Adam Ottavino the Rockies 2017 closer in this space. If Greg Holland looks like his old self, he’s perfectly capable of handling the job. We’re on the precipice of tearing down the artificial construct of what a traditional closer is anyway, so it matters very little in the grand scheme of things. Ottavino has shown he’s capable of handling the role in the past and will surely be fine if asked to step into it again.

What’s more important is that he’s developed and increasingly mixed into his arsenal a remarkable complement to a dynamic slider. Ottavino’s sinker would be a great pitch anywhere, but its ground ball tendencies are a particularly nice antidote to the pitcher-poison that is Coors Field.

Tommy John surgery slowed his ascent, but now with an effective sinker riding sidecar to that devastating slider, Adam Ottavino should soon be considered one of the best relief pitchers in baseball.

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Chris Anders is a featured writer at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @mrchrisanders.