Prior to the holidays (and the ongoing Carlos Correa saga), the Mets another more modest addition, bringing back Adam Ottavino on a two-year, $14.5M deal. Ottavino also has an opt-out after the first year, giving the 37-year-old another shot at a significant payday if he can replicate his 2022 numbers.
After a couple down seasons in 2020 and 2021, it seemed like Ottavino might be done as a real late-inning reliever. His walk-rates had ballooned, he allowed a ton of hard contact, and he couldn’t keep his ERA under four. The Mets struck gold though, betting on Ottavino in 2022 on a cheap deal and finding themselves with one of the better setup men in baseball. Ottavino’s 2.06 ERA was his best since 2019, his 2.35 FIP his best since 2018, and his 73 DRA- the second best mark of his career (behind a 72 mark he posted in 2016). Quite a turning-back-the-clock performance.
Consulting Statcast, we find that Ottavino’s bounce back season was driven by improvements to his slider and sinker. While his 4-seamer took a massive step back (-2.9 RV/100 in 2021, 4.2 RV/100 in 2022), his sinker went from an average pitch to a well above average one (-1.6 RV/100). His slider, meanwhile, looked more like the high-end offering it was in 2018, with a RV/100 of -3, 4th best in baseball behind Edwin Diaz, Max Scherzer, and Camilo Doval.
The results-based drivers of these changes are quite different. Ottavino’s sinker actually induced fewer whiffs last year than it did in 2022, but batters simply couldn’t square it up; He held batters without a single blast (a strong barrel) off his sinker the entire season and generally prevented any sort of solid contact, driving his xWOBAcon from an ugly .430 to a strong .300. Meanwhile, while the quality of contact metrics against his slider were better - .322 wOBAcon versus .371 in 2021 - the larger driver was a massive increase in whiffs. Batters swung more often (49.7% versus 40.2%) and missed more often when doing so (36.1% versus 27.6%), giving Ottavino an extremely effective strikeout weapon.
Identifying what drove these changes is a bit more challenging. Ottavino’s release point shifted slightly, dropping down to a subtly more sidearm delivery. He maintained his elite spin deviation (read this great piece from BP for more on what this means) on his sinker and added more deviation to his slider. He also changed his slider shape, moving to an offering with less vertical movement. This, coupled with his minor delivery change gave him a below average vertical attack angle (good) and an above average horizontal attack angle (also good). Put more simply, Ottavino dipped his toes into the sweepy slider fad that has swept the league (pun intended) in recent years. Subtle changes, particularly given the sample sizes involved, but they are notable.
I think these changes are real, and the improved top-line results speak for themselves to a degree. At the same time, we’re dealing with a relatively small sample size from a 37-year-old reliever who has a long history of control problems. Ottavino has also lost a tick on his fastball last year, a less critical element for a sinker but still something to watch as a sign of aging. As we talked about with the David Robertson signing, projecting relievers is often a fool’s errand, doubly so for older guys, and there’s always a shot this goes south in a hurry. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that such a fall off is likely, but it’s also reasonable to expect some regression from Ottavino in 2023.
Nevertheless, it seems like the Mets got good value here. Ottavino signed for near identical money (sans opt out) to Seth Lugo, a pitcher he clearly outperformed last year. Kenley Jansen, who isn’t meaningfully better, got twice as much money. Craig Kimbrel, who is probably worse, got more in AAV on a one-year deal. More importantly, the Mets are not relying on Ottavino to close or even be the primary setup man; instead, he’s the 7th inning option and insurance in case Robertson regresses. That’s the ideal role for this profile, and if Ottavino is able to post numbers closer to his excellent 2022 line than we expect, the Mets could have a truly elite group at the back of the bullpen. That’s enough for this deal to earn a B+.