The Ottavino Evolution
The Colorado Rockies made it official today, according to the Denver Post, that Adam Ottavino would take over as the teams closer for the foreseeable future. It should come as no surprise that the Rockies made the move away from 42-year old LaTroy Hawkins, who is retiring at the end of the year after 19 seasons, but it is a bit surprising that it ends up being Ottavino taking the reigns this soon.
In our 2015 TDG Consensus Dynasty Rankings, the 29-year-old right-hander graded out as our 47th ranked relief pitcher. He was the Iggy Azalea of our relief pitcher rankings. He doesn’t fit the prototypical mold of a late-inning reliever, but had pitched too well the previous year to be ignored.
As a result of my affinity for obscure relief pitchers (and probably Iggy Azalea too if I listened long enough), I volunteered for the glamorous assignment of profiling the back-half of the reliever list. Included among those names was Ottavino. Here is what I wrote just two months ago,
“Ottavino is the favorite to inherit the Rockies closer job long-term entering 2015. An inflated .347 batting average on balls in play (BABIP) resulted in an ugly 3.60 ERA and masked the gains Ottavino made in strikeouts (over a batter per inning) and reducing walks (career-low 2.22 BB/9) last season. Fantasy owners worried about the Coors effect should find solace in the fact that he still owns an elite groundball rate (46.7 percent). Ottavino could potentially be closing by mid-season and is worth owning in all dynasty formats going forward.”
Ottavino’s rapid ascension really began last season when he improved his control and increased his strikeout rate. A quick glance at the overall numbers, especially his ERA and WHIP masked the tangible gains he made. He appears to have taken his game to an even higher level early on this year. Through five and one-third innings of work, Ottavino has allowed just two base-runners (one hit and one walk) while striking out 10.
“Tuesday night, Ottavino whiffed all three Giants batters he faced,” wrote Patrick Saunders in the Denver Post. “He struck out lefty Brandon Crawford with a nasty 83 mph slider for the first out. Then he struck out pinch-hitter Justin Maxwell looking at an 85 mph slider. Then he finished off his hat trick by fanning Nori Aoki with an 85 mph slider.”
“Otto was dominant tonight,” Rockies manager Walt Weiss said after the win. No kidding. So what’s changed this season for Colorado’s newly minted closer. How has he erased all of the doubts we had collectively coming into the year?
The fastball velocity is up. It’s been on the rise for three straight years now. Ottavino averaged 94.66 mph on his heater last year. This season, he’s averaging 96.65. He’s added almost exactly two miles per hour on his fastball, taking it from very good, to elite velocity.
As the old saying goes, a rising tide lifts all boats. The significant jump in velocity has increased the effectiveness of the rest of Ottavino’s arsenal. If you look closely at the chart above, courtesy of Brooks Baseball, you will also notice that Ottavino has added a cutter to his repertoire. It’s essentially replaced his changeup, which he hasn’t thrown at all this season.
The biggest knock on Ottavino coming into 2015 was that he couldn’t get lefties out. Lefties have hit .319 off him for his career. If the cutter can turn into a weapon against southpaws to complement his fastball and slider, there’s a very good chance that Ottavino continues to develop into one of the games elite relievers. It’s never a great idea to read too much into a small sample size of data, but it is worth noting that Ottavino is getting more swings and misses against left-handed batters so far this season.
It’s yet another victory for the “don’t pay for saves” community or the small segment of rebels who punt saves entirely due to the high rate of turnover and inconsistency from stoppers overall. From a dynasty standpoint, there is no riskier investment than a closer.
It helps to identify and acquire a reliever on the rise like Ottavino before they get handed a closing gig, but it’s worth noting that there is nothing inherently fluky about Ottavino’s early season performance. With a staggering lack of alternatives in Colorado, he’s a solid bet to remain in the closing role at least for the remainder of the season. The time to buy into Ottavino is now if you believe in him long-term because it’s going to cost you a lot more to acquire him a month from now.