If you were to ask me what GM Dan O'Dowd does well, I would point to his success in unearthing players like Adam Ottavino - struggling starters that become decent players for the team at a bargain price. He (and the team's coaching staff) did it with Jorge De La Rosa, Matt Belisle, and Josh Outman to name a few on this team. I'd rather have him be great at being the architect of a winning team, but we can't always get what we want, can we?
When Dan O'Dowd found Ottavino in 2012, he was a former first round pick (30th overall in 2006) that the St. Louis Cardinals - the paragon of player development - didn't have room for on their 40 man roster. In six-plus seasons in the minors, Ottavino was relatively unimpressive in a starting role against age appropriate competition, especially for a top pick (4.26 ERA, 1.48 WHIP, 7.8 K/9). Still, he had that first round pedigree, a killer slider (more on that below), WBC experience (for Italy in 2009), and the Rockies had an extra 40 man roster spot before Opening Day, so O'Dowd took a flyer on the big righty.
After a month in the minor leagues as a reliever, Ottavino was given a shot to do the same at the big league level and he ran with it, holding his own as a long man - a crucial role in the Great Piggybacking Experiment of 2012. As such, the 27 year-old Ottavino entered 2013 as an entrenched member of a major league club for the first time in his career. In my interview with Adam earlier this year (conducted on 7/21), I asked him that question, and here was his response:
"It feels good, but it's different than when I first got called up to be in the big leagues -- I was probably just happy to be there," Ottavino opined. "Then I wanted to prove that I belonged, and once I feel like I did that I'm not really happy unless I pitch well. It evolves over time: I'm really happy to be here and be a part of this team, but I'm really focused on pitching my best and helping the team win as much as possible."
I found Ottavino to be one of the very best interviews I've done with the Rockies - he's engaging, thoughtful, and not afraid to give an honest assessment of his game.
During Colorado's hot start to 2013, Ottavino was an elite reliever - allowing opponents only an anemic .196/.276/.333 line with a 1.98 ERA and 1.10 WHIP in April. In the season's first half, those numbers were still pretty darn good - opponents hit .229/.308/.343 against him while he provided 47 innings of 2.47 ERA/1.24 WHIP relief. In the second half of the season he struggled a little more. From the interview:
"I pitched really well for the first three months, I was in a good rhythm, really locating everything, attacking hitters. Lately I've really been out of whack. It's a combination of the starters really picking it up -- my innings have really diminished lately, and I'm a guy that needs to pitch often to stay sharp - part of it is that you're going to go through ups and downs throughout a season".
After those ups and downs abated somewhat, Ottavino's line added up to 78 innings of 2.64 ERA, 1.33 WHIP relief for the Rockies. Interestingly his fielding independent pitching (FIP), which measures what the pitcher has control over (HR, BB, K), actually improved from 3.41 in the first half to 2.76 in the second half. Opponents hit .250/.322/.349 against him on the year and Ottavino struck out more than a batter per inning while maintaining a career low walk rate and gave up only five homers on the year.
Grade with the Rockies: A
Adam Ottavino excelled at doing what the Rockies asked him to do in 2013, mopping up when a starter couldn't cut the mustard and (late in the year) pitching well in high leverage situations. For a guy who was on the fringes of the roster just last year, getting 2.3 rWAR (including 0.1 from hitting) from a middle reliever is fantastic - and it's the kind of performance that the Rockies will need from more of their non-core players if they want to contend in 2014.
When I asked Adam about his perceived role with the team in the middle of this year, this was his response:
"I think my job is to eat innings when they need to be eaten, I'm a multiple inning guy, and that's fine with me." Ottavino also pointed out that "I've never not thrown multiple innings in my life." He feels that his assortment of breaking balls (and the ability to generate strikeouts with them) is what separates him from some of the other bullpen arms the Rockies have.
Adam's right about his breaking ball. He's unusual in that he actually threw his slider (48% of pitches) more than his fastball (45%) in 2013 - and according to Fangraphs the slider was by far his most valuable pitch. Given the theory that breaking pitches are actually less affected by the altitude than fastballs, it's not surprising to me that Ottavino was actually more effective this year at Coors (2.00 ERA, 1.18 WHIP, .238 BAA) than on the road (3.51, 1.53, and .266 respectively).
With the caveat that any split with a reliever is going to have small sample size issues, it's also interesting to note that Ottavino is death to right-handed batters - they hit just .197/.255/.289 against him while striking out 55 times to 13 walks. Meanwhile, against lefties Ottavino was actually something of a punching bag - opponents hit .328/.416/.437 against him while maintaining a 23:18 K/BB ratio. That's food for thought next year in the World Series for Walt Weiss when Ottavino's on the hill in the seventh with runners in scoring position and David Ortiz comes to the plate.
Circling back to Ottavino's role next year, I've heard talk of the Rockies moving Ottavino into a more defined 7th inning role next year. I have to wonder if maybe he isn't better suited for longer stretches given his success with them in 2012 and 2013. Per his own admission, Ottavino's always been a multi-inning guy - I'd almost rather see him stretched out into a starter (for spot duty) than as a one inning reliever so that he's ready to fill in (instead of Jeff Manship) should injury occur.
On the flip side, Ottavino has consistently been much stronger against right-handers and might be well suited to throwing high leverage innings against them when the opponent is heavily right-handed - tag-teaming those innings with Josh Outman when tough lefties are on the horizon.
Either way, Ottavino heads into 2014 as a valuable member of the Rockies bullpen. Given Colorado's struggles with relief depth last year, that's a blessing.