NEW YORK -- A month ago, all blueprints of the Yankees’ bullpen seemed to heavily involve Adam Ottavino, whose frisbee-like slider frequently generated feeble swings from opponents. That has not been the case of late, suggesting that they may rethink the October pecking order.
Ottavino left one of his trademark sliders over the plate in the fifth inning of Tuesday’s Game 2 of the American League Championship Series, a spinner that was hammered by the Astros’ George Springer for a game-tying homer in the Yankees' eventual 3-2, 11-inning loss.
“He's got to play a role for us, especially in this series with their right-handed hitters,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone said. “I don't think he's as far off maybe as is being talked about, but he's certainly not as sharp as he's been most of the year.”
Including the postseason, Ottavino has permitted six runs (four earned) and 12 hits over 8 1/3 innings since Sept. 8, when his rocky run materialized with a homer surrendered to Mookie Betts of the Red Sox -- Ottavino’s first since June 13.
There are a few key components, according to Statcast research. Since Sept. 8, Ottavino has thrown his cutter less (4.1 percent, compared to 14.7 percent before that), replacing the pitch with more sliders (54.4 percent, up from 43.7 percent).
“I have a lot of confidence in my slider,” Ottavino said after Game 2, “but credit to [Springer]. He didn’t miss it when I made a mistake.”
Ottavino has also lost a few ticks of velocity, likely a result of his heavy workload. Ottavino’s fastball and slider had averaged 93.9 mph and 82.0 mph, respectively, before Sept. 8. Since then, they are averaging 93.5 mph and 80.8 mph.
Most prominently, Ottavino is struggling to throw his best pitch for strikes. Prior to that game at Fenway Park, Ottavino had thrown 47.5 percent of his sliders in the strike zone, but he has missed the zone with 62 percent of his sliders since then.
“I think it’s just making sure the sharpness of the slider is there,” Boone said. “I feel like he's close to being that. I think some small successes hopefully will spur him on, because he needs to play a big role for us.”
Boone raised some eyebrows with his usage of Ottavino during the AL Division Series against the Twins, when he twice summoned him to face Nelson Cruz. Ottavino walked Cruz in both matchups, then was lifted for another pitcher.
“Both times I faced Cruz, it was a don't-give-in situation,” Ottavino said.
Ottavino had a more traditional assignment in Game 1 at Houston, drawing the seventh inning behind Masahiro Tanaka with a five-run lead. Ottavino pitched around two singles, inducing an inning-ending double play by Alex Bregman.
In Sunday’s Game 2 appearance, Boone notes that Ottavino recovered from the homer to strike out Michael Brantley on a third strike that got by catcher Gary Sánchez, get weak contact on a José Altuve infield single and catch Bregman looking at a called third strike.
“I’ve felt great the last two games,” Ottavino said. “I feel like for the most part, I've been in the zone, making some pretty good, competitive pitches. Some haywire stuff has gone on, but overall I feel pretty good.”