NEW YORK — The setting was perfect for the introduction of a prominent free agent who’d just reached an agreement on a homecoming of sorts to address his new team’s late-innings need. On Jan. 19, Adam Ottavino arrived at Fenway Park to address an audience in the ballpark’s Dell EMC Club.
But Ottavino was not in Boston to announce an agreement with the Red Sox. Instead, he was appearing in Fenway two days after he’d reached a three-year, $27 million deal with the Yankees. Ottavino, a Brooklyn native who’d pitched at Northeastern in college, had come to Boston as the headline speaker at his alma mater’s baseball fundraiser. He was on familiar terrain — a short walk to his former campus, less than a 30-minute walk to Parsons Field — yet he was entering Fenway as a Red Sox rival.
“That was kind of funny,” reflected Ottavino. “There were obviously some people who were a little bit disappointed about what ended up happening.”
A bit more than two months into Ottavino’s first year in New York, any disappointment among the Red Sox fans in the crowd at that dinner likely hasn’t abated. On two straight nights this weekend, the Yankees have summoned Ottavino to deliver pivotal outs against the Red Sox. On both nights, he’s delivered, producing a scoreless sixth inning against the heart of the Red Sox lineup in Friday’s 4-1 win and delivering a key strikeout of J.D. Martinez with two on and two out in the sixth inning in Saturday’s 5-3 win.
Ottavino, in his first year with the Yankees, has been doing a lot of that in New York. He hasn’t allowed either a run or extra-base hit in his last 17 outings dating to April 22. On the year, the reliever has a 1.30 ERA while holding opponents to a .163 average.
His performance makes for an easy free agent “what-if” for the Red Sox, who entered the offseason with two of their most prominent 2018 bullpen members, Craig Kimbrel and Joe Kelly, as free agents. Ottavino was aware of the vacancies in the Boston bullpen — as a Northeastern alum, a number of his former teammates made no secret of how excited they’d be if the righthander returned to pitch in Boston — and so he was unsurprised when the Red Sox contacted him shortly after he arrived on the open market this offseason.
“Early on, they were one of the first teams that called,” said Ottavino. “But it never really progressed from that point. I think they were kind of looking to see what they were going to do, see where my level of interest was, communicated a little bit initially, then over time it went quiet and they never really jumped back in.”
Why not? Early in the offseason, the Red Sox cast a relatively wide cursory net to explore their initial options in the offseason, particularly with regards to the bullpen market. But when the team locked up Nathan Eovaldi on a four-year, $68 million deal, it had made a choice of how to invest its offseason budget. A significant expenditure on the most prominent relievers on the market was no longer an option.
And so, it was the Yankees who signed Ottavino, who was coming off a breakthrough year with the Rockies in which he’d forged a 2.43 ERA in a massive 77⅔ -inning workload out of the bullpen during which he’d struck out 112 batters (13.0 per nine innings), and who are now benefiting from a nasty three-pitch arsenal (a two-seam fastball that averages 94 miles per hour, an 88 m.p.h. cutter, and an 83 m.p.h. slider).
Ottavino’s next scheduled visit to Fenway will be in late July, this time in the visitor’s clubhouse and bullpen rather than the EMC Club.
Striking development for Benintendi
Andrew Benintendi entered Sunday with a .257/.357/.416 line, a considerable decline from the .299/.382/.520 line he had through 57 team games in 2018. Benintendi continues to get on base at a high rate, even if less frequently than through a similar point last year. And when he’s making contact, the impact is similar to what it was a year ago in terms of exit velocity, meaning he’s hitting the ball as hard as he did last year.
But he’s making contact far less frequently than he did last year or indeed at any other point in his career. Benintendi’s strikeout rate is up from 18.3 percent in 2018 to 23.3 percent this year. Meanwhile, he’s swinging-and-missing at 12.4 percent of all the pitches he’s seen – up significantly from his 8.7 percent career swing-and-miss rate entering 2019.
“The numbers overall, the real numbers he has compared to last year, they’re almost identical,” said manager Alex Cora, presumably referring to the 24-year-old’s batted ball data. “We don’t like the strikeouts. He doesn’t like the strikeouts either. That’s something he hasn’t done throughout his career. [It’s] just happening right now. Out of the whole thing, the strikeouts are the ones that you look and you’re like, ‘This is out of the norm.’”
As the rotation turns
The Red Sox will have Eduardo Rodriguez start on Tuesday in Kansas City, followed by Chris Sale on Wednesday. The team has yet to decide who will start Thursday’s series finale, with Ryan Weber, Mike Shawaryn, and Rick Porcello all representing options identified by Cora . . . Eovaldi threw a bullpen session on Sunday. He’ll throw a two-inning simulated game against teammates in Kansas City on Tuesday, after which the Red Sox will make a determination about whether he’s ready for a rehab assignment . . . With Mitch Moreland and Steve Pearce on the injured list, the Red Sox expect to use Michael Chavis as their primary first baseman with Brock Holt at second against righties. Moreland, on the injured list since May 29 (retroactive to May 26) due to a lower back strain, was expected to take swings off a tee in Boston on Sunday. He’s eligible to be activated as soon as Wednesday.