Considering Craig Kimbrel is still isn’t rostered, it’s safe to say that relief pitching is under-paid for in today’s baseball environment. Part of that is how fluky relievers are, naturally, so teams are taking their self-imposed constraints and saying they’d be better off hamstrung by position players or starters who can consistently log innings (and even then they’ll pass sometimes).
But in no reliever is that more plainly apparent than Adam Ottavino, who was signed to a three-year, $27 million contract by the Yankees. Ottavino really has only had a single good season, but considering the changes he’s made and the repertoire he sports, it’s also safe to say that these are “real” changes in that we can expect him to be similar to the 2.43 ERA pitcher he was in 2018. I mean, consider the first fact, that his release point has now gone from this in 2017...
...to this in his first season with the Yankees:
Once he basically abandoned his straight four-seamer for a two-seamer/cutter/slider combination, it became nearly impossible to tell the difference between the three. I could describe it, but Pitching Ninja shows that with the almighty overlay:
Adam Ottavino, 84mph Slider (strike looking) and 95mph Two Seamer (Swinging K), Overlay.— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) April 3, 2019
Adam Ottavino, 95mph Two Seamer and 84mph Slider, Overlay. pic.twitter.com/7221F0MyUF— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) March 28, 2019
This effective use of tunneling was widely credited to the installation of high-speed cameras in a vacant Harlem storefront so he could analyze the grips on his pitches and essentially work into his new repertoire of, in his words, having the... cutter “set up some things”...
...and then finishing off a hitter with the slider either a shade lower, or in the dirt:
Thanks to the wonderful folks at Baseball Savant we actually have all of Ottavino’s, and every players’, pitches from 2018 and 2019, so we can see how this works in quick order. Let’s say against... Jesus Sucre of the Orioles, for example.
First, he starts with an 88 mph cutter, and if we’re referring back to our notes on tunneling again, then we could reasonably draw the assumption that if you’re the hitter, this could be a cutter up-and-in, which it is, or it could end up being a slider that sinks closer towards the middle of the plate. Well, funny what the next pitch looks like:
OK, so now you’re the hitter again. You know that Ottavino is working inside-to-outside, but he also employs the other weapon of the two-seamer that runs in the opposite direction. So, now you have to worry about him doubling down on the slider and then you’re swinging at a pitch in the dirt, or if he throws the slower cutter, you’re guessing faster and your timing is off. Alright, let’s say you guess... slider in the dirt again:
Oof. That’s facing Ottavino... you’re in the lottery. While his command isn’t the greatest and he’s prone to walking a batter every two innings or so, the thing that always keeps the batter absolutely guessing is the tunneling action of those three primary pitches such that you can never really guess which one is coming until it’s halfway to the plate.
If you end up guessing right and it’s that filthy 94 mph two-seamer baring in on your hands, you might just foul it off instead of getting hard contact. Then you just find yourself at square one, wondering which weapon he’ll hit you with next and the chase away from the Minotaur continues. Just saying, but... I doubt Babe Ruth had to play these mind games at those velocities.