Last offseason, the Yankees gave Adam Ottavino a three-year, $27 million contract, a move that added yet another high octane arm to their already-loaded bullpen. And unlike some reliever contracts, it has worked out quite well thus far.
Ottavino had a solid first year in New York. His 1.90 ERA was a career-best, as was his 2.5 RA9-WAR. His 3.44 FIP (74 FIP-) and 4.32 xFIP (94 xFIP-) suggested that he was probably quite a bit worse than his ERA indicated, due to a year-over-year strikeout rate that fell from 36% to 31% and a walk rate that ballooned from 12% to 14%. So, yes, Ottavino wasn’t nearly as dominant in 2019 as he was the year before, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t useful in the Big Apple. His 1.3 WAR ranked 22nd among all relievers and second on the team.
We could dig deeper into Ottavino’s 2019 campaign if we so desired, but that’s not why he’s relevant right now. The 66 and third innings he pitched during the regular season were important, but they are not nearly as meaningful as the two and one-third innings he’s pitched so far this postseason. Ottavino has faced just 18 hitters this October, but the Yankees have already been ridiculed for “making a big mistake” in sticking with him.
Perhaps this is a fair argument; Ottavino’s October results certainly reflect the rationale behind the criticism. Of the 18 batters he has faced, seven of them have recorded hits, three more have walked, and just seven have made outs. The slash line against Ottavino is ugly: .467/.556/.800.
None of those numbers are likely sustainable, but in the postseason, we don’t care nearly as much about sustainability. The numbers describe what has happened, and for Ottavino, what has happened hasn’t been good.
In Game 2 of the ALCS, Ottavino allowed a game-tying solo home run to George Springer on his first pitch of the game. Joe Buck couldn’t even finish saying, “Here’s Ottavino” before having to pivot to “Here’s a high fly ball to left. . .” The rest of the inning didn’t go swimmingly, either. The next batter, Michael Brantley, struck out swinging but reached on a wild pitch. Then José Altuve singled on a groundball to shortstop that Didi Gregorius could likely have handled had he been playing deeper. After Alex Bregman struck out, Ottavino’s evening was complete: a third of an inning, two hits, one run, two strikeouts, no walks. Outside of the one bad pitch to Springer, though, his night wasn’t really as bad as it seems.
In Game 3, the blame is more attributable to Ottavino, though New York was already down 2-0 in the seventh inning. We gave them just a 17% chance to win the game upon Ottavino’s entrance. He faced two batters, and didn’t help the cause, walking Springer and allowing a single to Altuve. Both runs ultimately scored, Ottavino was charged with them, and his -0.09 WPA was the lowest of any Yankees pitcher that evening.
In Game 4, Ottavino again entered in a low-leverage situation; this time, the Yankees had just a 8% chance to win. The first batter, Bregman, doubled to left on a scorching, 101 mph line drive. The next batter, Yuli Gurriel, grounded sharply to first. The ball squirted right through DJ LeMahieu’s wickets, Bregman advanced to third, and Ottavino was removed from the game. This appearance resulted in some history — Ottavino became the first pitcher ever with four appearances without recording an out in a single postseason.
Despite the clear record of failure, I have a hard time assigning blame to Ottavino alone. That’s why I felt for him as he exited the mound on Thursday evening to a chorus of boos. Small samples complicate how we evaluate players, and it’s hard to definitively say that anything is wrong here. Yes, it’s unfortunate that Ottavino hasn’t been successful. But, in the same breath, can it really be explained? Ottavino himself didn’t have answers when asked about this blip in performance, flatly telling Joel Sherman of the New York Post, “I am consistently not getting the job done. That is frustrating.”
The stuff still seems to be there, so is the control off? Ottavino has walked 16.7% of the batters he’s faced this postseason over seven appearances. Of the 67 different seven-game samples Ottavino had this season, he walked at least 16.7% of batters in 24 of them. This happening in a seven-game postseason sample isn’t out of the realm of possibility based on his regular season data, though it’s far from pre-ordained either. Is he not as dominant? This seems potentially more likely; he did not have a stretch of seven games this season with a strikeout rate lower than his postseason figure of 16.7%.
As a result of these strikeout and walk numbers, we can conclude that hitters are putting the ball in play against Ottavino more often than we’d otherwise expect. That could be an issue, but it’s been amplified by the fact that he’s being BABIP’d to death. His BABIP allowed so far this postseason is .545, over 100 points higher than his highest seven-game sample this season. The last time Ottavino had a seven-game sample with a BABIP this high was in 2014. Seriously. His expected batting average on all contact this postseason is .292, 175 points lower than his actual .467 figure. That’s the fourth-highest difference of any pitcher with at least 10 batters faced this postseason.
Check out some of these plays, and you’ll be able to understand why this all makes sense.
Here’s Example 1, from Ottavino’s clean Game 1 outing:
Example 2, the aforementioned Gregorius misplay in Game 2:
Example 3, the strikeout wild pitch:
Example 4, another situation which didn’t result in a hit, but did cost Ottavino an out:
Without a doubt, the Yankees’ defense negatively impacts all four of those plays. It’s impossible to know how Ottavino’s results would have shifted — baseball events cannot be treated independently from one another — but it’s not hard to see where the small sample size has hurt his overall numbers.
So, as the Yankees face elimination in Game 5 tonight with James Paxton on the hill, Ottavino remains an important piece. They cannot afford to lose confidence in him. The rain, which results in the possibility of games on four consecutive days, didn’t help the Yankees’ bullpen strategy. Neither did Masahiro Tanaka only lasting five innings on Thursday. If the Yankees want to win this series, Ottavino will need to find his old, dominant ways, and hope that he benefits from a stroke of better luck.
Devan Fink is a Contributor at FanGraphs. You can follow him on Twitter @DevanFink.