Adam Ottavino Rebuilt Himself in a Vacant Manhattan Storefront

Between West 124th and 125th Streets on St. Nicholas Ave. in Harlem rests a street-level commercial space situated between a Dollar Tree and a Chuck E. Cheese’s, and it is where Adam Ottavino might have saved his career last winter.

The space was a solution to a problem. He lived in the city in the offseason with his wife and two-year-old daughter. In previous offseasons, he had traveled out to Long Island to work and throw at a facility, but the commute and practice time away was beginning to strain his family.

Moreover, Ottavino’s previous throwing partner, Steven Matz, had left the city and moved Nashville, Tenn., after becoming engaged. Finding a throwing partner and facility in Manhattan, the most prized real estate in the country, wasn’t easy. He knew Matt Harvey was one of a few major-league pitchers living in the city in the offseason, so he asked Harvey if he was interested in finding a place to throw, but Harvey declined.

“At that point, I was kind of screwed,” Ottavino said. “I didn’t know what to do.”

Ottavino, a Brooklyn native, required a productive offseason. He was left off the Rockies’ Wild Card roster weeks earlier after an awful 2017 season when he walked nearly seven batters per nine innings, leading to a 16% walk rate. He was in the final year of his contract. He had spent some time at Driveline Baseball after the season ended. He thought he had now had some solutions. He had bought tens of thousands of dollars worth of equipment with which to try and make himself a better pitcher. But he needed a place to experiment.

His father-in-law, a real-estate developer, had an idea. He had a vacated commercial property, a former Nine West shoe store, that rented at $22,000 per month. He would allow Ottavino to use the space for four months for free that winter as a high-tech, makeshift throwing facility. It was a block from the “A” and “C” trains that would allow for him to have a short commute back into the city.

Ottavino recalled his father-in-law’s rationale behind the generous offer: “Because I love you, but also because you’re going to get me a Nolan Arenado-signed bat.”

Ottavino got the bat. Then he went to work in the Harlem commercial space. He plastered black paper on the storefront, ceiling-to-floor windows, to conceal what was occurring inside. Ottavino wanted to keep out prying eyes. The vacant space was empty save for some curious items.

“It was funny, there were people out there all day looking in,” Ottavino said.

The experiment began, a process which helped Ottavino to a dramatic turnaround in performance early this season. He has recorded a 46.6-point difference between his strikeout and walk rates, compared to just 9.9 points last year. He’s become one of the most valuable relief pitchers in the game.

“The last year was such a disaster on so many levels,” Ottavino said. “I felt like, and I still feel this way, the longer you play — especially in one division — you have to be a little bit different. You have to keep improving or they are going to catch up to you.”

***

Ottavino is a curious person. He’s looked at TrackMan data for years. He employed his breaking ball at Rich Hill-like levels before Rich Hill was doing so. And as he struggled through his 2017 campaign, he read more and more about pitchers who had gone off to places like Driveline to attempt to improve their velocity and other skills.

He had already employed a Rapsodo camera and “flight analytics” to measure his spin. He liked that the system allowed him to evaluate his spin efficiency. He wanted the cameras to understand the “whys” and “hows” of his craft at as detailed a level as possible. Ottavino took camera technology to the next level after the season as he also bought an Edgertronic SC2 high-speed camera, which captures 3,350 frames per second. The small blue camera sells for $16,000 and a number of teams have purchased them over the past year.

“I found out about the cameras and I called them up and asked, ‘Have baseball people been calling you?’” Ottavino said. “[They said,] ‘Yeah, yeah.’ So I bought that, too.”

To better understand what he should be looking for, what he should be practicing — how he should be practicing and using the cameras to maximum effect — he traveled to Seattle, Wash. shortly after the season and spent a week at Driveline.

Ottavino wasn’t so much interested in trying to add velocity. He wanted to design a new pitch and improve his command. Ottavino wanted a pitch he could throw in the zone for strikes and weak contact, as opponents dropped their swing rate against him from 42.2% in 2016 to 35.0% last season. Ottavino notes that only Dellin Betances had a lower swing rate (34.6%) last season.

“The previous year [2016], I think I got a lot of swings. People didn’t want to get to two strikes,” Ottavino said. “Last year, [batters] said, ‘We’re just going to stand here and he’ll walk us.’ And I did. I walked everyone.”

While he had an 11% swinging-strike rate, opponents simply stopped swinging at his Whiffle-ball like breaking ball, as shown here by Rob Friedman.

Opponents learned Ottavino was having trouble throwing strikes. He threw just 43% of pitches in the strike zone last year and first-pitch strikes at just a 46.9% rate.

“It’s hard to throw strikes when you have to get them called by the umpire,” Ottavino said. “My pitches move a lot. I was out of whack mechanically. That was step one, being able to throw strikes with my pitches again.”

He also wanted another option, a pitch between his fastball and breaking ball that he could more often throw in the zone for strikes and swinging strikes. Ottavino said there was a “gap in his arsenal” of pitches. Ottavino and Driveline pitching trainer Matt Daniels settled upon a cut fastball. For five days, he threw off the mound at Driveline looking at the movement of the pitches and his mechanics and grip. But perhaps as important was Daniels explaining the physics behind the pitch, how they were trying to develop better gyroscopic spin. Not all spin is the same, as Driveline has found.

“If you throw a four-seam fastball, the air interacts with it and it kind of resists the gravity,” Ottavino said. “Or, on my big breaking ball, it spins like a globe, so that’s why it moves a lot to the left because of the orientation. But if a ball is spinning like a bullet would [shot out of a rifled barrel], it actually doesn’t move it all. But it’s hard to throw it exactly like that so you get as close as you can to that. That’s where that spin efficiency comes in… If you have that, it’s going to be relatively straight with some movement.”

He began to see the power of the high-speed cameras as teaching tools.

“Sometimes what your brain is telling you is happening is not really happening,” Ottavino said. “[The high-speed] cameras cut the timeline down immensely. [Without the cameras,] it’s trial and error that could have taken years. But with the cameras, it was like four days and I was on the right track.

“It’s great for being a visual leaner like a lot of us are. A lot of us learn by watching someone on TV and emulating what they do. It’s the same concept, but you’re watching your hand and saying, ‘Oh that’s right.’ It gives you a much better feel for how to practice… Going out there helped. They spoke they same language and they had a little more experience with the equipment. That way when I went home I could practice the right way.”

After learning how to operate and maximize the camera, after learning more about gyroscopic spin and laminar flow, Ottavino returned home to perhaps the most interesting, and expensive, private bullpen in history.

***

His father-in-law’s narrow commercial space, at 80 feet deep, was perfect for a pitching mound. Ottavino outfitted it with a store-bought mound, a strip of artificial turf, netting, and, of course, his cameras. It was the ultimate urban throwing space. How many indoor pitching facilities were there in Manhattan? There certainly couldn’t be many. Were there any with high-speed cameras? Ottavino added something else, a pitching pad, signage designed to improve his mental focus. The pad had four color-coded quadrants over-laying a strike zone, which was also assigned with numbers. When training, a throwing partner could call out a color and or number as Ottavino went into his motion and he would try and hit the target.

Ottavino started getting calls from other professional and high-level amateur pitchers in the city.

“Once word spreads that you have a place to throw, you’d be surprised how many people come out of the woodwork,” Ottavino said.

Ottavino would have friends and random pitchers over to the space. Sometimes he’d find a catcher. But much of his work was alone.

While his cutter development has been well documented this spring, including a piece by Eno Sarris, Ottavino said the revelation hasn’t been his cutter.

Jeff Sullivan has also written a interesting adjustment Ottavino made in slider usage by count.

But what Ottavino said has been key is his improved command. Ottanivo would make a pitch, he would evaluate his grip and release on video, he would make a slight adjustment and keep making incremental improvements.

“A cue I learned was what to do with my pointer finger,” Ottavino said. “I would have never thought of it without seeing it on the camera. I wouldn’t have believed that was what was happening. I would have thought it had been more middle finger [being key] until you see it.”

Last season, 41.9% of his sliders went for balls. This season? Just 25.2%.

Ottavino said the cameras and offseason work allowed him to better understand grip and release, which he’s refined. His zone rate has spiked nearly seven percentage points to 50%, and his first-pitch strike mark has improved from 46.9% to 60.0%. Only Tyson Ross had a worse first-pitch strike mark last season. Ottavino is simply getting in more favorable counts, which he credits to feel and command. He’s cut his walk rate from 16.1% to 7.3%.

Consider Ottavino’s 2017 slider heat map:

And his 2018 slider heat map:

“I haven’t gotten many swinging strikes with the [cutter]. It’s set up some things,” Ottavino said. “It’s been nice, but I don’t think that’s been the main thing. The main thing is my first-pitch strikes are good. Little bit of change in what fastball type, and where I am throwing. Better mental game. More focus. The pitch-design stuff, I am going to continue to use [it]. I think everyone will… But I think to me, that’s not a magic bullet.”

For Ottavino, the offseason wasn’t so much about building a better pitch but a better way to practice.

When Ottavino readied for spring training, he put his homemade, high-tech bullpen into storage. A “For Lease” sign went up in the window of the space in Harlem. He traveled to Arizona. He doesn’t know where he will throw next offseason, but that space will always be special to him. What he did there, the equipment and process he used there, might have saved his career.

We hoped you liked reading Adam Ottavino Rebuilt Himself in a Vacant Manhattan Storefront by Travis Sawchik!

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A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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Jim
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Jim

Excellent work, Travis.