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Adam Ottavino is hitting his stride

Some shaky outings early in the season sparked concern, but Adam Ottavino has settled in nicely as the Red Sox’s top setup man.

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Miami Marlins v. Boston Red Sox Photo by Adam Glanzman/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Interdivisional trades are far from unheard of in baseball, but they certainly raise eyebrows a little more than cross-league swaps because if one team is willing to give up a player to a team they’ll be facing pretty regularly over the years, there’s a reason to believe they don’t think that player is going to come back and bite them. Additionally, when a trade goes down between teams considered to be heated rivals, it adds another level of skepticism. It’s one thing if the Giants and the Diamondbacks complete a deal. Sure, they aren’t wishing well to each other, but there isn’t the same level of history as there would be for a deal between the Giants and the Dodgers.

But like I said, trades between historical interdivisional rivals is not without precedent and much of the surprise comes from the fan perspective. If you are a GM of an MLB team, you probably are less concerned with which team is on the other end of a deal than your fans might be. If you think you’re getting better, who cares who’s on the other end of the trade?

With all that written, when a trade goes off between the Red Sox and Yankees, people are more likely going to give it a second look. After all, even if the rivalry isn’t as heated as it was in the early aughts, the rivalry between the Red Sox and the Yankees is the brand name one in baseball. If it were a soda, it would be Coca-Cola. Maybe Coke isn’t the GOAT of soda anymore, but everyone knows what Coke is and everyone knows that Coke doesn’t trade its recipes with Pepsi. OK, this analogy is falling apart, so let’s quickly exit it.

Back in January, we got one of those rare trades between the Red Sox and the Yankees, as Adam Ottavino was sent packing from the Bronx along with prospect Frank German. Ottavino was clearly the major piece of the deal and it made sense for the Red Sox to go out and try to add relievers with some upside after the bullpen was absolutely terrible in 2020. Although they weren’t trading for the same Ottavino who was lights out in 2018 and 2019 (his first year with the Yankees), the Red Sox needed arms and even following a down 2020, the potential for Ottavino to reclaim some of his former magic (plus the potential of German) was enough to get the Red Sox to make the deal.

Over the first few weeks of the season, it looked like the Yankees had pulled the wool over the Red Sox’s eyes, although certainly not to a Babe Ruthian degree. In Ottavino’s first five appearances of 2021, he allowed four earned runs in 3 23 innings, leading to a 9.82 ERA. He righted the ship a bit from there, but when he let a 3-2 lead against the Texas Rangers slip away by allowing three runs (two were inherited runners that scored off Matt Barnes) with two outs in the eighth inning on May 2, it sparked concern once more about the right-hander’s ability to get outs in key situations. Obviously overreacting to a handful of innings isn’t exactly fair and relievers’ inning totals are so low early in the year that they lend themselves to large fluctuations in statistics, but when you add in the context of Ottavino’s rough 2020 and his age, it wasn’t entirely unreasonable to be uncertain.

Boston Red Sox v Texas Rangers Photo by Ron Jenkins/Getty Images

However, Ottavino has bounced back exceptionally well from that rough outing against Texas and has been easily the best Red Sox reliever not named Matt Barnes in the last month. In his last 12 outings (11 13 innings), Ottavino has allowed just a single earned run while racking up 15 strikeouts, seven holds and two saves. Such a stretch is much more indicative of his entire output this year since he has a 1.53 ERA and 23 strikeouts in 17 23 innings since all those struggles in his first five showings with the Red Sox.

To try to get a handle on what Ottavino is doing differently to elicit better results, let’s simplify things and compare his April production to his May production. Ottavino pitched to a 3.86 ERA, a 2.92 FIP and a 3.66 xFIP in April. In May, while his FIP (3.13) and xFIP (4.28) went up, his ERA (2.25) went down quite significantly. Although those changes in fielding independent numbers could lend themselves to an argument that Ottavino was actually better in April, there’s no denying that he improved at keeping runs off the scoreboard in the second month of the year.

A few factors stick out as the primary drivers of Ottavino’s recent success. It starts with his pitch selection and effectiveness. Early in the year, he was throwing three pitches: a fastball, a slider and a cutter. Although his fastball and slider were both good, his cutter was atrocious, yielding -1.3 runs above average, according to FanGraphs. Since the beginning of May, Ottavino has kept to throwing his fastball and slider exclusively, and its paying off, especially as his slider has been very effective, producing 3.1 runs above average, according to FanGraphs.

With an improved slider and a more focused and effective arsenal, Ottavino has found success, particularly as he’s used his two primary pitches to induce softer contact. In May, Ottavino allowed an average exit velocity of 81.4 miles per hour, which was down two miles per hour compared with April. In addition, he’s also creating more balls on the ground, with a 51.9 percent ground ball rate in May compared with a 47.6 percent rate in April. Those extra ground balls are coming at the expense of line drives, as Ottavino’s line drive rate dropped from 33.3 percent in April to 18.5 percent in May. With more softly struck ground balls and fewer hard hit line drives, Ottavino is allowing fewer hits, helping to deplete his WHIP despite a slightly higher walk rate in May than April.

That last point lends support to the notion that Ottavino still has some stuff to work out. After all, in addition to a higher walk rate in May, he also had a lower strikeout rate during the month compared with April, although that one outlier effort against Texas on May 2 played a large part. (If you take out that showing, Ottavino’s May strikeout and walk rates are better than those in April).

When you look at Ottavino’s overall body of work through the first two months of the year (he has yet to pitch in June), there are things to like and dislike. However, much more evidence is piling up in the former camp and if he continues along the path he stuck to for most of May, Ottavino will be helping the Red Sox win games and a certain trade they made this past winter.