Ottavino working on revamped pickoff move this spring

February 21st, 2024

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- Amidst the sameness of live batting practice sessions in these early days of Spring Training, Adam Ottavino’s outing Wednesday stood out. When Ottavino took the mound on Clover Park’s main field, a runner jogged over to first base. First it was Starling Marte, who scampered back to the bag as Ottavino sent a pickoff throw flying his way. Next was Francisco Lindor, who did the same. Jeff McNeil actually attempted a steal of second, as did Pete Alonso.

Such baserunning action is rare during live BP, typically a drill for pitchers to feel comfortable facing hitters and for hitters to fine-tune their timing at the plate. But Ottavino wanted his session to become a workshop for his revamped pickoff move, which he hopes can evolve from a longtime weakness to -- if nothing else -- a non-issue.

Last season, Ottavino allowed 22 stolen bases, the most by any primary Major League reliever. He caught only one runner stealing. The Statcast metric Pitcher Base Advances Prevented, which quantifies how well pitchers hold on runners, rated Ottavino 341st out of 342 qualified arms. (Only Noah Syndergaard, who notoriously struggled with the running game throughout his time in Flushing, fared worse.)

That number ate at Ottavino, so he soaked up the data and began studying video of right-handed pitchers who were good at what he wasn’t -- Zack Greinke, Johnny Cueto, Taijuan Walker and others. He tried to apply their tendencies to his own pickoff move, cleaning up some physical tics and rotating his body in a tighter circle. At his local New York gym, Ottavino asked a friend to clock his move and videotape it. He wanted to improve his time to first base.

The goal was not necessarily to eliminate stolen bases completely, given how hard MLB’s recent rule changes can be on pitchers. Instead, Ottavino wanted to improve his pickoff move enough to place some doubt in runners’ minds.

“The only way you’re going to limit their attempts is by the threat of them getting picked off,” said Ottavino, who relied more on timing mechanisms before the league installed a pitch timer and limited pickoff moves in 2023.

“It’s something that -- I don’t know if I’ll ever be the best at it, but if I can be better than I am now, then it gives me more chances for more double plays, because I have such a good ground-ball rate. That’s the frustrating thing. … I’m just trying to make my job easier.”

Last year in the eighth inning of a game against the Royals, Ottavino blew a save when he walked the leadoff batter, allowed a stolen base with no outs, then watched the runner advance to third on a groundout and score on a sacrifice fly.

“It honestly just makes you sick to your stomach,” Ottavino said. “You want to feel like you got beat out there, rather than you just gave it to them.”

To be fair, the responsibility for stolen bases doesn’t fall solely on pitchers. The Mets allowed the fourth-most steals in the Majors last season in part because of Ottavino, who gave up nearly twice as many as any other Met, but also because of the ineffectiveness of catchers Francisco Alvarez and Omar Narváez. Alvarez, the starter, is working on his footwork in an effort to be more of a weapon behind home plate.

But pitchers do play an outsized role in the running game. At age 38, Ottavino understands the importance of every extra 10th of a second.

“I’ve always given up a lot of steals since probably 2018, and I have a sub-3 [ERA] since then,” Ottavino said. “It’s not like it really has affected my overall effectiveness bigtime or anything. But yes, it makes my job harder, and I would like it not to be.”