Ottavino is one of baseball’s most dominant pitchers, and he is the second major bullpen move for the Yankees this offseason. Lefty Zach Britton re-signed with New York in early January for three years and $39 million.
The Yankees’ bullpen, already ranking tops in the Major Leagues last season with 9.7 fWAR, consists of some of the best arms in baseball. In addition to Ottavino and Britton, the Yankees have Aroldis Chapman, Dellin Betances and Chad Green on their active roster. Those three pitchers alone all rank in the top-15 in baseball in fWAR over the past two years.
Ottavino is an outstanding addition on a clear strength for New York, perhaps even more so now that he had a career-year in 2018.
In 77 2⁄3 innings pitched for the Rockies last year, Ottavino pitched to a 2.43 ERA with 112 strikeouts to just 36 walks, good for a 2.74 FIP. His 36.3 percent strikeout rate ranked eighth among all qualified relievers. (This figure actually ranked below two current Yankees relievers, Chapman and Betances.) Overall, he was worth 2.0 fWAR, good for seventh.
Keep in mind, Ottavino was producing these numbers while pitching for the Rockies, in homer-happy Coors Field. Adjusting his ERA to account for park and league factors, Ottavino produced a 52 ERA-. His FIP-, similarly, was excellent, at 63.
He produced these excellent numbers behind a devastating slider. Batters hit just .148 with a .257 wOBA against the pitch. Among pitchers with 100+ plate appearances against the slider, these figures ranked 10th and 50th, respectively. The wOBA allowed is slightly concerning into 2019, though it should be noted that this does not adjust for the offensive-favored environment in Coors Field. Plus, when your slider is moving like this...
...it’s going to be hard to hit.
That’s Ottavino’s 2018 in a nutshell. While this performance is a good indicator of the type of pitcher that he is, the Yankees are paying him for his future performance, specifically his performance in 2019, 2020 and 2021.
Ottavino is 33 years old. FanGraphs’ Depth Chart projections see a slight drop-off in his performance. This may have less to do with age and more to do with regression. Nonetheless, the system still projects a strong year—3.63 ERA, 3.58 FIP, 29.7 percent strikeout rate, 11.1 percent walk rate and 0.8 fWAR in 65 innings. The Yankees, with their bullpen breadth and depth, don’t need Ottavino to be the guy in their bullpen. I’m sure they’d gladly take a ~1-win season, considering just about a third of qualified relievers even reach that mark. It’s also quite possible that these projections are on the lighter side, considering just how good Ottavino was last year.
At $9 million per year for the next three, Ottavino could theoretically pay off his deal (in $/fWAR terms) by the middle of 2020. WAR will be worth approximately $8.7 million over the next three years, on average. If Ottavino can produce about 3 WAR, or just about one win per season, he’ll make the deal worth it. That seems to be great value for the Yankees in particular.
On a larger scope, the Yankees do project to have baseball’s best bullpen again in 2019. Pre-Ottavino they were projected to win 95 games and finish in second in the AL East behind the Red Sox. Since Ottavino probably makes them about one or two wins better, a fun Yankees-Red Sox pennant race seems to be brewing again in 2020. With the signing today, Ottavino represents just another weapon in the greater arms race.
Devan Fink is a Featured Writer for Beyond The Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter @DevanFink.