The Mets began a very busy offseason by signing Edwin Díaz to a five-year deal, locking down the best reliever the team has seen in quite some time on a record contract for a reliever. That alone is something that would have been impossible in offseasons past, but the fact that the team didn’t just stop there in building out its bullpen is perhaps even more encouraging.
The 37-year-old right-handed reliever was born in Manhattan and raised in Brooklyn, and he was drafted out of high school by the Rays in the 30th round in 2003 but didn’t sign. Three years later, the Cardinals used a first-round pick on Ottavino, and he promptly got his professional career started in their system as a starting pitcher.
Never a top-100 prospect, Ottavino worked his way up the minor league ranks and got his first major league chance in 2010. In just 22.1 innings over the course of three starts and two relief outings, however, he had an 8.46 ERA. The Cardinals outrighted him following that season and kept him in Triple-A for all of 2011, continuing to use him as a starting pitcher. He had a 4.85 ERA at that level in his age-25 season, not exactly an encouraging return.
In early April of 2012, Ottavino was claimed off waivers by the Rockies, an organization whose appeal to pitchers—Mike Hampton aside—is understandably limited. To their credit, the Rockies tried something that the Cardinals hadn’t, moving Ottavino into the bullpen in Triple-A immediately upon adding him. He’s pitched exclusively in relief since then.
Ottavino’s time at Triple-A that year was relatively brief, and aside from injury rehab work in in 2016 following Tommy John surgery in early 2015, he didn’t spend any time in the minors after that promotion. Over the course of seven seasons with the Rockies, he totaled a 3.15 ERA and was very consistent, with only his 2017 season ending with a poor ERA along the way.
There was one alarming thing about that 2017 season, even though he bounced back very nicely in 2018. Ottavino’s walk rate, which had never been an issue in his time with the Rockies before, was a staggering 16.0 percent. Walks remained an issue for him in the 2019 and 2020 seasons, which he spent with the Yankees. In the first of those two years, he managed to put up a 1.90 ERA despite the walks. In the short 2020 season, though, he had a 5.89 ERA, albeit in just 18.1 innings.
Following that season, Ottavino signed with the Red Sox for one year, and he continued to struggle with walks. He finished the year with a 4.21 ERA, which was hardly terrible but wasn’t anywhere near as good as much of his previous work.
The Mets signed Ottavino to a one-year deal coming off that season in Boston, and the results were fantastic. In his age-36 season, he cut his walk rate substantially—all the way down to 6.2 percent, his first time in single digits in that metric since 2016. Given that improvement, it’s not surprising that he put together a 2.06 ERA over the course of 65.2 innings last year.
Ottavino will play for the United States in the World Baseball Classic this spring, but as far as the Mets go, he figures to be crucial to their success in the late innings this season. All of the major projection systems suggest that his walk rate and ERA will tick upward this year, but none suggest that he will fully return to the higher rates he had posted in 2020 and 2021 with the Yankees in Red Sox.
If Ottavino simply pitches to the projections—an ERA in the low-to-mid three range with a walk rate around 10 percent—he will still be a valuable part of the Mets’ bullpen this year. If he manages to keep the walks down like he did last year, though, he could match what he did in his first season with the team.