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2021 in Review: Adam Ottavino was steady, if unspectacular

A fine, nondescript season out of the bullpen.

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American League Championship Series Game 6: Boston Red Sox v. Houston Astros Photo by Michael Starghill/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Welcome to our 2021 Boston Red Sox in Review series. This is, as you can probably guess, where we will be reviewing all of the players who made at least a modest impact on the Red Sox in 2021. Every week day we’ll be deep diving into one player, describing the season in a sentence, looking at the positives from the year as well as negatives, looking back at our one big question from our season preview and looking ahead to the 2022 season. Today we look at Adam Ottavino’s 2021.

2021 in one sentence

Adam Ottavino seemed to always be teetering on the edge of losing his high-leverage role, but he generally stayed in that role all year with middling results.

The Positives

Although I think when we think about Adam Ottavino at his best, and this includes his time with the New York Yankees before his trade to Boston, we think of his sweeping slider making batters look silly, what really sets the veteran apart when he’s working at peak form is his ability to keep the ball in the yard and induce weak contact. Overall his 2021 was middling, to put it diplomatically, but in a league whose offense is more and more based on home runs, he was elite at keeping the ball in the yard. He allowed only five homers on the year for a rate of just 0.7 per nine innings. Among pitchers who threw at least 60 innings (Ottavino threw 62), he was in the top 15 percent in terms of home run rate.

Often when we talk about pitchers being great at limiting the long ball, it’s because they excel at keeping the ball on the ground. But that’s not the case here. Instead, Ottavino just throws with so much movement that, while he does allow a good number of fly balls, they just aren’t hit hard and aren’t hit far. To that end, per Baseball Savant the veteran was in the top seven percent in average exit velocity and top five percent in hard-hit rate. He still gave up his fair share of hits, but knowing what we know about the contact he was allowing as well as what we know about the defense playing behind him, I have a hard time putting the .316 batting average on balls in play (which isn’t terrible, but higher than his career norms) on the pitcher.

Boston Red Sox v Tampa Bay Rays Photo by Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images

Another positive development as the year went on for Ottavino was the implementation of his four-seam fastball back into his repertoire. This is an offering that had largely been shelved in recent years as he’s mainly been a sinker/slider pitcher, but he threw it about 21 percent of the time this season, with that usage ticking up as the year went on. The last time he threw it more than two percent of the time (again, per Baseball Savant) was back in 2017.

And the pitch worked well. With opponents presumably focusing on the bottom of the zone and the outer half, the four-seam allowed him to give different looks and the pitch was his best on a per-pitch basis. It induced a 33 percent whiff rate, the highest among his three main offerings, and the same goes for the .192 wOBA and .235 expected wOBA against the pitch. Whether or not he can have this success moving forward as opponents are more ready for it is an open question, but it was a nice change of pace in 2021.

And finally, we should highlight how good the veteran was in the beginning of the season. Coming off a strange 2020 in which his overall numbers looked back but were largely impacted by one horrendous outing in the shortened season, he quickly made Red Sox fans feel good about the rare Boston/New York deal. He ended the first half pitching to a 2.68 ERA and allowing a wOBA of .269. wOBA is an all-encompassing offensive stat on the same scale of OBP, and he didn’t allow a mark over .300 in any of the first three months.

The Negatives

For all of those positives above, Ottavino still finished with a largely average 4.21 ERA, which is fine but not really what you’re looking for from the guy who was effectively the number two in the bullpen for the majority of the season. And the negatives start with what has always been his downfall: Control. While the sweeping movement on his pitches leads to plenty of weak contact, it also leads to a ton of walks. He finished the year with a 12.7 percent walk rate, which is exactly four percentage points higher than league-average. He hit the zone at a rate of just 47 percent, the lowest of his career, and batters were happy to keep the bat on their shoulders and take first base for free. It’s hard to keep runs off the board with free runners on the bases.

Earlier in his career, Ottavino was able to counteract the walks with both weak contact and strikeouts, but the latter was more of a challenge for him in 2021. While he still struck out well over a batter per inning, it’s a bit misleading because more walks is more batters per inning, which obviously leads to a higher K/9. This is why percentage rate stats are better, and Ottavino’s 25.7 percent strikeout rate was his lowest since 2014 and only slightly above average. The big issue was his slider inducing whiffs at only a 27.6 percent rate, his lowest ever according to Baseball Savant. Given the age it’s not a huge surprise, but it’s hard for Ottavino to mask his walks with only middling strikeout rates.

The Big Question

Can Adam Ottavino avoid the heart of the plate?

As we talked about above, Ottavino did indeed do a better job of avoiding hard contact, and part of that was avoiding the heart of the zone. More importantly, though, I think was the addition of the four-seam. Adding a third pitch left batters more off balance and allowed him to more easily get away with any of these mistakes.

2022 and Beyond

Ottavino is a free agent at the moment as he was in the last year of his contract when he was traded to the Red Sox. Given how much help the Red Sox need in the bullpen a reunion is possible, though if it happens it wouldn’t be for the same role. More generally, I think the veteran can still hang on to a major-league role for another year or two, but he’s more of a middle reliever at this point than a late-inning arm.