Adam Ottavino's outstanding 2018 season wasn't just the story of a solid pitcher putting it all together at the right time, making him one of the most valuable relievers available on the free-agent market. It was the result of a very modern work process, because Ottavino spent last winter holed up in a vacant New York City storefront owned by his father-in-law, turning an empty shoe store next to a Chuck E. Cheese's into a state-of-the-art pitching laboratory.
Coming off a disappointing 2017, Ottavino spent a week at pitching factory Driveline Baseball outside Seattle, then outfitted the empty space on St. Nicholas Avenue in Harlem with the latest in pitch-design technology. Using gear from companies like Rapsodo and Edgertronic, Ottavino added a cut fastball, but also learned how terms like "spin efficiency," "laminar flow" and "gyroscopic spin" could help him improve his mechanics and maximize the shape, command and location of his deadly slider.
The result was a turnaround season. Ottavino sliced his ERA in half, from 5.06 to 2.43. By whiffing 112 hitters in 77 2/3 innings, his strikeout rate jumped from 25.9 percent to 36.3 percent, a top-10 mark (minimum 50 innings). He cut his walk rate and his home run rate, and finished near the top in the most advanced Statcast™ quality-of-contact metric.
Needless to say, having that kind of season after that kind of offseason opened some eyes, especially in a baseball world where the famously analytical Trevor Bauer used a similar kind of thinking to help turn himself into a Cy Young candidate with a 2.21 ERA in 2018.
As Ottavino waits to see where he'll play in 2019 and beyond, he's returning to the same vacant storefront this winter to continue his workouts. We spoke to him in early December about how he approached his training and the game.
On "attacking the offseason" ...
I just really liked what I did last year. I'm trying to do more of the same this year. There's less to fix, there's less that's completely broken, but there's still a lot of room for improvement. So, [I'm] just trying to utilize my time as best as I can.
I think last year was the first year that I attacked the offseason, exactly in this way. So I'm just trying to take advantage of the free time, and I feel like what I mean by that is, you know, four months, it seems like a long time, but it's not really that long. You have to take advantage of every day that you have.
On how he decided that he needed to make changes after a tough 2017 ...
In 2017, Ottavino had arguably his roughest season. While he struck out 63 in 53 1/3 innings, he also had a 5.06 ERA and walked 39, giving him a 16.1 percent walk rate, the highest of any National League pitcher. On June 25 of that season against the Dodgers, he became the first pitcher in at least 50 years to give up four or more runs just on wild pitches. When the Rockies set their roster for the Wild Card Game against Arizona, Ottavino wasn't included on it.
We have player-plan meetings at the end of the year, and every year at the beginning of the year and end of the year, [it's] "what are you working on? What do you think you need to work on? This is what we see."
I've always been kind of brutally honest with myself, so I've never really been in a meeting where they told me something that I need to get better at that I didn't already know about. ... I was coming off of the previous year, which was such a struggle for me. I was really mad at myself for letting it get to that point. But I was also not really communicating very well with the coaching staff. I wasn't put on the playoff roster. I wasn't really in the mood to speak with them so much. I just was more of the mindset, well, I'm going to come back and make it undeniable next year.
That was kind of like a process that I mapped out in my own head, and me and my wife kind of talked about it, and my dad and some other people that I'm close with and just set up, set down that path. And then, by the time I got to spring, I did fill some people [with the Rockies] in on what I did because I didn't want to leave them in the dark. But yeah, it was kind of a personal decision.
On how he learned to understand the data that came out of the technology …
I've always been somebody who scours the internet or books or anything for any pitching knowledge at all. So obviously that's become much more available since the internet really took off, and especially over the last, I'd say four or five years, a lot more. People have gotten out there with different schools of thought and I'm open-minded to listen to all of it.
When I started, when the Trackman data started becoming available, the PITCHf/x, I started wanting to know what those numbers meant. So I tried to dig into that. Once I had a concept of that, I wanted to know the "how" and the "why" questions. So then I started to try to seek out people who had a little more knowledge than me. Driveline was one of those. That was a key part of last offseason, was going in there and talking to Kyle Boddy and talking to Matt Daniels and talking to Sam Briend and finding out a little bit about how they use the technology.
I already knew what I wanted to buy and what I wanted to accomplish, but I needed to maybe get on board with some people who had a little bit more experience with that stuff when we're using it day in and day out. Once I did that, it was kind of easy. And then I was able to go home and kind of go from there. But you know, just the hunger and the hunt for the knowledge was kind of the key from the beginning.
On whether more pitchers will follow the lead of pitchers like Ottavino, Bauer and Rich Hill to incorporate data and technology into training regimens …
I think more. Well … I don't think it'll be like a tidal wave, like of people doing it on their own. I think eventually the organizations will basically employ people to do this for everyone and be able to look at the data and look at the cameras and say, "Hey, why don't you try this?" ... to guys as a way of coaching them a little bit better. But I think some people will definitely attempt to use the data for their own benefit.
But I think it won't be a ton, because it seems like it's hard, and a lot of people don't want to do something that seems like it's tough or reminds them of school, and it's not really that, but it has a perception of being that way. So some people will probably be scared off, from that standpoint.
On whether his success has caused other Major Leaguers to reach out to him for advice …
We're always talking baseball. I'm on a team with other pitchers, we're always talking pitching. Obviously, they found out, you know, through being my friend and from reading things about me and what I did, and they wanted to know a little bit more about it and how it can be implemented for their games.
You know, one misconception that happens, a lot of people thought that I went to Driveline like for the whole offseason, and I really didn't. So a lot of people thought like, "Hey, I got a lot of contact this year, I'm going to go to Driveline. I hope to be as good as you were this past year," and it's like, "Well, I hope you are too," but that's not a Band-Aid, you know?
They're an unbelievable place, but it's up to the player to implement changes to get better. There's no quick fix, and I just think that that was kind of a funny narrative that came out of it.
I talked to a lot of people and definitely try to help my friends as much as I could, but not overstep my bounds and understand that every pitcher's process is a little bit different.
On the increase in pitching talent across the game …
I know. It's amazing. Really. I mean, I talked with Charlie Blackmon about this all the time, you know, like ... "How do you hit that? Like how do you hit these guys?"
When I was with the Cardinals, my last two Spring Trainings in particular, I mean … I just remember looking around and being like "[Expletive], I'm not the shiny new toy anymore."
I mean ... we got a Joe Kelly over here, and a Trevor Rosenthal over there and a Carlos Martinez over there, and the talent level was just crazy, and that's kind of permeated every team now. Then, when I went to the Rockies, it wasn't the same, but now it is, and now it's everywhere and it's remarkable to see.
Some of the guys that were older guys when I came in the league, if you get them in an honest moment, I mean they'll tell you, pitching is completely different than it was when they were a younger player. So Todd Helton will tell you that, Lance Berkman, he'll tell you that. And I appreciate that honesty, because that's just the truth.
On whether he favors banning the shift …
I don't know that the banning of the shift will do what people think it might. I think if you ban the shift, then you're rewarding more guys. We just roll over ground balls in the hole, and people say, "Oh, it'll make you spray the ball around the field more." Well, they could be doing that now in the hole. The opposite field is open, and I still think if you're a guy who can use all fields, then the game will reward you for that skill.
Like, a DJ LeMahieu, who I play with, is awesome at using all fields, and it makes him really tough to pitch to, and the shifts don't bug him. In fact, they don't even really shift him. If anything, they'll just do some crazy outfield shifting against him.
I don't know that banning the shift is the answer. I don't know that it's not the answer, but... my gut says no.
On the increase in strikeouts ...
I think if people are worried about the strikeouts, they think, "Oh, guys are swinging too big because of the shift." I think they're misled there as well because I think the pitchers are just super nasty now. And that's my diagnosis of why guys are striking out a lot.
I guess when you see it all the time, it becomes a little less impressive in the box. Like the velocity, the hitting speed that they talk about. I think when I came in the league they would say it's like 91-ish, hitting speed's probably like 94 now. So that's pretty crazy to think about. Then from a pitching perspective, how do you stay relevant in that environment? But, yeah. It's incredible.
On using his slider as a primary pitch and in unexpected ways …
Ottavino threw nearly 600 sliders in 2018, and over 80 percent of them came when the count was even or he was behind in the count, the second-highest percentage in baseball.
I think you might be giving me a little too much credit with it being a surprise to hitters. A lot of it, honestly, is the efforts to not walk people and to throw strikes. My command pitch is my slider. So, when you're behind the count and you need to throw a strike, when in doubt I'm going to throw my slider, and it just makes that much more sense when you look at the result-based numbers on the pitch. It's always been an effective pitch for me.
So if I'm going to throw a pitch in a spot where the hitter has the leverage in his favor, I'll take my chances with a pitch that in a bubble gets better results. So that's kind of the impetus for that, and then make my fastball better by making that more of a surprise. So it did work out, and especially early in the year, I was going to extreme levels. Like I think I was throwing my slider like something crazy, like 80 percent of the time behind the count. So, it didn't turn out to be where I just wasn't doing what anybody else was doing. And I think just by virtue of that it was effective.
I wasn't the first [to use my breaking ball as a primary pitch]. Luke Gregerson ... I played with him in the Minor Leagues, and he was always a slider-heavy guy out of the bullpen. I took note of that, took a little mental note of that. Like, "Hey, this guy's having a lot of success throwing a lot of sliders." He was the first one I saw.
Then I noticed Sergio Romo, certainly several guys in the big leagues. When I got up there, I just knew that, that's my pitch, you know? That's always been my most effective thing is breaking balls and so it felt like, you know, I'm gonna live and die with it.
On how to survive at Coors Field ...
While Coors Field has a well-deserved reputation as a difficult place to pitch, Ottavino's 2018 actually went differently. At home, he had a 2.10 ERA, allowed a .195 wOBA, and walked 9 percent of hitters. On the road, he had a 2.70 ERA, allowed a .258 wOBA, and walked 13 percent of hitters.
His splits haven't always been so stark, but he's had more experience than most at altitude. Ottavino's 361 games pitched for Colorado are the fourth-most in team history, and his 3.41 ERA is the third-best among qualified Rockies.
You know, I've wondered that myself at times.
For one thing, your pitches move less at Coors, so that's a negative. But there's some positives within that. Like for a breaking ball, if you throw high breaking ball at Coors, and it's a hanger, it kind of will stay out of the zone. It won't really come into that smash zone. Whereas if you're on the road, it's going to probably drop right into the danger zone a little more often. So, sometimes you can have a little more margin for error, for really bad, badly thrown, breaking balls at home, and I think I benefited from that over time.
It almost has the effect of a backup breaking pitch, which hitters will tell you is not fun to hit, and I just think my experience there has helped over the years and learning how to shape my pitches when they don't move the same as on the road. The toughest thing is making a constant adjustment of going to sea level and then out of sea level.
I think ... if you can spin the ball, you can have success at Coors, but the pitch that's the most taxed is the sinker. I mean, you're just not going to get the same amount of run and sink on your pitch at Coors. And if you're used to being that guy that kind of forces the hitter to hit the top of the ball and smash on the ground, you're going to be disappointed at Coors when your ball doesn't quite get to that same spot, and they ended up getting more barrel to it.
That's what I've seen over the years. Although I am a heavy two-seam pitcher, I try to be a strikeout pitcher, so I don't try to use it for contact and try to use it at the top of the zone or for a lot of pitches that looked like balls that ended up as strikes. So, it's all about the implementation of the pitches you have and not being too reliant on a contact-heavy approach at Coors. It's just not going to work out for you in the long run. There's too much space there.
If you have a slower-spinny, lob-type breaking ball, it's probably never going to come back down, and you kind of have to learn that slider, cutter, overpowering fastball. Those are all good pitches anywhere. And especially at Coors because they're used to everything looking a little straighter.
So, if you can keep your pitches a little straighter with minute movement, I think that's pretty effective.
On what allowed Kyle Freeland to put up a historic year at Coors in 2018 …
Freeland, who finished fourth in the NL Cy Young voting, had a 2.85 ERA in 2018, the best of any Rockies starter in a non-strike season in team history.
Command, honestly. And deception. And, you know, he's got [guts] out there. I mean, he's just ... he's awesome. He's a throwback in a lot of ways in that when he gets in trouble, he finds a way out of it. I know like his peripheral stats might not be as flashy as like German Marquez, but he was just as effective, if not more effective for us. And a lot of that is because when he needs to make a pitch, he makes a pitch. I mean, he filled up the inside part of the zone at righties and then could also throw his two-seam down and away, right on the corner.
He really figured out how to be, in my opinion, one of the best in the whole world at backdooring his breaking ball. He keeps it right on the edge or off the edge incredibly well. So, he's just not giving them anything really in the middle. He has that hesitation in his delivery, which is tricky, holds runners extremely well.
His mentality is amazing out there, so he does a lot of the little things that you have to do if you're not punching out a ton of guys. And he does those, those are like his … 80-grade tools.
On his 2014 velocity bump preceding 2015 Tommy John surgery...
Ottavino's career average sinker velocity is 93.9 mph, but in 2014, he experienced a massive velocity jump. In April, he was throwing 93.2 mph. By September, he was up to 97.5 mph. He retained most of that to start 2015, throwing 96 mph in a fantastic start, striking out 13 in 10 games -- allowing no runs -- before his season ended in late April with an elbow injury that required Tommy John surgery.
[It was] 100 percent related. This is a phenomenon that's a real thing. Then I saw it firsthand. I was about to go, my elbow was about to go. Basically, what happened there is my ligament was so stretched out that it was barely functional.
I also was very strong those years, which contributed ... but the whole duration of 2014, my elbow was aching. I would wake up in the middle of the night and felt like I had no blood flow to my arm. So, it was a really weird feeling, but it didn't hurt when I pitched. It was just like in the recovery stages. And I just thought maybe after the offseason I'll be all good.
I came back in 2015 and felt amazing. I mean, I came out that first game in Spring Training in 2015 and I was like 98, first game. And ... I was … I knew it was a red flag. I was like, "This is great. People are going to be pumped about this."
But in my head I'm like "... this isn't a good combination." I'm throwing as hard as ever with less effort and my elbow hurts. Something's going to have to give here. I couldn't tell myself to tone it down, you know, just go out there and compete, especially since I was closing at that time. So, you know, that's what happened. And eventually that rope did kind of give in.
On what he'd do against Babe Ruth if he had the chance to face him...
I remember I had an argument with a coach in Triple-A about Babe Ruth's effectiveness in today's game and ... this was like 10 years ago. I said, "Look, Babe Ruth, with that swing, swinging that bat, I got him hitting a buck-forty, eight homers." He's like, "Are you nuts? Babe Ruth would hit .370 with 60 homers."
And I'm like, "I would strike Babe Ruth out every time." I'm not trying to disrespect, you know, rest in peace, shout out to Babe Ruth. But it was a different game. I mean, the guy ate hot dogs and drank beer and did whatever he did, and it was just a different game and guys had to pitch ... three-man rotations and 400 innings, I mean the requirements were just different.