Adam Ottavino carving out MLB role as Rockies reliever

USA TODAY Sports

Adam Ottavino, a former first round pick for the Cardinals and middle reliever for the Rockies, speaks candidly about his role with the Rockies, the difference between the Rockies and Cardinals pitching philosophies, and more.

DENVER -- One of the ideas floated around Purple Row over the last few weeks given the Rockies' troubles with the back end of their rotation was converting Adam Ottavino, a former first round pick of the St. Louis Cardinals (in 2006), back into the starting rotation. I had the opportunity to talk to Adam about that last Sunday.

"People have asked me that, but I haven't had any talks with the organization about that," Ottavino said. "I don't know what they're thinking (about that idea), but I'm open to whatever down the road".

Ottavino came to the Rockies from a Cardinals system that has proven to be very successful in general in turning its draft picks into MLB players, as detailed in this recent Sports Illustrated article. I asked him about some of the differences between what the Cardinals teach their pitchers compared with the Rockies.

"The Cardinals (in the minor leagues) really stressed pitching with the fastball, and that's not really the pitcher I am," said Ottavino. "I'm more of a guy who mixing it up, throwing a lot of breaking balls, but I learned to use my fastball pretty well during my years there. They really just want you to pitch down with the fastball and get groundballs." With the Rockies, Ottavino says, "It's the same, but it's also more about throwing what your strength is".

Indeed, during his time with the Cardinals, Adam threw his fastball (65%) and changeup (18%) of the time, whereas this year with the Rockies, he's only thrown a heater 43% of the time and has restricted his use of the changeup (6%), instead mixing in more sliders (up from 15% to 48%). Per Fangraphs, the slider has been an extremely effective pitch for Ottavino this year. He told me that he felt the slider was his out pitch and the data backs him up.

Ottavino had the opportunity to play for Team Italy during the 2009 WBC as a Cardinals prospect, getting some experience on the national stage before his big league debut.

"I'd really had a bad year the year before in AA, then I pitched well against a very good Venezuela team," said Ottavino. "The experience was really awesome, it was a little taste of the big leagues." That success propelled him to a short MLB debut in 2010 with the Cardinals, though he didn't achieve success with the organization.

While Ottavino was not able to stick with St. Louis as a starting pitcher, making his way onto the Rockies via a waiver claim in April 2012, he has been pretty effective as a relief pitcher with the Rockies over the past two years. I asked him about the feeling of being entrenched on a big league roster for the first time in his career.

"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."

Ottavino has had his best year as a pro thus far in 2013, pitching 51.1 innings of relief (second most of any Rockies reliever) and maintaining a 2.98 ERA and 9.3 K/9 rate while accumulating 0.9 rWAR. Adam spoke of his impression of how the season has gone so far:

"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," Ottavino said.

"Hopefully (Saturday the 20th) was the bottom and I can get back in a good direction the rest of the way." Since that day, Ottavino has allowed runs in both of his relief appearances, raising his ERA slightly.

I pressed Ottavino about the way manager Walt Weiss has been using him this year -- mostly in low leverage situations for multiple innings (outside of a few notable occasions).

"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.

When I asked him about what he's had to adapt when pitching at Coors Field, Ottavino pointed out that he'd had more success at Coors than he had on the road.

Indeed, in his career Ottavino has thrown 75.1 innings at Coors with a 3.23 ERA,1.17 WHIP, and 9.2 K/9 rate as opposed to his road rates of 5.94 ERA and 1.76 WHIP. Maybe he needs to bottle that success up and keep some for the road!

"I'm comfortable pitching here, not sure I'm changing anything, just have to make sure I'm throwing strikes. When I get ahead of the hitters I tend to do well, and when I don't, I tend to not do well."

Ottavino was just coming off a poor outing (last Saturday against the Cubs) in which he'd allowed two runs on three hits in an inning plus -- and he spoke candidly about it. "I pitched really bad last night -- I could tell very easily what I was doing wrong: not getting ahead, not locating anything. That's when you're going to get in trouble."

I was very refreshed by the honesty of Adam during our talk -- he seems like he's got a good game plan for attacking Coors Field, a skill that always seems to be possessed by too few of Rockies pitchers. I hope that he works his way back into his early season form and that Weiss gives him some more shots in high leverage situations.

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