Forget Babe Ruth, Yankees get the guy who could strike him out

ByDavid Schoenfield ESPN logo
Friday, January 18, 2019

Yankees fans have been clamoring for an impact addition this offseason, and they finally got one: the guy who said he would strike out Babe Ruth every time.

Last offseason, Adam Ottavino reinvented himself by throwing in a vacant Manhattan storefront, a former Nine West store that his father-in-law, a real estate developer, was looking to rent out for $22,000 a month. He would let Ottavino work out in the facility for a small fee: a Nolan Arenado-signed bat. With the help of high-tech cameras -- and after a week at the Driveline baseball facility outside Seattle to help understand the technology -- Ottavino developed a new pitch to go with his fastball and whiffle ball-like slider. It was a cutter he could throw more often in the strike zone than his slider, against which batters had learned to lay off.

It paid off for the Brooklyn native, who emerged as one of the most dominant relievers in the game, posting a 2.43 ERA for the Rockies with 112 strikeouts in 77 innings and holding batters to a .158 average. And in the wake of that turnaround, in December the newly minted free agent shared the story of his previously telling a coach, "I would strike Babe Ruth out every time," while noting how much the game has changed since Ruth's heyday back in the 1920s. And while there's no debating that the game has changed, the claim did generate some consideration, like Tim Keown asking whether Ottavino's claim was hubris or hilarious.

Given last season's performance and his offseason home in New York, it's not exactly a surprise that Ottavino has landed with the Yankees on a three-year, $27 million deal, according to ESPN's Jeff Passan. What might already have been the best bullpen in the majors just got better. Consider this group:

Aroldis Chapman: .136 average (4th), 43.9 percent strikeout rate (3rd)

Dellin Betances: .186 average, (19th), 42.3 percent strikeout rate (4th)

Ottavino: .158 average (8th), 36.2 percent strikeout rate (10th)

Zach Britton: .201 average, 20.1 percent strikeout rate

Chad Green: .229 average, 31.5 percent SO rate (23rd)

Jonathan Holder: .216 average, 22.1 percent SO rate

Beyond that group, you have Tommy Kahnle, who was dominant in 2017 (2.59 ERA, 96 K's in 62 innings) but battled injuries in 2018; Jonathan Loaisiga, whom the Yankees are still trying to develop as a starter but might end up in the bullpen due to injury concerns; and Stephen Tarpley, a lefty who impressed in a late-season call-up. In 2018, the Yankees bullpen became the first in MLB history to strike out 30 percent of the batters it faced -- and that could happen again, especially if Britton comes closer to his 2014-2016 level of performance and Kahnle bounces back.

Put it this way: Aaron Boone will never have any problems if he's wavering on pulling a starter. If in doubt, go to the bullpen -- especially in October, after a couple of slow hooks in the division series cost the Yankees against the Red Sox.

FanGraphs already projected the Yankees with the best bullpen before signing Ottavino, pegging the unit for 6.4 fWAR, leading the Brewers (4.7), Mets (4.2), Astros (4.1) and Padres (3.8).

The Yankees have had an interesting offseason. Heading into it, certainly the expectations -- at least from Yankees fans -- were that they would sign Manny Machado or Bryce Harper. Certainly a couple of years ago, the Yankees would have been an overwhelming favorite to sign Harper, given his boyhood affinity for pinstripes. The Giancarlo Stanton trade last offseason put a wrench into fitting Harper on the roster, and they've appeared lukewarm at best on Machado.

Indeed, after signing DJ LeMahieu, the New York Daily News ran this backpage headline on Thursday: "THE SNORE 4," referring to the major offseason acquisitions of LeMahieu, James Paxton, Britton and Troy Tulowitzki. (They also re-signed J.A. Happ, CC Sabathia and Brett Gardner.)

This is the new Yankee way of doing business, especially with the acquisition and development of young talent like Aaron Judge, Luis Severino, Gleyber Torres and Miguel Andujar in recent seasons. The Yankees haven't signed a $100 million free agent since the 2013-14 offseason, when they signed Masahiro Tanaka for $155 million (plus a $20 million signing fee) and Jacoby Ellsbury to an ill-advised $153 million deal that still has two seasons remaining.

Maybe the Yankees still feel burned by that contract, but Machado and Harper aren't Ellsbury, who was a 30-year-old outfielder coming off a nine-homer season. The Steinbrenners simply don't want to spend money like their dad did, even though the enormous revenues of the Yankees could certainly support a higher payroll.

In the case of Machado, you have to wonder if there's another reason why the Yankees maybe aren't that interested: They want Nolan Arenado, a free agent after 2019. Is it just a coincidence the Yankees have signed three former Rockies in LeMahieu, Ottavino and Tulowitzki? Passing on Machado also gives the Yankees another season to see if Andujar can improve his defense at third base, which would only improve his trade value if the team does go after Arenado next offseason.

Of course, there's the bigger issue of the 2019 season first: Have the Yankees done enough to catch the Red Sox? As good as the Yankees look on paper right now, they still finished eight games behind the Red Sox last season. The FanGraphs projections have the Red Sox at 97 wins and the Yankees at 95 (before accounting for Ottavino). In other words, essentially even.

The offseason also is far from over, as there are still about 150 free agents unsigned. The Red Sox need bullpen help, and with Ottavino off the market, Craig Kimbrel is the only clear closer option remaining -- but GM Dave Dombrowski says the Red Sox aren't interested in spending big to add a closer. Here's another crazy thought: Could the Red Sox be the sleeper team in on Machado? The Red Sox weren't that at good third base in 2018, hitting .247/.291/.420 to rank just 22nd in the majors in wOBA.

Rafael Devers is obviously very young, but he's no defensive whiz, so his value is all on his bat. The Red Sox -- the one team out there seemingly not using the luxury tax as a salary cap -- could sign Machado and maybe flip Devers to the Padres, a team looking for a young third baseman and with maybe the deepest farm system in the majors. The team with the lowest-ranked farm system? The Red Sox.

I'll take the over on 97 wins for both teams.

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