Tuesday, July 23, 2024
AL EastAmerican LeagueAnalysisBoston Red SoxMLB

Adam Ottavino: The Red Sox Gamble Worth The Price

A little over 2 years ago, a Colorado Rockies reliever claimed that Babe Ruth didn’t have a shot at putting the ball in play against him. Soon after he made that statement, he signed a contract with the New York Yankees. And now, he has joined Ruth in one of the premium clubs of baseball history — a trade within The Rivalry.

In one of the most surprising moves in the American League, Adam Ottavino was traded to the Boston Red Sox along with pitching prospect Frank German. While the Yankees looked to offload their 35-year-old reliever in order to make room for their eventual acquisitions of Jameson Taillon, Brett Gardner, and Darren O’Day, the Red Sox took advantage of their rival’s needs by taking a shot on a bounce-back season from Ottavino with the 23-year-old German, sliding into the Red Sox farm’s top 30 prospects, according to 2020 MLB.com rankings.

Ottavino’s Role and Profile

Ahead of Spring Training, Red Sox manager Alex Cora clarified the approach towards Boston’s closer situation. In 2020, the Red Sox got a save from three different pitchers while blowing 11 blown saves, tied for third-most in the American League. 

In his career as a reliever, Ottavino has pitched in 460 regular-season games and boasts a 3.41 ERA, 29.4% strikeout rate, and a 3.60 xFIP. In 2020, his trademark wipeout slider ranked top 10 in baseball in horizontal movement in 2020, and his deadly sinker ranked in the top 20% in vertical movement in 2020.

Over his last few years, despite the peculiar nature of the abridged 2020 season, Ottavino’s pitch usage hasn’t seen any noticeable changes. However, a closer look into his non-primary pitches demonstrates where he was giving up newfound damage. While his slider and sinker have yielded fairly consistent results over the last few years (including similar whiff rates), his cutter usage drastically decreased in 2020. Here is a look at his pitch usage over the last few seasons: 

Adam Ottavino pitch repertoire, per Baseball Savant.

When Ottavino did throw his cutter in 2020, it got absolutely crushed. Opponents slugged 2.000 off the pitch, and both home runs he gave up last year were off the pitch. If Ottavino can utilize his cutter to neutralize lefties, it can prove to be an effective tertiary pitch, but its usage needs to increase before we can find out its true effectiveness.

One final overlooked takeaway from Ottavino’s pitch selection in 2020 is his uptick in sinkers. Likely due to working down more as shown above (per Baseball Savant), his ground ball rate rose from 39.7% in 2019 to 48.0% in 2020, his highest since 2016.

Ottavino’s primary competitor for the closer role on the Red Sox currently is Matt Barnes, who possesses a high-spin fastball and a 12-6 curveball that has been one of the best strikeout pitchers in baseball over the last few seasons. Naturally, with the added talent and versatility in the Red Sox bullpen, Alex Cora isn’t forced his hand at even going with a set closer by Opening Day. If the committee approach is indeed the preferred route for the Red Sox, Ottavino and Barnes could simply be toys for Cora to matchup-hunt. Notably, over his career, Ottavino has been much more effective against right-handed hitters – likely due to the nature of his pitch profile – whereas Barnes hasn’t had such drastic splits. 

Ottavino vs. L.271.422.343
Ottavino vs. R.212.324.272
Barnes vs. L.232.371.316
Barnes vs. R.239.384.304
Adam Ottavino & Matt Barnes splits, per Fangraphs.

What to Make of Ottavino’s 2020

Ottavino finished his 2020 regular season with a 5.89 ERA and 1.582 WHIP, both the worst of his career as a reliever. His surrendered average exit velocity also skyrocketed to over 90 mph which was well over his averages in the previous 3 seasons which were all under 86 mph. 

The issue with these numbers, like everything with the 2020 season, is the incredibly small sample size. As a reliever in a short season, it’s virtually impossible to tell if you can throw his 2020 numbers completely out the window. On the season, he only pitched 18.1 innings, giving up 12 earned runs and allowing 50 balls in play. To argue that he had a great season would seem dishonest, but his peripherals indicate some positive regression to his career norms. His strikeout rate of 29.4% was still elite and his walk rate of 10.6% was his best in a season since 2016. Furthermore, his hard-hit/soft-hit rate saw no noticeable uptick in 2020.

Soft %Medium %Hard %
Adam Ottavino contact given up, per Fangraphs.

All that was despite one nightmarish outing that skewed his stat line completely, when Ottavino gave up 6 earned runs to the Blue Jays on the road without recording an out. His season ERA outside of that one night was an impressive 2.95 and on the season, his xFIP and SIERA were both below 4.00, all good signs for a lengthier season.

Ottavino has the tools, experience, and recent track record to continue being filthy and has impressed his manager so far in Spring Training. Whether or not his role will be defined soon, expect a solid season from him in the AL East and a chance to return to the list of the most dominant relief pitchers in baseball.