Late last season, and even more so coming into this year, Adam Ottavino made a pair of decisions that changed the way he pitched.
Just past the halfway point of the season, the Mets are reaping the rewards as the veteran reliever has become a valuable weapon out of the bullpen.
For one, Ottavino put an emphasis on not walking as many hitters. His free passes had ballooned in recent seasons as he hunted strikeouts, but his walk rate of 7.9 percent this year is his lowest in a season since 2016.
The second decision tied into the first, as Ottavino opted to pitch more to contact instead of trying to miss bats altogether. It made sense since Ottavino has been among the leaders in lowest average exit velocity allowed since MLB started tracking that data in 2015, including this season. Coming into Friday, his average exit velocity of 83 mph led the National League.
The result? A 2.59 ERA across 34 appearances, including a dominant stretch of late, in which he has given up just two earned runs over his past 21 ²/₃ innings, dating to May 8.
“That was a conscious decision this year to take my chances more with contact,” said Ottavino, who did not appear in the 5-2 loss to the Marlins at Citi Field on Friday night. “The last few years, I’ve had more of a strategy of not giving anybody anything to hit. Being in a lot of big moments, I think that served me well for the most part. But in the aggregate, it’s probably better for me to have less traffic. I took that strategy into the playoffs last year and did pretty well with it. I wanted to roll it over into this year. So that’s the biggest thing: I’m going at guys more. I’m not beating myself as much.”
Ottavino has emerged as a steady presence in the late innings — often the eighth as a setup man for closer Edwin Diaz — as the Mets carry on without the injured Trevor May and with Seth Lugo less effective than usual.
The success can be traced back to last year, which Ottavino spent with the Red Sox. The former Yankee posted a 4.21 ERA that was not necessarily indicative of the way he pitched.
“I had some s–t luck in the second half and gave up some homers in September,” said Ottavino, who credited Red Sox personnel for what he described as a “big learning year.”
In Boston, Ottavino reintroduced a four-seam fastball and changeup to his repertoire, which had become slider-sinker heavy, allowing him to change his mentality as a pitcher.
“For me, I’ve been an east-west pitcher for a lot of my career with horizontal movement,” Ottavino said. “Last year, I was able to add a more prevalent four-seam fastball and changeup, which gives me a little north-south. North-south’s going to generate more swing-and-miss but also harder contact, whereas east-west is going to be less swing-and-miss but weaker contact. So if I can use my east-west game in the zone early on, then I’m either going to get strikes or weak contact. If I get strikes and I get to two strikes, now I can use my north-south game to maybe get the punch-out.
“So I’ve become a more well-rounded pitcher. I’ve become a better pitcher over the course of the last few years. Now I’m just a little better at using it and I’m getting some things to go my way.”
Overall, Ottavino has struck out 37 and walked only 10 in 31 ¹/₃ innings this season, and his new approach has paid dividends so far. He knows “the horrendous luck bug” could be right around the corner, but his recent strong stretch has him pitching with more confidence.
“The more you’re around him, you realize what a competitive furnace is burning underneath,” manager Buck Showalter said. “He’s not going to give in.”