How Adam Ottavino Turned His Career Around

© Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports

When the Mets signed Adam Ottavino to a one-year, $4 million deal this past offseason, you could imagine how the move might work out for them – or not. To an optimist, Ottavino seemed like a low-risk gamble with prominent upside. To a pessimist, he seemed more like an aging pitcher in decline, especially after a mediocre stint in Boston. But you’d be lying if you said you predicted Ottavino would put up the second-lowest ERA (2.13) and FIP (3.07) of his career at age 36. You could describe the Mets as having caught lightning in a bottle, but that would be an affront to the effort Ottavino has put into sharpening his game, a feat not many players his age manage.

Let’s start with what hasn’t changed. Ottavino’s signature pitch, a flying saucer of a slider that abducts the souls of hitters, is still moving like it used to. There haven’t been any improvements made to it, because stuff-wise, it’s a near-perfect pitch, with Ottavino having pushed the envelope years ago. His two fastballs – a four-seamer and sinker – also haven’t regressed in terms of movement, and though the velocities on both are down, Ottavino’s success has never really been tied with how hard he throws. What matters is that he’s maintained enough velocity: At 94.9 mph, Ottavino’s four-seam fastball is a smidge above league average. In sum, his late-career turnaround hasn’t been because of an uptick in raw stuff. The major ingredients for an outstanding Ottavino outing remain the same.

How about pitch mix? I’m afraid you won’t find a satisfying answer here, either. Compared to last season, Ottavino is throwing his sinker more, and his slider and four-seamer less, but none of those alterations have been dramatic. They certainly could be contributing to Ottavino’s resurgence, but they don’t seem like the sole reason. This season, Ottavino has reintroduced his changeup, presumably to give him a backup plan against left-handed hitters. But given a usage rate of 7%, it’s not as if he’s been relying on the slow ball. And regardless, lefties are faring well against Ottavino, just like they always have. It would make for an appealing narrative, but in truth, the changeup hasn’t been much of a difference-maker.

Thankfully, we don’t have look much further, or get into the nitty-gritty of advanced metrics. Below is a graph that doesn’t need to be embellished with paragraphs of analysis:

For the first time in a long while, Ottavino doesn’t have a walk problem. And consider that prior to 2017, he didn’t have the slider shape we’ve come to associate with him. At the ripe age of 36, Ottavino has not only managed to maintain his stuff, but also cut his walk rate in half along the way. The subsequent results speak for themselves, and it’s no surprise to see him become an integral part of the Mets bullpen.

Once I saw what Ottavino had accomplished, I knew I had to investigate. First, I needed to know if he was throwing more strikes than before. More strikes equal fewer balls, which equal fewer walks. Imagine if baseball was that easy, though! Contrary to what you might expect, Ottavino’s zone rate this season is… very similar to what he’s recorded in the recent past:

Adam Ottavino’s Zone Rate by Year
Year Overall When Behind
2018 49.3% 53.9%
2019 49.3% 52.5%
2020 55.5% 64.3%
2021 47.3% 51.7%
2022 48.3% 56.7%
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

To be fair, if we slice and dice the data to only include instances when Ottavino is behind in the count, his zone rate is up by a decent amount. It’s on track to be the highest since his breakout 2018, in fact, if you exclude the shortened ‘20 season. Ottavino has clearly been finding the zone more often when it matters. But remember, we’re not dealing with a slight decrease in walks here. If we’re going to fully account for how Ottavino has become such a Scrooge when it comes to free passes, a higher rate of strikes alone just won’t cut it.

Here’s something that not many fans know: Compared to his zone rate, a pitcher’s chase rate (i.e. how often opposing hitters swing against their pitches outside the zone) has a stronger correlation to his walk rate. Throwing strikes is crucial, of course, but so is having a repertoire of pitches that allows you to get away with missing your spots. Sequencing, stuff, deception – these are all elements that can turn a bad process into a good outcome. In the past, Ottavino did not have much room for error. Seriously, for years, he ran one of the lowest chase rates in the league, and I mean first percentile low. Put another way, a guy like Ottavino bears the full brunt of a pitch outside the zone, and subsequently pays the price. What happens when you combine shoddy command with an inability to produce out-of-zone swings? Lots and lots of free passes, that’s what.

At this point, we’re confronted with an odd dichotomy. Ottavino’s stuff is undeniably great, and yet he’s unable to get hitters to chase. What’s up with that? This isn’t a perfect explanation, but it helps to understand that neither of Ottavino’s fastballs are fit to garner chases. His four-seamer doesn’t have a Spencer Strideresque shape that makes it possible to climb the ladder, and sinkers traditionally don’t find success outside the zone. As for his slider, let’s get a proper look at it:

It’s ridiculous, sure. But because Ottavino’s slider is so lethargic and has an enormous bend, I assume it’s easier to recognize its trajectory, to anticipate that it will loop outside the zone and thus ignore it. The trouble begins when hitters attempt to crush a slider inside the zone, only to be overwhelmed by its lateral movement. That’s how Ottavino has earned his keep, and rightfully so. Still, the point remains: Due to the nature of his two fastballs and one enormous breaking ball, he’s largely been unable to exert pressure beyond the strike zone – that is, until now. This season, hitters just can’t help themselves. They’re swinging at Ottavino sliders outside the zone! As proof, here’s a neat little graph:

The fastballs have remained stagnant, but look at the slider go! Last season, Ottavino ranked in the sixth percentile in chase rate per Baseball Savant. This season, he ranks in the 42nd percentile, mostly thanks to what we can see above. It’s the kind of marked improvement we’ve been searching for, one that, in tandem with slightly better accuracy in unfavorable counts, summarizes how Ottavino has managed to curb the walks. But a big question lingers. If he’s throwing basically the exact same breaking ball as before, what’s making hitters want to go after it? Is there something we’ve overlooked?

A reasonable guess is that Ottavino is setting up the slider with a heavier diet of sinkers than before, perhaps realizing the two pitches create the perfect pair. But really, the secret seems simple: He’s been commanding the slider as if his life depends on it. I know heat maps aren’t perfect, but they’re the best medium I have for conveying the progress Ottavino has made. Here’s a comparison between his slider locations last season (left) and this season (right). See if you can spot the differences:

There’s the initial concentration of sliders, as indicated by the darker red and orange hues. If Ottavino’s locations had been more scattershot before, he’s now honed in on the outer edges of the plate. But more importantly, if you consider the entire blob, you’ll notice that it has tightened up a great deal. There’s a lack of bad misses this season – misses that land up-and-in or down-and-in, where right-handed batters are unlikely to swing. Even when Ottavino fails to dot the corner, he’s still ending up down-and-away. Again, heat maps are flawed. But watch a couple Ottavino outings at random, and you’ll find that his location pattern is impressively consistent. All these sliders are headed in the general direction of where they’re supposed to, and as a result, hitters have been willing to swing away.

If that feels like an underwhelming answer, it’s understandable. As far as I can tell, Ottavino isn’t hiding any wacky tricks up his sleeve. He still has the same pitch mix, the same cross-fire delivery, the same most everything. But it’s believable that a step forward in slider command can catalyze a chain reaction of sorts. Suddenly, hitters are offering at pitches outside the zone, and that in turn is leading to fewer walks. Meanwhile, Ottavino has been healthy, and he’s thrived in high-leverage spots. With the way he’s executing his pitches, I don’t see why he won’t continue to dominate.

Justin is a contributor at FanGraphs. His previous work can be found at Prospects365 and Dodgers Digest. His less serious work can be found on Twitter @justinochoi.

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1 year ago

The author doesn’t do justice to the valuable innings that Ottavino threw for the Red Sox in 2021. He was actually a throw-in, salary dump, so the Red Sox could get Frank German. There is simply no possible way that Boston could have come with in a couple of games of the World Series without his contributions. Except for a week at the end of July and a fade at the end he was very reliable and I am not surprised that he is having continued success with the Mets.