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Adam Ottavino’s rough season hinged on one terrible outing

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Ottavino wasn’t himself in 2017

Arizona Diamondbacks v Colorado Rockies Photo by Joe Mahoney/Getty Images

Welcome to the 2017 edition of Ranking the Rockies, where we take a look back at the in-season contributions of every player to don the purple this past season. The goal wasn’t and isn’t to quibble with order. Instead, it’s to get a snapshot of a player along with a look forward. For that reason, we simply sorted by Baseball-Reference’s Wins Above Replacement (rWAR) and will start at the bottom and end up at the top.

No. 21, Adam Ottavino (0.3 rWAR)

I want to start off by saying that Adam Ottavino is the man. Seriously, he might be the coolest dude in the Rockies organization. He’s smart, personable, dedicated, throws an amazing slider, and a talented photographer and writer to boot.

That context makes writing this review tough. This was probably Ottavino’s roughest season as a professional baseball player. It’s no fun to dwell on the negative. It’s rather silly, truthfully, to get to the end of the season, assign someone Zero-Point-Three Units of Good Baseball Points, and call it a day.

So let’s set aside his WAR for the time being. The spirit of this approach is not to judge Ottavino’s season, but simply to understand it. Why did it go the way it did?

Any attempt to understand Ottavino’s season needs to be balanced around the elephant in the middle of the room (and in the middle of the season): Adam’s trip to his personal Hell, when he threw 48 pitches against the Dodgers on June 25th. I wrote about that game the day after it happened, wondering how Bud Black could allow him to throw so many pitches when he was clearly not at all effective. My fear, at the time, was that such a huge single-game workload could impact his effectiveness for the remainder of the season. What ended up happening? See for yourself:

Adam Ottavino Stats

Dates IP K% BB% ERA FIP xFIP
Dates IP K% BB% ERA FIP xFIP
2014-2016 102.1 28.5% 6.0% 2.99 2.91 2.80
Before 6/25 26.1 29.0% 14.0% 3.08 4.30 4.30
6/25 1.0 23.3% 17.8% 54.00 21.16 11.72
After 6/25 26.0 23.3% 16.7% 5.19 5.43 5.62
Fangraphs

While Adam certainly wasn’t his usual self prior to that game, he had been “effectively wild”: putting up a league-average FIP despite a frustratingly high walk rate. His strikeout rate was still excellent, offsetting, to a degree, his problems with command.

After that game, however, Ottavino’s performance went from concerning to ohh gosh what is happening? His walk rate got worse, and (perhaps most worrying) his strikeout rate tanked.

But what was really happening, under the hood? Why did his strikeout rate drop, and his walk rate rise? Since pitching is a complicated mix of velocity, movement, location, deception, umpire effects, batter effects, and even catcher effects, it’s hard to say for sure. But I did find an interesting trend that also corresponds to the eye test:

Fangraphs

Here you can see that Ottavino’s strikeout rate is closely connected to the rate at which batters are chasing his pitches (primarily his slider) out of the strikezone (O-Swing%). This makes intuitive sense: they’re swinging at pitches that they can’t make contact with, and that leads to Ottavino racking up strikeouts. When the batters don’t chase, his strikeout rate drops. Furthermore:

Fangraphs

Not only does his strikeout rate drop, but his walk rate increases. This also makes sense: if they aren’t swinging at the slider, they’re taking it for a ball. The correlation here isn’t as tight, but it certainly is meaningful.

Why did batters stop chasing Ottavino’s slider as much? I don’t know. It’s probably a complicated mix of several effects. Likely, his slider location wasn’t as good this year. Also, hitters probably adjusted to an extent, learning to not swing as often. Either way, I think the key to understanding Ottavino’s 2017 season is O-Swing%. When they chase, Adam dominates. When they don’t, he struggles.

2018 Outlook

Ottavino is under contract next season at $7 million. If he can coax batters into chasing his slider again, he could certainly get back to the level of dominance that made him (when healthy) one of the premier relievers in baseball. Since he will be a free agent at the end of 2018, it would behoove him to spend some time this offseason figuring out the complicated details of how to make that happen. Knowing Ottavino, I’m sure he’s way ahead of me there. Come April, let’s hope we get to watch this GIF re-enacted many times: