Adam Ottavino Heads to Boston in Unusual Cross-Rival Trade

In a rare swap between rivals, the Yankees sent reliever Adam Ottavino to Boston on Monday, along with pitcher Frank German, in return for future considerations. Also heading to Boston was $850,000 to defray part of Ottavino’s $8 million salary for the 2020 season, the final year of the three-year contract he signed to leave the Rockies after 2018.

Ottavino, one of the Yankees’ top relievers in 2019, had decidedly mixed results last year, putting up a 3.52 FIP but an ERA of nearly six. While Ottavino’s .375 BABIP is almost certainly a bit of bad luck — historically, non-pitchers dragooned into throwing innings have a BABIP in the .330 range — there are a few negative indicators to send us the opposite direction in evaluating him. His contact numbers were down, with nearly career-worsts in contact rate and swinging strikes, and when he was hit in 2020, he was walloped, with a five-mph bump in the average exit velocity. Yes, we’re only talking 50 batted ball events, but a 50% hard-hit rate, even in such a small sample, is a significant deviation from the 29% rate from the previous two seasons.

None of these are reasons to panic, but just something to keep in the back of your mind when looking for a bounceback season from Ottavino. ZiPS is still bullish on him, but Steamer is bearish, and ATC and THE BAT land slightly in the middle. Another thing to take into consideration is that Ottavino was tinkering with his repertoire and spent some of the spring working on a changeup that he didn’t actually use in the regular season.

“I’ve been throwing a changeup all spring,” he said. “Who knows how much I’ll use it in the season, but I’ve been throwing it, trying to get comfortable with it. I’ve also been throwing my four-seamer again a little bit more. I’m not sure how much I’m going to use that either, but I’m trying to add a couple of weapons to the tool chest. You never know when you’re going to need them and maybe it’ll help me when we get to the playoffs again.”

In the end, Ottavino was a very sinker-and-slider pitcher in 2020, largely also missing the usual cutter that, while never an out pitch, provided something “between” the other two pitches.

For the Red Sox, for little but money, they add a pitcher who will likely be their second- or third-best option in the bullpen after Matt Barnes. Boston’s bullpen remains thin at the back even after acquiring Ottavino and signing Matt Andriese. Still, the team has larger concerns, likely needing an upgrade at first, another outfielder, and an additional starting pitcher. Interestingly, the fate of the 2021 Red Sox is one of the biggest disagreements between the current ZiPS projections and the FanGraphs depth chart ranks: The latter has the Red Sox 10th in WAR as I write this, but the former sees the Red Sox as a team slightly under the .500 mark. My personal hypothesis is that the difference derives from how the methodologies handle depth, but we’ll have to wait eight months to see who was right!

ZiPS Projection – Adam Ottavino
2021 6 3 4 3.50 62 0 54.0 41 21 5 33 75 132 0.8

Also heading to Boston is German, a fourth-round pick for the Yankees in 2018. He’s a bit of a lotto pick prospect for the Red Sox and ranked 32nd in our 2020 Yankees list as a hard-thrower who’s missing secondary stuff. He’s also largely an unknown as a college pitcher who hasn’t appeared above high-A ball. At 23 in 2021, he’s likely destined for the bullpen, and ZiPS sees him peaking with an ERA in the mid-fours as a reliever. In other words, someone for the Red Sox to follow, but not anyone they’re going to be factoring to any great degree in any long-term plans.

For the Yankees, this is mostly a salary dump. I only say “mostly” because whether or not you’re bullish on a better 2021 season, the fact remains that the team did apparently lose faith in Ottavino in crucial moments in 2020. By September, he was rarely used in any high-leverage situations, and in total, only 13% of his batters faced in 2020 were in high-leverage situations while 48% were in low-leverage ones — a drastic change from 26% and 33%, respectively, in 2019.

The primary reason for this trade, though, is for the Yankees to shed salary and get some breathing space under the luxury tax threshold. Our numbers now place them with around $8 million to spend before the abject horror of paying a small marginal tax on additional payroll kicks in. That’s enough to bring in a few role players and shore up some holes, but not enough to land one of the top free agents remaining without either dumping more money or changing organizational priorities.

This trade is the first Red Sox-Yankees one since the swap of Stephen Drew and Kelly Johnson in 2014. They’re not teams that trade often, but New York has picked up future Hall of Famers from Boston at a surprising rate: Herb Pennock, Red Ruffing, and Waite Hoyt were all picked up in these trades; Wally Schang ought to be a Hall of Famer; and Sparky Lyle could still end up in Cooperstown at some point. Plus, there’s that George Ruth dude who I think was good. Ottavino’s a fun pitcher when he’s on, but he’s not going to be joining this particular list.

Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.

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David Klein

The Red Sox helping the Yankees get under the luxury tax now I’ve seen it all