A favorite question of the baseball audience is, when does a small sample start to have meaning? There are a few general rules of thumb, but in large part it’s still a question, I think, because there is no perfect answer. It can be a gut thing, or it can be a matter of magnitude. I don’t care if a batter starts out 6-for-10 with three home runs. I’d care a lot more if a batter were to start out 8-for-10 with six home runs. Some performances over small samples are so very good — or so very bad — that there almost has to be signal. Even over a short amount of time, it’s hard for a player to fluke his way into the extremes.
Over the winter, the Rockies invested heavily in their bullpen. You could argue they invested *too* heavily, but, well, this is the bullpen era, and you’d figure the Rockies, of all teams, might need to keep theirs both deep and refreshed. It’s a bullpen with plenty of interesting arms, but the most important reliever might be Adam Ottavino. In the past, Ottavino has been genuinely dominant. Last season, he came off the rails, with a walk rate of 16%. With a bad Ottavino, the Colorado bullpen might not be a strength. With a good Ottavino, it would go four or five deep.
It’s early. But, as early as it is, Ottavino has faced 34 batters, and he’s struck out 22 of them. He’s walked one guy, he’s allowed one run, and he’s given up two hits. Nearly half of all swing attempts against Ottavino have missed. Nearly half of all swing attempts against Ottavino pitches in the strike zone have missed. Only Josh Hader might rival what Ottavino has done. This is a small sample that’s so good, it’s crying out to be investigated.
The results are almost unbelievable. It turns out Ottavino also has an exceptional process.
Since it’s hard to say what’s mattered and what hasn’t, we can go over everything. Under the hood, there are some mechanical tweaks. For example, here’s Ottavino against right-handed batters:
Ottavino, now, is pitching more from the first-base side. Here’s Ottavino against left-handed batters:
No huge change there. In the past, Ottavino pitched from the first-base side against lefties, and he shifted over against righties. He’s not doing that anymore — he’s chosen one spot, and stuck with it. Now, Ottavino has been good from different spots before. He only started to struggle in 2017. But, again, we might as well just point out changes he’s made. Perhaps present Ottavino is more comfortable dealing with consistent angles. Moving on, you’ll notice that Ottavino has a cross-fire delivery. Yet there could be something here, too.
Compared to the image on the left, the image on the right is of a more direct path to the plate. It’s still cross-fire, but less so; look at the front foot position, relative to the rubber. Perhaps last year, Ottavino was overdoing it. He might’ve gotten himself more in line, and, as long as I’ve got these images nearby, scroll up to the previous ones again, the screenshots taken at release. Last year, the back foot was already up. Now it’s down, on or near the mound. That’s just suggestive of better timing. Long story short, Ottavino appears to have more efficient mechanics.
The mechanics might be something. I guess it’s possible they might be almost everything. And on top of that, Ottavino has adjusted his own repertoire — he’s almost completely eliminated his four-seam fastball variety, making it up with more sinkers. That’s notable for being something deliberate. But I want to hurry up and get to my favorite part of this. So far, this all seems kind of normal. And even this plot seems kind of normal. Here is Ottavino’s year-to-year slider usage:
Ottavino has always thrown a lot of sliders. This year, he’s throwing a few more sliders. Nothing to write home about. Plenty of relievers throw a lot of sliders. But look at what happens when you break Ottavino’s slider usage down by count:
This is it. This is where the story takes a turn. Before, when Ottavino was ahead in the count, he threw about 50% sliders, give or take. Right now, he’s at 24%. And, before, when Ottavino was behind or even in the count, he threw about 45% sliders. Right now, he’s at 70%. Adam Ottavino has turned the standard pitching model on its head. He’s using his best putaway pitch in fastball situations. And when you’d think a slider would be coming, Ottavino has attacked with a bunch of sinkers.
Maybe you can already tell this is weird. In case you can’t, this should make it obvious. Let’s take a look at every pitcher in baseball who’s thrown at least 50 pitches while ahead, and at least 50 pitches while behind or even. Here are their breaking-ball usages. Ottavino is the point in yellow.
Ottavino is just out there on an island. The average pitcher has a higher breaking-ball rate when ahead in the count, by ten percentage points. Ottavino has a higher breaking-ball rate when behind or even in the count, by 46 percentage points. The closest pitcher to him would be Ross Stripling, who has a difference in that direction of 21 percentage points. That’s hardly comparable. No one else is following the Ottavino path.
On Monday, Ottavino finished off the Pirates 1-2-3, with a pair of strikeouts. His outing began with a plate appearance against Starling Marte. Ottavino came with a first-pitch slider for a strike.
Ahead 0-and-1, Ottavino then missed up with a rare cutter.
With the count even, Ottavino returned to the slider. The pitch caught a lot of the plate, but Marte fouled it off.
As a consequence, Ottavino was ahead 1-and-2. Historically, that would’ve called for a slider. Ottavino went instead with a fastball.
Ottavino’s velocity is fine, but it’s hardly overpowering. Nevertheless, you see Marte swing and miss with something of an emergency hack. Marte was very clearly expecting a low-away slider. Marte has always gotten a steady diet of low-away sliders, and you’d expect those from a pitcher with Ottavino’s background. Ottavino used that against him and got the strikeout. Right after, he did it again, to Josh Bell.
At a certain point, batters are going to catch on. Expectations start to change when pitchers give batters a reason to change their expectations. But at least for now, Ottavino is catching the world by surprise, and as long as he’s locating as well as he is, he’s going to be the successful reliever he was before last season’s disappointment. The nightmare of 2017 is now a distant memory. Present Ottavino is thriving by flipping slider usage on its head. If and when batters adjust to that, Ottavino will be ready to adjust right back. As such, Adam Ottavino is firmly in control of his outings.
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.