The Red Sox might not use Adam Ottavino as a traditional closer
The only thing more surprising than consummating a rare trade with the rival New York Yankees is that the Boston Red Sox aren’t immediately inserting their shiny new toy at the top of their bullpen hierarchy.
Adam Ottavino is now the highest-priced reliever on the Red Sox roster and easily has the highest upside based on track record but Boston’s brass isn’t committing to naming him as their new closer. When Chaim Bloom addressed the media regarding the trade he made it clear that Ottavino will be a vital part of the late-inning strategy but stopped short of locking him into a ninth inning role, per MassLive’s Christopher Smith.
"“Bottom line, we think we just acquired someone who’s really capable of pitching in any kind of late-inning situation,” Bloom said Monday. “How that shakes out as far as who closes, that’s something we’re still going to discuss. But it’s just nice to have somebody with experience doing it and experience pitching in those situations to add to our mix and then figure it out from there.”"
Bloom isn’t done building this roster yet so his reluctance to anoint Ottavino as his closer might be his way of leaving the door open for another move to bring in a more traditional option. Ottavino has served in that capacity before, tallying 19 career saves, but he’s primarily been a setup arm who bridges the gap to the closer.
The versatility that Ottavino offers by accepting various roles allows manager Alex Cora to be flexible with his bullpen. We often put too much stock in relievers who can handle a save situation, glorifying those who manage to protect a three-run lead. If the Red Sox are clinging to a one-run lead with the heart of the opposing order coming up in the eighth inning, that’s the high-leverage situation where they need their best reliever. Why entrust a less reliable option at a potential turning point in the game simply to keep your closer on standby for a save situation that may never come?
Which reliever to deploy could boil down to matchups. Ottavino has always been tough on right-handed hitters, holding them to a .212 average and .615 OPS in his career. Lefties have fared better with a .270 average and .792 OPS. The splits aren’t extreme enough to peg Ottavino as a situational reliever but the Red Sox might prefer to use Darwinzon Hernandez (.096 AVG, .400 OPS vs LHB) or Josh Taylor (.203 AVG, .580 OPS vs LHB) if multiple left-handed bats are due up in the ninth.
One thing we can be certain of is that any hesitance to insert Ottavino into the closer role doesn’t stem from concerns about bouncing back from a down 2020 season. Boston wouldn’t have burned a significant chunk of their remaining budget on a reliever they weren’t expecting to be a key part of their bullpen.
Ottavino owned an unsightly 5.89 ERA in 24 relief appearances for the Yankees last season but there are several reasons why we can chalk that up to a small sample-sized fluke.
Six of the 12 runs that Ottavino surrendered last season came in one meltdown against the Toronto Blue Jays. Every pitcher is entitled to the occasional bad day but the damage is magnified in a sample of only 18 1/3 innings during a shortened season. Take that hiccup out of the equation and Ottavino produced a very respectable 2.95 ERA in his 23 other appearances.
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We can dig deeper to find evidence that Ottavino didn’t regress nearly as much as his brutal ERA suggests. He maintained an elite strikeout rate with a 12.3 K/9. There was no notable decline in velocity with his two-seam fastball dipping only slightly from 93.9 mph in 2019 to 93.4 mph last season, per Baseball Savant. Ottavino pairs that sinking two-seam fastball primarily with a wipe-out slider that he generated a 34.7% whiff rate with last season, almost identical to his rate the previous year (34.3%).
There are also outliers from Ottavino’s 2020 production that aren’t sustainable over a full season. His .375 BABIP was well above the league average and significantly higher than his .306 career rate. He also struggled to strand runners on base, posting a career-low 66.2 LOB% that pales in comparison to his career 76.7% rate. These factors, combined with most of his other metrics remaining relatively normal, suggest that Ottavino was extremely unlucky last year.
The Red Sox can’t possibly be serious about contending if they plan to use Matt Barnes as their primary closer. We have ample evidence that he isn’t suited for that role but he can still be a part of the late-inning puzzle. Ideally, Bloom still has another move up his sleeve to add a proven closer.
Even if the Red Sox don’t add another reliever, the bullpen should be stable with Ottavino seeing his fair share of save opportunities. Barnes could get some work in lower-leverage save situations if Ottavino is called upon earlier and they can mix in the lefties in certain situations.
Boston was already well-positioned to improve a bullpen that ranked among the worst in baseball last season by virtue of the depth they have added and improved health. Trading for Ottavino is another step toward turning that weakness into a strength and he’ll be a vital part of the bullpen’s success regardless of which inning he pitches.