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  • The Yankees didn't necessarily need another top reliever, but they signed one of the best on the market in Adam Ottavino.
By Jack Dickey
January 17, 2019

For most all of baseball history, heavy bullpen usage correlated with heavy losses. A team whose relievers logged lots of innings simply needed more starters if it wished to contend. Then came 2018.

Tampa Bay’s relievers (who, working behind “openers,” weren’t exactly relievers) pitched more than 800 innings, and the team won 90 games. Oakland used an opener too, though not as frequently, en route to 641.1 innings from its pen and 97 wins. Milwaukee got 614 innings out of its bullpen—more than a third of which came from the hydra of Josh Hader, Corey Knebel and Jeremy Jeffress—and won the NL Central. The 100-win Yankees ranked ninth in relief innings pitched, with 594.2. Compared to New York, the Astros’ relievers worked 95 fewer innings, but the starter-flush club won only three more games.

No aces? No problem!

All of which explains the Yankees’ decision Thursday to add one of the free-agent market’s top relievers, Adam Ottavino, to a bullpen already stacked enough to shorten games. The 33-year-old Ottavino’s deal is reportedly for three years and $27 million, something of a discount relative to expectations, but one the Brooklyn native may have accepted to live in his hometown.

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Just as bullpens had their defining year in 2018, Ottavino had his own. For years the righty had worked successfully if anonymously in relief for the Rockies. In 2017, though, his walk and home run rates climbed to the highest levels of his career, and Ottavino was left off the roster for the wild-card game. He devoted the ensuing offseason to retooling his approach, aided by high-speed cameras and the baseball senseis at Driveline. He turned his slider from a would-be swing-and-miss pitch that batters avoided to one he could throw for strikes early in the count. His walk rate fell; his strikeout rate climbed; based on Statcast data encompassing walks, strikeouts, and quality of contact, only Edwin Díaz of the Mariners (now Mets) and Blake Treinen of the A’s were tougher on hitters as relievers in 2018 than Ottavino was.

In past years, his performance might have been dismissed as a contract-year fluke. In the age of player reinvention, though, breakout seasons can erase, in teams’ eyes, whatever scuffling came beforehand.

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The Yankees’ bullpen should dominate opponents and periodically bail out the team’s good (but not great) rotation. Ottavino ranked eighth among all relievers last year in strikeout percentage (36%), just a few spots behind his new teammates, Aroldis Chapman (44%) and Dellin Betances (42%), who ranked third and fourth. Chad Green, with a career 33% strikeout rate, is still here, as is Tommy Kahnle, who lost most of 2018 to injuries and ineffectiveness but excelled in 2017. And in free agency the Yankees retained former Oriole Zach Britton, who was unhittable as a closer from 2014 to 2016, but lost veteran David Robertson.

Will the additions of Ottavino and starter James Paxton—plus infielders D.J. Lemahieu and Troy Tulowitzki—be enough to power New York past the Red Sox? Nobody knows. The idea of a flawed 100-win team boggles the mind.

But Ottavino’s arrival in New York is yet another sign that bullpens remain ascendant. If the Yankees feel comfortable building from the back end, so too must every other club.

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