John Harper, SNY.tv | Twitter |
TAMPA, Fla. -- Nobody has created more buzz early in Yankees camp than Adam Ottavino. Aaron Judge singled him out as the one free agent he was most pumped to see his team sign. Hitters whiffing against him in a simulated game a few days ago spoke as if they'd never seen a nastier slider.
And manager Aaron Boone only half-kiddingly said hitters are sometimes more relieved to be done with an at-bat against Ottavino than ticked off after a strikeout because his slider is such a wicked pitch.
When asked about all the praise, Ottavino said he wasn't aware, and the more he talks, the more you can believe him. He may be living out his childhood fantasy, having signed a three-year, $27 million deal with the team he grew up rooting for in Brooklyn. But Ottavino is immersed in his craft, a student of pitching practically from the first time he saw David Cone throw one of his Laredo sliders from a sidearm angle.
"I grew up watching pitchers on TV, trying to imitate them," Ottavino was saying in the Yankee clubhouse on Saturday. "I remember watching David Cone, El Duque, Mike Mussina, Mariano. I was always more enamored with the guys with good control and breaking pitches than the guys that threw heat.
"Cone would change arm angles. I did a lot of that when I was younger, and that helped me develop a feel for my different breaks on my pitches. And in terms of pitch selection, I liked the creativity of Mussina. He'd throw any pitch at any time.
"That's kind of been the mantra for me from day one that my father instilled in me. We'd watch games together and he'd ask me, 'What would you throw in this count?' I was always having those thoughts as I continued pitching."
As such, Ottavino grew up to be a thinking man's pitcher, a first-round draft pick by the Cardinals in 2006 who failed as a starter. But he found success as a reliever for the Rockies, never more so than last season when he allowed only 41 hits in 77 2/3 innings, while racking up 112 strikeouts.
So how was it that he raised his game to its highest level at age 32?
To a large degree, the answer can be found in Ottavino's analytic nature, one that led him to experiment on his own with high-speed cameras that are just now becoming a vital tool for major league teams, allowing pitching coaches to see exactly how the ball comes off pitchers' fingertips.
"I do think I was one of the first to take the high-speed camera seriously," Ottavino said. "Analytically, I knew pretty quickly when I started hearing about spin rates, spin axis, things like that, I needed to understand those things because I knew that's where the game was headed. But for me the visual part of that, the camera component, was the most important thing to me. I've always been somebody who can watch something and kind of mimic it."
Ottavino says it was actually a bit of desperation that led him to the new technology. A disastrous 2017 season, one that he believes was something of an emotional hangover after coming back from Tommy John surgery and pitching well in 2016, pushed him to search for answers.
Throughout his years with the Rockies, Ottavino had continued to live in New York during the offseason, and after the 2017 season, he rented an empty store space in a Harlem strip mall and converted it into something of a baseball laboratory.
"I was so out of whack during 2017 that I had no choice but to use the offseason to make actionable change," Ottavino said. "If I just went about the normal way and trusted my ability, I probably would have had another poor year."
So the right-hander researched the cameras, bought them and set them up in his lab, if you will, then began using them for immediate feedback. He said they were particularly helpful in developing a cutter, thrown harder with smaller break than his various sliders, that became a valuable pitch to him.
"The high-speed cameras helped in a lot of ways," he said. "It always made sense to me because that part of the delivery happens so fast , you can't really see what's happening. And sometimes maybe what you feel isn't actually what's happening. It's kind of like taking a microscope to something. I was able to see how I was releasing pitches: you can see very clearly what you're doing right, what you're doing wrong.
"For me my grip was a little ineffective, and once I figured out my grip, I noticed the pitches that had the better action on them, I was little more pointer-finger dominant on release as opposed to middle-finger dominant for this particular pitch."
Such small details can be the difference between a decent breaking pitch and an unhittable one, and seemingly part of the reason Ottavino had the best season of his career in 2018, setting himself up for his big payday.
As a highly-sought free agent this offseason, he could have gone to a team that would have guaranteed him a more featured role than he might have in the Yankees' loaded bullpen. But the lure of pitching for his favorite childhood team was too much to resist, especially with the promise of being part of a championship-caliber ballclub.
"This is the stage I wanted to pitch on," he said. "As a little boy I always wanted to be a Yankee, but if the team was lousy, that wouldn't have been a huge factor. This team won 100 games last year, and we're right on the edge of being World Series champions. That's the type of thing I want to be part of."
To prepare, he used the cameras again to record offseason throwing sessions in that Harlem store space, convinced that his 2018 success was owed at least partly to the feedback they'd given him the previous winter.
"It's easy to fall into change that can lead to bad habits," Ottavino said. "You think you're doing everything correctly but you might be slipping in some way. But when you're videotaping yourself all the time, especially with the high-speed cameras, you can very clearly see whether you're slipping or not, and how you can resist it."
It's still only February, of course, but the early results have been impressive, to say the least. Yankee hitters, in fact, are thrilled the Grapefruit League games are beginning, so Ottavino can start throwing his famous slider to opposing hitters, rather than them.