During this uncomfortable summer of blazing temperatures, make sure to thank your local fireman.
Adam Ottavino, the Mets’ relief pitcher who’s been asked to get three or more outs in eight of his last 16 games, has been great at extinguishing the other team’s late-inning chances. After a scoreless outing in the first game of the Mets’ doubleheader on Saturday, the veteran righty brought his ERA down to 2.30 for the season. Among relievers who have thrown at least 40 innings, Ottavino is in the top 30 of ERA, ground ball rate (53.3%), WHIP (1.00), ERA+ (174), strikeout percentage (29.1%) and walk rate (6.4%).
It’s no secret that his younger and harder-throwing bullpen mate Edwin Diaz has become the best reliever in the world this year. But now in his 12th MLB season, without the fanfare or rhapsodic entrance song of Diaz (though Ottavino’s “Alive” by Kid Cudi is still a jam) the wily vet has found his touch again.
In 2020 and 2021, he ran a 4.59 ERA and 1.48 WHIP while pitching for the Yankees and Red Sox. The Mets have proven, so far, to be the best stop for him along the northeastern corridor. Armed once again with a devastating slider, Ottavino has been the sturdiest viaduct between the team’s starting pitching and Diaz.
Not counting the five-game season he had for the Cardinals as a rookie in 2010, Ottavino has thrown his slider more than 40% of the time in each season of his career. In 2018 and 2019 — the best seasons of his life — opponents hit .148 and .162 against his favorite pitch. While riding the struggle bus through the next two seasons, Ottavino allowed a .257 and .248 batting average on his slider, contributing to the spike in base runners and earned runs.
The Mets have identified a few ways for him to become less one-dimensional. Still heavily reliant on the slider, Ottavino has actually started throwing it less often than he has in seven years. His 42.1% slider usage is both very high and the lowest he’s had since posting a 40.8% for the Rockies in 2015. So while hitters can still comfortably expect to see slider after slider, they have to be on the lookout for a few other pitches now.
As the slider trends slightly downward, Ottavino’s sinker, changeup and cutter are getting more invites to the party. Ottavino has favored a sinker to a four-seam fastball for years, but last year it got roughed up. Coming off a 2021 season where the league hit .317 and slugged .413 on his sinker, Ottavino has course corrected. The pitch is doing more of what he and every other sinker baller wants. When it’s being put in play this year, 70.6% of the time it’s on the ground, bringing the slugging percentage down by 200 points. It’s also landing in the strike zone more often and causing swings and misses less often, perhaps signaling a shift in mental approach from Ottavino. As long as it’s getting grounders — which it has all year — he seems very comfortable letting the opposition put it in play rather than trying to blow it past them or make them chase it.
Always someone who’s fared better against righties than lefties, Ottavino’s changeup has become a much-needed weapon against those pesky left-handers. For his career, Ottavino has held righties to a .615 OPS while lefties have enjoyed a .793 mark. As a way to help with that this season, he’s developed a changeup that he trusts much more. That pitch has been thrown on 21.1% of his offerings to lefties (up from just 3.8% last year) and they’ve responded by getting exactly one hit against it. Josh Bell’s seeing-eye single on June 1 came on a well-placed changeup below the strike zone. Entering play on Sunday, that is the only damage anyone has inflicted on Ottavino’s changeup from the left-hand batter’s box.
The cutter is playing a small role in this production, but it’s an important one nonetheless. Through his first 43 appearances as a Met, tracking data shows Ottavino throwing 32 cutters. Sixteen of them have been to righties, sixteen of them have been to lefties. The slider and sinker will always comprise the biggest chunk of his pitch chart, but Ottavino does legitimately throw five pitches, making him unique for a reliever.
Before games at Citi Field, the 36-year-old Park Slope native comes out onto the field roughly three hours ahead of first pitch. He’ll kick off his flip flops, leaving them right where the warning track meets the grass, and go for a barefoot walk in the outfield. Whether in the clubhouse — where he’s the Mets’ crossword puzzle ace — or on his sunshine strolls, Ottavino moves in a very deliberate way. He is an extremely slow walker, almost as though he’s trying to expend as little energy as possible, saving it for when he needs to pitch.
Whether that’s been in the fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth, or ninth inning — all situations where Buck Showalter has used him — Ottavino and his rejuvenated pitch repertoire have given his manager one less thing to worry about. Showalter has spoken several times about his appreciation for players who are “the same guy every day,” meaning he doesn’t have to fret about their mental or physical state.
With a pregame routine that’s clearly been working for him, and multiple pitches that are now doing the same, Ottavino is making his free agent signing look like one of the best under-the-radar moves of the offseason.