I’m sitting here after one of the most frustrating losses I’ve ever watched. Look at this stupid win probability graph:
This is actually one of the rare times when a win probability graph doesn’t convey even half of the awfulness of the experience. Adam Ottavino, literally the Rockies’ only good relief pitcher from 2015-2016, experienced what is easily the worst meltdown of the season, allowing three runs on two wild pitches during one at bat, and then five more runs the following inning on two more wild pitches, two walks, two doubles, and Cody Bellinger’s second home run of the game.
It’s no secret that Ottavino has been extremely ineffective this year. He has now walked just over 15 percent of the batters he’s faced, third worst among relievers. The six earned runs today bumped his ERA up near 5.00, essentially matching his FIP. His seven wild pitches are tied for the most in baseball (again among relievers).
All of that said, I still can’t get it out of my mind that the thing that bothered me most about this entire stupid game is this number:
That’s the number of pitches that Ottavino threw tonight. Here’s another graph, and this one is more mind-boggling than the last. It shows the number of pitches Ottavino’s thrown per appearance since 2014:
That huge spike at the right hand corner was from yesterday. Sunday was just the first time since 2014 that Ottavino had even thrown more than 30 pitches in a game, and he threw nearly 50. Now, I have had essentially nothing but positive things to say about how Bud Black has managed the Rockies this year. Not that my praise would or ought to mean anything to him, coming from a certified Denizen of Mom’s Basement. So what I’m about to say is less about criticizing Black, a professional doing a job that I could never ever begin to contemplate doing, and more about asking the question: did he really need to let Ottavino wear this one?
I can understand the circumstances. The bullpen has been perpetually overworked for a while, and with the game out of hand (and under the control of Kenley Jansen), it makes perfect sense to me to hope to get an extra out or two from Ottavino. Furthermore, Black has seemed to adopt a philosophy of “you made the mess, now you clean it up,” especially in games that are essentially over. He’s been praised for that approach, and I think in many cases rightly.
I do think that yesterday, he may have gone too far. Ottavino has been wild all year, but four wild pitches is insane. He was clearly not able to get the ball over the plate, or even near it. In a season where Ottavino has rarely had much control, he had less than ever before.
I highly doubt that Bud Black was trying to “teach a lesson” to Ottavino, so don’t think I’m headed that direction. No, I’m more worried about the idea of a pitcher being asked to essentially double his usual peak workload, in a game that was statistically over, just under a year removed from returning from major surgery, on the worst day of his career.
To Adam’s credit, he had all the right things to say after the game:
“You can call it what you want, it was pathetic,” Ottavino said. “I have to do better.”
“I would have pitched until my arm fell off,” Ottavino said.
I have no doubt of the truth of that last quote, which is part of my concern. In situations like this, I do believe it is the manager’s job to protect his players from breaking themselves. He was clearly reaching his limits, as you can see from his velocity chart. Notice how his fastball velocity was tailing off by ~2-3 mph towards the end:
To roll back around to my disclaimers here: I don’t really have a clue about the situation. I’m a fan from a distance, who “specializes” in staring at tables of numbers displayed on my computer screen and pretending to make sense of them. On the other hand, I just can’t shake the feeling that Ottavino, a stand-up, brilliant, hard-working member of the team got the short end of the stick yesterday from his manager.
There’s a bizarre symmetry to the past week of Rockies games. Last Sunday, the Rockies had a singular hero in Nolan Arenado, who was able to leave the field as a God among mortals. This Sunday, the Rockies had a singular goat, who had to leave the field hanging his head. In between, the Rockies went from the emotional peak of the season down to the darkest abyss. I can’t defend Ottavino’s performance: it ought not be defended. But I feel the need to defend Ottavino the person, perhaps against an imagined threat. His performance has been one of the few sad storylines of the season, and the dumb part about sports is that we tend to brand those narratives directly onto the players. I’m certainly no saint in that regard. I’ve spent far too many minutes of my life being angry online about Gerardo Parra, Ian Desmond, and Jordan Lyles—men of dedication, talent, and hard work far surpassing my own.
I just hope that Ottavino is okay. I hope that after all of this stupid baseball, he and Bud Black can sit down and gameplan for how to get right. Because when Ottavino is right, he’s a supreme joy to watch:
If Adam ever happens to read this article, he might chuckle that I ever worried about this situation (If you really are reading this: hello!). Either way, I just want to root for him even more than before. The Rockies have crested into their first stretch of genuine daylight in a long time, and Ottavino has worked hard to contribute, even if things haven’t gone well for him so far. There’s no question yesterday represented a critical and difficult moment for Ottavino’s short-term future. All we can hope for, root for, cheer for, is that his long-term future is filled with success and sliders.