The Yankees bullpen is a treat for pitching nerds like me. You want velocity? Oh, we got velocity. How about the hardest-throwing reliever ever, Aroldis Chapman? Oh, you’re into turbo sinkers? Take a gander at Zack Britton, who wields a pitch so nasty he can’t control it.
Ah, I see that doesn’t interest you. A man of a certain taste, eh? No problem. How about a righty with a twisty delivery and a hook so indescribably nasty it has flummoxed hitters for years and lights up Baseball Twitter a few nights a week?
Ottavino, signed this winter from the Colorado Rockies, has become a staple of Aaron Boone‘s late-inning strategy. Uh, duh. Ottavino’s deceptive delivery makes his stuff all the harder to hit, and his stuff is among the best in the world (as you just saw). He throws in the upper-90s with movement and spins one of the best sliders of any reliever in the sport. He’s truly a marvel to watch, to the point it can feel unfair to expect a hitter to do anything against Ottavino, Britton and Chapman. What a trio.
He was elite in Colorado and he’s been elite in New York: 34 innings, 1.56 ERA. Boone has turned to him to wiggle in and out of some sticky situations, and he has. The Yankees manager is blessed with a bullpen full of high-strikeout artists, particularly Ottavino and Chapman. The latter is somewhat pigeonholed into save situations only; the former, though, is wielded much more strategically. It’s a testament to Boone that he will deploy Ottavino as the situation requires.
But, the Yankees might run into an issue over the summer. Ottavino has done an exceptional job stranding runners this year. He’s left 99 percent of his runners on base. Ninety-nine. Just think about that for a second. That percentage is absolutely bonkers — a testament to Ottavino’s skill, first and foremost — and cannot be expected to hold. Some of those runners are going to score this summer and that ERA will climb.
Let’s consider the history. He’s stranded no higher than 80 percent the last three seasons; the league average for relievers this year is 72.7 percent. Ottavino is by no means average, and expecting his strand rate to collapse to that number might be too harsh. He’s awesome, he punches out a lot of batters (his strikeout rate ranks 19th among relievers with at least 30 innings pitched) and he’s mature enough to know how to make big pitches in big moments.
That said, he also gives up a lot of free passes — such is the burden of wielding such electric stuff: see Chapman, Aroldis). The walks worry me; they make high-leverage outs all that harder to nail down. The Yankee bullpen tends to make its own life harder.
The Yankees front office is surely aware that Ottavino could regress a bit as the season wears on. If they weren’t already, especially with Dellin Betances down for longer than any of us hoped, the team needs to add another lights-out option for Boone. It isn’t realistic to expect any reliever to make so many high-leverage pitches, especially when some of those high-leverage situations are self-induced. There will probably be some back-breaking three-run homers over the summer; that’s how we get from a mid-1 ERA to about the 3.40 range Ottavino might end up settling at. It’s normal.
No reliever is perfect, and Ottavino’s exceptional first half has helped the Yankees mitigate the loss of the team’s best reliever to injury. Enjoy the sliders and the darting two-seam fastballs, just don’t be surprised if his ERA climbs alongside the temperatures.