Adam Ottavino Has a Weakness

After a miserable 2017, Adam Ottavino has been able to rebound, establishing himself as one of the better relievers in either league. That’s why he was the Rockies’ first pitcher out of the bullpen the other day in the wild-card game in Chicago. Granted, Ottavino allowed the tying run. There wasn’t another run until the top of the 13th. The bottom of the 13th was led off by Terrance Gore.

Let’s tie this all together, you and me. Why was Gore ever in the game in the first place? He pinch-ran in the eighth for Anthony Rizzo. Rizzo had hit a two-out single. Gore came in and wasted no time.

It looked like a great tactical success in the moment. Gore immediately got himself into scoring position. And only moments later, he scored on a hit by Javier Baez. The stadium erupted, and Gore was on the way to becoming a folk hero. Everyone figured he would try to steal — it’s the whole reason he was ever on the roster — and on the first pitch, he stole second base uncontested. It all went swimmingly until it didn’t. The Cubs wouldn’t score again. Rizzo was out of the game. Gore took his plate appearances. They didn’t go well.

Now, I’m not here to second-guess. Joe Maddon understood the risks at the time. Every manager knows what happens when you pinch-run. The Cubs needed to score one run before they could think about scoring a second, and Gore did what he was supposed to do. The pinch-runner pinch-ran. He scored the tying run. But I do think it’s fair to wonder — could Anthony Rizzo have stolen second base himself? Anthony Rizzo is not a great base-stealer. But Adam Ottavino has a problem.

You can already tell, just from the video. Obviously, Gore was going to try to run. It’s the only way using him would make sense. Ottavino understood the situation. And, you know, maybe he just thought he’d give his full attention to Baez, because Gore wouldn’t be able to steal home. Get the hitter out and Gore is rendered irrelevant. But with everyone expecting a steal, Gore stole second without a throw. Until that moment, I wasn’t familiar with Ottavino’s statistics.

This year, among all pitchers, Ottavino ranked 192nd in batters faced. He ranked 207th in so-called stolen-base opportunities. And yet, somehow, he ranked fourth in stolen bases allowed. With Ottavino on the mound, runners stole 24 bases. The only pitchers who gave up more steals were Noah Syndergaard, Steven Matz, and Lucas Giolito. Starters, who all threw way more innings.

Catchers matter a little bit, sure, but realistically, almost all of the time, it’s up to the pitchers to control the running game. Adam Ottavino does not control the running game. This season, on average, runners tried to steal in about 5% of their opportunities. Here are the pitchers with the ten highest attempt rates.

Highest Steal Attempt Rates
Pitcher Opportunities SB CS Attempt%
Adam Ottavino 108 24 3 25.0%
Sam Dyson 101 14 5 18.8%
Tyler Glasnow 146 21 6 18.5%
Noah Syndergaard 226 32 3 15.5%
Trevor Cahill 143 15 7 15.4%
Fernando Rodney 108 14 2 14.8%
Ryan Borucki 146 16 3 13.0%
Steven Matz 240 28 2 12.5%
Sam Gaviglio 184 18 5 12.5%
Chad Green 113 8 6 12.4%
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

Ottavino by a mile. Ottavino by five times the average. We can look at something else, going back to 2002. Here are the highest single-season rates of steals per nine innings.

Highest Steals Per 9, 2002 – 2018
Pitcher Season IP SB SB/9
Adam Ottavino 2018 77.7 24 2.78
Tommy Hanson 2013 73.0 21 2.59
Dellin Betances 2016 73.0 21 2.59
Fernando Rodriguez 2012 70.3 20 2.56
Gil Meche 2010 61.7 17 2.48
Chris Young 2009 76.0 20 2.37
Noah Syndergaard 2016 183.7 48 2.35
Frank Francisco 2011 50.7 13 2.31
Chris Young 2007 173.0 44 2.29
Brandon Lyon 2012 61.0 15 2.21

Ottavino again. Steals might be in decline, league-wide, but not when Ottavino’s on the hill. And maybe you noticed in that first table that Ottavino has also racked up three caught steals. At least they’ve failed some of the time. Here’s Freddy Galvis getting thrown out trying:

Just not a great jump. And the pitch was easy for the catcher to receive. But one of the other failed base-stealers was…Matt Wieters.

Wieters is one of the slowest runners in baseball. Even he thought it was worth a try. And here’s Paul DeJong, with the third and final failed steal attempt:

DeJong actually beat the throw. Initially, DeJong was safe. The problem was that he over-slid. You could say that Paul DeJong was too safe. One of the caught steals, then, gets an asterisk. And one of the other ones gets a different kind of asterisk, since Matt Wieters has stolen all of eight bases in his ten-year major-league career. Wieters gave it a go, because even *he* thought he’d have enough time. He was just barely wrong, but when Matt Wieters thinks he might be able to steal off you, you shouldn’t feel great about your timing.

And that’s what this is about. Adam Ottavino is, simply, slow to the plate. I don’t have anything Statcast-y, but, anecdotally, I have him timed around 1.6 – 1.7 seconds. With runners on base, pitchers usually try to get to the plate in about 1.3 seconds. The Rockies’ catchers are fine, but they’re not superheroes. Those extra tenths of a second are important. They make all of the difference. It’s also possible, if not probable, that Ottavino doesn’t do a great job of varying his tempo. Pretty clearly, he must be easy for runners to read. Gore took advantage, but you don’t have to be Terrance Gore here to get a great jump.

To be sure, the most important thing for Ottavino is retiring the hitter. Runners can do whatever they want so long as Ottavino doesn’t allow many hits. I don’t think you’re going to see a guy steal home. And you can’t steal without reaching first, and reaching against Ottavino is tough. Good pitchers have succeeded despite stolen-base problems before. I just think this is something worth keeping an eye on, since Ottavino could and should end up throwing some very important innings. The Rockies are facing the Brewers, and the Brewers just finished fourth in baseball in stolen bases. The Brewers are a reasonably aggressive base-running team. If they get chances against Ottavino, I expect them to go. Moving runners up improves the likelihood of scoring them. And any runs scored against Ottavino are likely to be critical.

You never know what in a series is going to make the difference. And Adam Ottavino makes himself very tough to hit. It’s not at all like the Rockies should try to stay away from him. He just comes with a certain vulnerability. The Brewers have surely prepared.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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5 years ago

Anecdotally, I think that Kenley Jansen is one of the slowest to the plate. But since he’s a closer, he gets a lot of defensive indifference, which don’t count as SB. Wonder how including DI would change the numbers.

5 years ago
Reply to  @3_2count

Good point. A lot of the worst ones probably don’t get charged with SB.