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One Big Question: Can Adam Ottavino avoid the heart of the plate?

He could be a huge addition to the Red Sox’ bullpen.

New York Yankees v New York Mets Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

Welcome to the annual Over The Monster One Big Question season preview series. Over the next 40(ish) days, we will be running through every player on the 40-man roster and identifying a key question for them pertaining to the coming season. This should run us up to the start of the season, at least as it is scheduled now. We will go through the roster in alphabetical order. For the most part, these will run Monday through Friday every week running up to the week before Opening Day, though expect some weekend posts mixed in as well as the 40-man is expected to continue to be altered before the start of the season. You can catch up with every post by following this link. Today we take a look at Adam Ottavino.

The Question: Can Adam Ottavino avoid the heart of the plate?

As a member of the New York Yankees, Adam Ottavino had quite a rough 2020 (didn’t we all). Despite signing a lucrative three-year, $27 million contract and dominating in 2019, he pitched to the tune of a 5.89 ERA this past year and seemingly lost the trust of Yankee manager Aaron Boone. In the playoffs, Ottavino threw just two-thirds of an inning, in which he gave up a run, and didn’t appear in any high-leverage situations.

Over his career, Ottavino has traditionally been great at limiting hard contact. In each season from 2017 through 2019, his exit velocity allowed was in the top 10 percent of the league, and in 2019, it was in the top one percent of the league. This ability to induce weak contact combined with lots of swings and misses is what has allowed Ottavino to become one of the most feared relievers in the league. However, in 2020, even if a lot of his ERA issues can be blamed on one bad outing, overall his pitches were hit harder than ever. His exit velocity allowed increased by over five mph compared to the previous season, and his hard-hit rate ballooned to an astonishing 50%, which ranked in the bottom two percent of the league. All of that data is per Baseball Savant’s Statcast numbers.

The cause of these increases? Ottavino was simply leaving too many pitches over the heart of the plate. His Meatball rate, which measures the percentage of middle-middle pitches thrown to batters, finished at 12.4% - over five percentage points above the major-league average, and way above his career average. As you can see in the chart below, almost half of his hits allowed came from pitches right down the middle.

2020; via Baseball Savant

Ottavino’s percentage of balls thrown in the strike zone sat at a career high as well. He excels at getting hitters to chase pitches out of the zone, and leaving too many pitches in hittable places is obviously a recipe for disaster. Take a look at Ottavino’s 2019 Whiff rate chart, and how many swings and misses he got from pitches low-and-away (mostly to righties) and high-and-away (mostly to lefties) that were out of the strike zone.

2019; via Baseball Savant

Keep in mind, as with every player in 2020, we’re dealing with a small sample size. Ottavino appeared in just 24 games last year, and I don’t think his 2020 season is indicative of the caliber of player that he is. Although his ERA was ugly, he did still finish with a 3.52 FIP and a 3.75 xERA (expected ERA). However, that’s not to say his 2020 stats should be pushed aside. His results on the field were enough to lose Aaron Boone’s trust, and for the Yankees to trade him for literally nothing. In fact, they had to package him with a prospect so the Sox would take on the final year of his contract. Here’s to hoping that’s a little motivation for Ottavino.

To conclude, the key for Adam Ottavino in 2021 will be to avoid the heart of the plate as much as possible. You might hear the classic “just throw strikes” complaint a lot this year, especially for pitchers like Ottavino who struggle with walks from time to time. However, as evidenced in his 2019 season, Ottavino’s pitch mix is so deceptive that he can rely on balls out of the strike zone to fool hitters. If he can successfully avoid the heart of the plate, he’ll give up much less hard contact, and he’ll be right back to his 2019 form.