Busy Mets Keep On Spending, Bring Back Adam Ottavino on Two-Year Deal

Adam Ottavino
Robert Edwards-USA TODAY Sports

The Mets, in their shopping spree of an off-season, have brought back yet another player from last year’s squad. Joining the already re-signed Brandon Nimmo and Edwin Díaz, Adam Ottavino has also agreed to run it back with a team clearly willing to upgrade wherever necessary in pursuit of a championship. He will earn $14.5 million over the next two seasons, with the opportunity to opt out after 2023.

Ottavino is coming off of arguably the best full season of his career and a major rebound from his previous two years. From 2013 to ’19, he had a 2.90 ERA and 3.34 FIP as one of the only pitchers who could figure out the nightmare of Coors Field. He spent 2020 with the Yankees and ’21 with the Red Sox, where his performance declined a bit but his peripherals were still above average. His 2022, with a 2.05 ERA and 2.85 FIP, was certainly a return to form, but he did so with a newfound skill that he’s excelled in for the first time in his career: limiting walks.

For the first time since 2016, Ottavino had a single-digit walk rate, and in the span of just one offseason he went from dreadful (seventh percentile) to very good (77th percentile) at avoiding free passes. In addition to bringing his strikeout rate back to the level of his Rockies days, he posted the best full-season K-BB% of his career. Not only are these improvements impressive in the context of his own career, but the jump is also an outlier among all major league pitchers; between 2021 and ’22, only three other pitchers had their K-BB% improve more than Ottavino.

Biggest K-BB% Gainers, 2021-22
Name K-BB% Improvement
José Alvarado 18.3%
Edwin Díaz 16.9%
A.J. Minter 12.4%
Adam Ottavino 11.4%
Michael King 11.3%
Sam Hentges 10.3%
Griffin Jax 10.0%
Andrew Heaney 9.8%
Jesús Luzardo 9.8%
Steve Cishek 8.9%
min. 50 innings each season

So what did Ottavino do to halve his walk rate in just one year? Back in August, Justin Choi looked into this exact question and came up with some possible answers, outlining two key differences: improvements in slider command and chase rates.

Let’s talk about the slider first. In terms of pure stuff, Ottavino checks off every single data-driven box with this pitch. His cross-bodied delivery gives him an extreme release point, and he fires off his sliders with 2,700 rpm of spin, leading to the second-most horizontal sweep and fifth-most extreme horizontal approach angle of anyone who threw at least 300 sliders in 2022. Last season, he was able to refine his command of this pitch by keeping it on his glove-side and fading away from right-handed hitters; in previous years, it often backed up, leaking to his arm-side and losing many of the characteristics that make it effective. You can see it in the pitch heat maps below: In 2021, there’s a large blob right around the middle of the zone, but in ’22, the slider was on the outer edge of the plate.

Ottavino executed his slider far better last season, but that didn’t actually result in more pitches being thrown in the strike zone. In fact, his 2022 zone rate of 41% was the second-lowest of his career, but his walk rate still plummeted. That’s because, as Justin pointed out in his piece, avoiding walks is far more complicated than just throwing strikes. Getting hitters to swing at pitches outside the zone (chase rate) has a stronger correlation to walks than throwing strikes (zone rate). For example, the two starting pitchers with the lowest zone rate in 2022, José Quintana and Corbin Burnes, walked fewer hitters than the league average. Just like his walk rate, Ottavino’s chase rate improved from terrible to quite good in just one year; 2022 was his first full season in the Statcast era with a chase rate above the 13th percentile.

Some of this improvement in chase rate is likely due to Ottavino’s command improvements, as he threw fewer sliders that were easy to take. But much of it can be attributed to the tunneling of his pitch arsenal, especially with his sinker and slider. If you’ve been on the internet long enough, you’ve probably seen a video like this:

It’s beautiful: two pitches with similar trajectories diverging significantly out of the hand — 34 inches horizontally, to be exact (using Ottavino’s 2022 averages). But this isn’t exactly what pitch tunneling is. His two main pitches do have mirrored horizontal movement, but they actually tunnel poorly because both have significant differences that make them easily identifiable out of the hand, explaining his poor chase rates throughout his career.

Ottavino made a few slight pitch mix changes to improve his pitch tunnels and thereby his chase rate. First, he threw four-seam fastballs, a pitch that he largely shelved from 2018 to ’20, alongside his sinkers. Additionally, he made tweaks to the shape and usage of his cutter. Cutters can help sinkers tunnel better with sweeping sliders, because hitters can’t sit on one movement type or the other if there’s a hybrid pitch with a movement profile somewhere in the middle. Ottavino only threw 55 cutters in 2022, but he used them much more strategically than in years past; previously only used against right-handed hitters, he threw them to lefties as well to bridge the extreme movements of his two primary pitches. Furthermore, his cutter averaged 29.4 inches of vertical drop, a couple of inches more than any non-Coors season of his career. This helped match the downer action of his sinker and slider, allowing him to raise his slider chase rate by over 10%. That improvement in chase rate led to an improvement in results on contact; both his sinker and slider registered an xwOBA below .250, the first time he’s done so in a full season.

With a more diverse and cohesive arsenal developed over the last season, Ottavino’s only noticeable weakness is his performance against left-handed hitters, who slashed .301/.358/.479 against him — quite similar to the full-season performance of his teammate Starling Marte (.292/.347/.468). While Ottavino reduced the use of his platoon-heavy offerings (sinker, slider) against lefties, the deception that he generates against righties through his delivery and unusual release point make it easier for lefties to see his pitches, generating a large split. He tried to turn to his changeup against opposite-handed hitters, using it at a career-high rate (20.5%), but it was ineffective despite above-average movement characteristics because he lacked feel for location, landing it in the strike zone less than 20% of the time.

The good news is that the Mets can deploy Ottavino more selectively against righty-heavy lineups in the upcoming season. While he served as the primary eighth-inning man in front of Díaz in 2022, New York now has more late-inning options, allowing Buck Showalter to play matchups more strategically. David Robertson’s cutter and curveball give him a career reverse split, and left-handed reliever Brooks Raley held fellow southpaws to a sub-.500 OPS last season. Combined with Díaz, the four make an excellent squad of high-leverage relievers who can handle any matchup.

Mets Relievers 2022 Stats (Percentiles)
Handedness ERA xERA K-BB%
Edwin Díaz R 97 100 100
David Robertson R 83 81 50
Adam Ottavino R 86 97 85
Brooks Raley L 63 88 71
min. 50 innings for ERA and K-BB%

This group is clearly talented, especially at limiting the quality of contact off of opponents’ bats. All four relievers rank in the 90th percentile or better in expected slugging, and they should be a huge boost to a bullpen whose only big weakness last year was the long ball (they ranked 22nd in HR/9). Even with a payroll now sitting at an estimated $376 million, Steve Cohen and the Mets seem to have no plans to stop spending, and Ottavino should bolster a bullpen that already has no shortage of high-leverage arms.

Kyle is a FanGraphs contributor who likes to write about unique players who aren't superstars. He likes multipositional catchers, dislikes fastballs, and wants to see the return of the 100-inning reliever. He's currently a college student studying math education, and wants to apply that experience to his writing by making sabermetrics more accessible to learn about. Previously, he's written for PitcherList using pitch data to bring analytical insight to pitcher GIFs and on his personal blog about the Angels.

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1 year ago

But wait!!! There’s more….

1 year ago
Reply to  tz

This is like the 20th most interesting story on the Mets right now, and Correa is involved in at least 10 of the stories ahead of this one.

Left of Centerfield
1 year ago
Reply to  tz

Please tell me Shirtless Bartolo Colon is next….

1 year ago

Spolier: Cohen’s buying him some shirts

Left of Centerfield
1 year ago
Reply to  HappyFunBall

Cohen’s rich. But he’s not THAT rich…

Shirtless Bartolo Colon
1 year ago

Somebody say “sliders”?