Adam Ottavino Keeps Them Guessing

Adam Ottavino has had a strange 2019. Last year, he reinvented his game in a single offseason. This year, he’s mostly sticking with what worked in 2018, and the results have been pretty good. Despite pitching in homer-happy Yankee Stadium, he’s posted a 1.80 ERA (39 ERA-), and his strikeout rate is a gaudy 32.2%. He easily could have been an All-Star, even if his FIP is a less-inspiring, if still good, 3.85. His walk rate, too, has spiked — to 15.8%, near a career high. It’s too early to say whether Ottavino will back up his breakout 2018 or regress closer to his FIP by season’s end.

What it’s not too early to say, however, is that watching Ottavino pitch this year is an absolute joy. His slider, which he throws more than 40% of the time, has always been his calling card, and it’s as fun as ever, taking a great liquid arc across the plate that can make you question physics. His fastball, a hard two-seamer that he uses more like a four-seam fastball, locating it high in the zone, is a delightful offset to the slider. His cutter — well, his cutter isn’t as fun to watch as the other two pitches, but it sits in between them in velocity and movement and helps disguise everything else. What’s so great about Ottavino, though, isn’t just his raw stuff. It’s the way he uses those pitches that is so fun, and this year, he’s using them to get called strikes by the bucketload.

When you picture a 2019 slider in your mind’s eye, you might picture Ottavino’s, or maybe Patrick Corbin’s. Big break, the batter desperately trying to adjust his swing to hit something that’s falling down and away from him, and the catcher blocking a bouncing ball to record a strikeout. Ottavino still has that pitch in his arsenal, of course. Take a look at him going right after noted slider-masher Lourdes Gurriel and coming out on top:

That pitch is a quintessential part of the Ottavino experience, and that seems unlikely to change. Ottavino has always had that pitch, and batters know it. They see a slider around every corner, a Pitching Ninja GIF waiting to happen every time Ottavino throws them a two-strike pitch. This year, he’s working more than ever off of his reputation. Want to keep the bat on your shoulders to avoid swinging at one of those hooks? Ottavino will use that to his advantage. Watch Mitch Haniger take a fastball right over the heart of the plate, thinking it’s a slider that will dive off the corner:

It’s not just fastballs, either. Ottavino can get you with a slider in the zone, too. Jose Altuve sees slider right out of Ottavino’s hand here and bails out, only to have the ball hold the bottom of the zone when he expected it to dive:

Heck, even Ottavino’s cutter has gotten in on the act. The mostly undistinguished pitch has slider-looking spin, and it gets batters to take pitches they really shouldn’t:

All told, Ottavino has struck out 21 batters looking this year, good for 38% of his overall total. That’s not quite the highest rate in the majors, but it’s elite territory, in the top 4% of all pitchers this year. Ottavino is doing it despite a handicap, too: he gets a lot of swinging strikeouts, which makes it harder to have a high ratio of strikeouts looking. Jeremy Hellickson, for example, is first on the list: 60% of his strikeouts this year have been looking. That’s not so much because of his great deception — it’s because he isn’t striking anyone out swinging, with only 12 such strikeouts on the year in 39 innings pitched.

In this respect, Ottavino is unique. No one combines a high strikeout rate with tons of looking strikeouts the way he does. None of the 12 players with a higher looking-strikeout percentage strike out as many batters as he does. None even come close. The next-best looking strikeout percentage among pitchers with a K% as high as Ottavino’s or higher is fellow slider-machine Andrew Miller, who records 28% of his strikeouts without a swing, 82nd percentile in baseball. No one is doing what Ottavino is doing, in other words.

The cause of all these silly-looking punchouts (honestly, Robinson Chirinos, that’s one of the best pitches you’ll get to hit this year, and you took it for a strikeout) seems clear — batters are doing their best not to chase. Batters swing at 47.9% of two-strike pitches from Ottavino, which is a career low by a lot and the lowest rate in baseball among pitchers with 100 two-strike pitches this year. How much of an outlier is this? Well, from 2016 to 2018, Ottavino’s swing rates with two strikes were 55.3%, 55.7%, and 55.9%, respectively. 2019 hardly looks like the same pitcher.

Some of this passivity hurts Ottavino. To go with his career-low swing rate with two strikes, he’s getting a career-low amount of two-strike chases — 29.1%, down from 36.9% last year. A two-strike chase is essentially the best possible result for a pitcher, and those have been slipping away from him. He’s compensated, though. One of the aforementioned changes Ottavino made in a vacant Manhattan storefront before 2018 was learning to throw his slider for strikes more frequently. This let him throw in the strike zone with two strikes while still using his best pitch, and he took advantage, throwing a career-high 45.3% of two strike pitches in the zone. He’s fallen back from that level somewhat this year, but is still well above league average at 43.8% (against 41.4% for the league as a whole).

If throwing in the zone marginally more frequently than average doesn’t sound exciting to you, you’re right. There’s nothing all that special about it. What’s special is what happens next. Pitches in the zone with two strikes produce near-automatic swings. For example, Ottavino’s teammate Tommy Kahnle has thrown 80 pitches in the strike zone with two strikes this year. Batters have swung at 78 of them. It’s worked well for Kahnle (he’s striking out 35.5% of batters he faces this year), because his stuff is amazing, but when you throw in the zone on a put-away pitch, batters are just going to swing. Josh Hader gets swings on 95.2% of his two-strike pitches in the zone. Jacob deGrom is at 94.1%. High numbers here don’t mean you’re a bad pitcher, in other words. It’s just natural.

Ottavino? He’s not like those other pitchers. Batters have swung at 71.4% of the two-strike pitches he’s thrown in the zone this year. That’s ludicrously low. Only nine pitchers in baseball are even below 80%. Contact has never been more valuable than this year, what with the home run spike. Strikeouts have never been more likely when batters reach two-strike counts. Batters should consider a pitch in the zone with two strikes a victory, a chance to turn a bad situation into a great success. Instead, they’re watching pitches go by and heading back to the dugout. If that sounds crazy, that’s because it is.

No one in the last 10 years has had a full season like that. The closest I could find was 2012 Andrew Miller, who compiled a 66.7% rate in an abbreviated campaign, his first as a reliever. What Ottavino’s doing, in other words, is close to being without precedent. The only other pitcher who he somewhat resembles is Miller, a singular case himself.

The result of this is a conundrum worthy of The Princess Bride. Batters know that Ottavino has a slider, so clearly they shouldn’t swing with two strikes. They know that Ottavino knows they won’t swing, though — so clearly they must swing, or he’ll throw it by them in the strike zone. But wait! Ottavino knows that they know that he knows that they won’t swing, so clearly they can’t swing, because he’ll prey on their expectations of strikes and throw them sliders out of the zone. It’s all a riveting game-theoretical puzzle, and Ottavino’s been getting the best of it this year.

Like the Dread Pirate Roberts, however, Ottavino isn’t playing fair. Batters have guessed right and swung at pitches in the strike zone 65 times this year with two strikes. That’s the best outcome they could hope for — a hitter-friendly location in a decidedly unfriendly count. What happens when they get into this favorable situation? Well, basically they wilt. They outright miss 26.2% of the time. When they do put the ball in play, they’re producing a .346 wOBA, well below league average production on contact. Put it all together, and guessing right is almost immaterial — Ottavino has allowed a .194 wOBA in this seemingly bad situation, where he throws a hittable pitch and batters swing at it. Leaguewide wOBA in this situation (two strikes, pitch in the strike zone, and batter swinging) is .285. Essentially, Ottavino doesn’t care what the batter does; he wins either way.

Ottavino’s season isn’t all sunshine and lollipops. He’s walking more batters and allowing more home runs than he did last year. In a stacked Yankees bullpen, he’s not the top option, and maybe not even the second option — he’s third on the team in average entry leverage. What he is, though, is a delight to watch. Catch an inning of Josh Hader, and you know what’s going to happen. He’s coming after the batter with a fastball, and the batter is probably going to miss it. That’s exciting in its own way, but it can’t compare to the variety of an Ottavino appearance. Will he bend batters’ knees with a sweeping slider? Will he throw a pipe-shot cutter that gets taken for a strikeout? The world is his oyster, and I, for one, can’t get enough of it.

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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Lunch Anglemember
4 years ago

This was so much fun