Rockies Manager Walt Weiss officially named Adam Ottavino the team’s closer on Tuesday night. He impressed in his first opportunity, and picked up his second save on Wednesday night against the Giants, striking out two in a perfect ninth inning.
He’ll be kept on a relatively short leash as he’s already the third closer the team has had this season, but given that Weiss’ other options are near or past 40 years old, Ottavino should get a fair chance to run away with the gig. Still, LaTroy Hawkins managed to save 23 games with an acceptable 3.31 ERA for the Rockies last season before imploding in his first few opportunities this season, so why should you put your trust in Ottavino?
The first statistic I look at when evaluating any player pitching at Coors Field is ERA-, which is a park-adjusted ERA where 100 is league-average, and each number below is a percentage point better than average. Ottavino’s ERA- over the past two seasons pitching at Coors has been 60 and 84. That means that if you strip away the Colorado thin air, he was 40% better than league-average in 2013, and 16% better in 2014. That skill has been reflected in his FIP, which has hovered around 3.10 over the past two seasons.
Ottavino has been one of the Rockies’ best relievers over the past few seasons, but Coors Field generally doesn’t discriminate between fly balls that should drop for outs and fly balls that should clear the fences. This means success as a Rockies pitcher is predicated on two factors: making sure you don’t let hitters get the ball in the air, and when you fail to do so, making sure those fly balls don’t leave the park. We can measure these factors by looking at FB% and HR/FB rates.
According to FanGraphs, “flyball pitchers” have FB% around 40%, and Ottavino has kept his FB% between 32% and 33% over the past two seasons. Additionally, his HR/FB rate has never gone above 10% in his time at Coors, which can’t be said of many other relievers in the Rockies’ pen. Thin air, don’t care. While these statistics fluctuate significantly year to year, Ottavino certainly wasn’t just getting lucky. His BABIP in 2014 was a ridiculous .347, which in comparison to Hawkins’ mark of .275 might explain why the 42-year-old failed to carry over his success from last season.
One convincing explanation behind Ottavino’s low HR/FB rate is his devastating slider, which he uses around 47% of the time according to Pitchf/x. August Fagerstrom at FanGraphs wrote a great piece about it back in March, describing it as a filthy three-headed pitch with several different movements, but the only thing you need to know is that Ottavino’s slider ranked as the best among all relievers in 2013 according to FanGraph’s Pitch Value statistic. The breaking action is on par with Sergio Romo, and it’s a big reason why he’s posted consistently high strikeout rates (His K/9 is sitting at a ludicrous 17.05 right now.)
Heres the bottom line: Ottavino has great stuff that plays well at Coors, and even if he has a few messy outings, there’s nobody more qualified than him left in the bullpen. He should be picked up and rostered immediately if he’s still on waivers in your league.