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being adam ottavino: "a lot to learn about myself"

for those of you who are sick of the 2-seamer / 4-seamer discussion, the interview that follows isn't exclusively focused on that subject --- there's plenty of other stuff in here about learning to be a professional pitcher, and i hope you find it interesting. but when you talk to or about ottavino, the 2-seamer is bound to come up. when i interviewed him last year, he had only been in the cardinal system for a few weeks and was just getting his initial exposure to pitch-to-contactism. here's what he told me:

since i got here, the cardinals have really preached to me pitching to contact and throwing to ground balls. i have a good sinker that i'm developing right now, and that's become my main pitch that i've been working on since i've been in pro ball. i'm struggling a little bit with it right now, at times, because it's a new philosophy and a new thing and i'm just not used to it yet. but i can see already the benefits of it -- i'll throw a sinker down and it'll get good late movement and get an easy groundball. it makes my life easier -- i don't have to throw a lot of pitches and can stay in the game a little longer. so that's my main pitch right now.
but when derrick goold checked in with ottavino a couple weeks ago, he found the 2-seamer in retreat: "The two-seam fastball [Ottavino] tested last summer at the request of the Cardinals essentially has been stowed for his higher-speed and comfier four-seam fastball." ottavino told derrick: "It has been hard to adjust to the idea that I want the other guy to hit the ball." like anthony reyes, he is struggling to reconcile two imperatives: on the one hand, the imperative to be a team player and willing learner with due respect for wise elders; on the other hand, the imperative to trust his own instincts and arm. here are ottavino's stats, and here's the interview:

How do you find the Florida State League to be different from the two leagues you pitched in last year?
I think the only difference is that the hitters are more mature, more selective. I find a lot of hitters now that have a pretty good approach against me the second time through the order. They're making adjustments; you just gotta make the adjustment accordingly, make the adjustment to their adjustment. It becomes more of a chess match here, as opposed to just a tools-vs-tools war.

You pitched last night, and it looks like it was a short outing. What happened, and how did things go?
Umm, I actually got ejected. I started off the game good, threw 3 perfect innings, then ran into some trouble in the 4th inning --- gave up a hit, a walk, guy had a good at-bat off of me and hit a triple. They ended up getting 3 out of it, but I didn't really think I was throwing that bad; I thought it was just a tough inning. Then the next inning there was a play at third --- a groundball to shortstop, and the runner was trying to advance --- and our manager came out to argue. I didn't even actually say anything at this point, but earlier in the game I had said something to the 2d base umpire. I was kind of mumbling to myself [while the manager was arguing], and the umpire thought he heard me say something and he tossed me. Our coach got in his face, but it is what it is. [That game was May 30; here's the box score.]

What had you said earlier in the game?
I had told him that he was making a makeup call. He had screwed the other team with a call earlier, and then I said "There's the makeup call" when he called a checked swing on a guy who had taken almost a full swing. So he didn't like that too much. After that, I think I could have told him "Hey good call" and he would have thrown me out at that point. It sucked, but we still won the game, so that's what keeps me a little sane, I guess.

Was that your first ejection?
I've been ejected before, but not in pro ball.

Overall, it looks like a pretty good year for you --- your strikeout rate is high, and you've been keeping the ball in the park. How are you feeling about the way things have gone this year?
I think it varies day to day. If you'd asked me the same question two weeks ago, I'd probably be really happy, but my last two starts haven't been too good. I think overall I've definitely improved a lot this year. My tool chest is definitely bigger. My changeup's become a lot better, and I think I'm starting to become more consistent with my control. Most of the walks I've given up over the last couple of outings have been because guys had good at-bats off me, not so much that I'm just throwing four balls in a row. The only thing I'm not happy about is for one reason or another I'm not pitching deep into any games. I have hardly any innings pitched for the number of starts I have. I had one game that got rained out after an inning and a third, and another couple where I was on a pitch count, but still it's not fun to go out there and not at least pitch 6 innings. And I think I've only pitched 6 innings once or twice. That can be frustrating.

What do you attribute that to? Are you running a lot of deep counts?
Early in the year, I wasn't throwing as many strikes. It was always 3-2 on every hitter, and it was just bad pitch counts. I think recently it's been more or less they've been getting some big hits against me. In some key spots I continued the inning an extra couple pitches longer, another extra couple pitches, and the next thing you know it's the 6th inning and I'm almost at my pitch count. The bottom line is you gotta get ahead of hitters, and I just haven't done that as consistently as I'd like to.

You mentioned the changeup as something that you've added to your tool kit. Anything else that you've added this year?
My changeup is the first thing. It's 100 percent better than it was last year. I'm throwing it to righties and lefties now, and I really think that it's a big weapon for me now. Also, my slider --- I'm staying on top of it better now, so it's not as lumpy of a pitch. I'm more consistent with it now; it's got more bite. I feel like that's a little better. I'm getting quicker to the plate with runners on base. At times I had a big problem with guys stealing bases against me. This year I don't think they're attempting as many, because I'm holding runners on a lot better. Those are three things right there that I can look at.

There was another piece of the tool kit I wanted to ask you about. When you talked to Derrick Goold, he wrote an article in the Post-Dispatch about the 2-seamer vs the 4-seamer. That's become a big topic for people who follow this organization. It sounded like the transition to the 2, which you began throwing last year, had become a little uneasy for you. Tell me where you are with that, and what your relationship with the pitch is.
I just want to be clear about this: I'm not against throwing any pitch. I do throw 2-seamers in the games; I just think I'm a different pitcher than a lot of guys in the system. And I've discussed this with my coaches: The high fastball can be effective for me. I get a lot of strikeouts with it. And for me, a strikeout is the safest way to get an out. I know that I shouldn't be shooting for strikeouts all the time, because that's how your pitch counts get high. But there are certain circumstances where I gotta limit the damage right there, and I gotta go for the strikeout. That's just inside me. It's the way I've always pitched, and it's tough to get away from that.

Now, I'm not saying that I don't agree with the philosophy of pitching to contact, and I guess that's what the 2-seamer's all about. But to me, the whole key is not to leave pitches over the fat part of the plate. And I can control my 4-seamer right now a heck of a lot better right now than I can control my 2. So right now, I'm just a work in progress. The 2-seamer's gonna come, but right now I'm trying to refine the package I already have before I throw something else in there and totally rely on something different. Because in the end, you still gotta go out there and win ballgames. I work on the 2-seamer on the side, I work on all sorts of stuff on the side. But when I'm out on the field, I'm trying to compete. I pride myself on being a competitor and going out there and giving my team a chance to win. And when I'm out there right now, I can control my 4-seamer a little better, so that's why I'm going to it right now.

I appreciate your candor. I want to follow up on a couple of the things you said in there. If I understand you correctly, your coaches are asking you to throw the 2-seamer regardless of what the results are in the short term. Am I understanding you correctly there?
I think everybody has their own opinions. The idea in the organization seems to be that Dave Duncan and Mark Riggins and several of our pitchers were very successful and have seen a lot of success by throwing the 2-seamer down in the zone and getting quick groundball outs. I don't necessarily disagree with that, and I haven't pitched in the big leagues and those guys have. And I totally understand that. But the bottom line is that you gotta get ahead of hitters if you want to get an out. If I throw strikes, the rest of it will take care of itself.

And based on what you've said, it sounds like right now it's more difficult for you to throw strikes with the 2-seamer?
It's not that much more difficult, it's just that the 2-seamer is a "feel" pitch. And since I haven't thrown it very much in my life, that's why I have to do a lot of work with it on the side. It does have a lot of movement on it, and sometimes it's unpredictable --- it'll dart this way one time, and dart a different way another time. I understand the value of the 2-seamer. If I fall behind a hitter, if I come in with a 4-seamer he might crush it, while a 2-seamer moves the ball just enough that he doesn't hit it as well. But to answer your question, yeah, I do have a little more trouble controlling the 2-seamer right now, and I have a little more confidence in my 4-seamer.

I'm not trying to make it seem like I'm rebelling; I just feel like I'm trying to be successful. I'm willing to do anything to make it to the majors, but I just think right now my 4-seamer --- at this level, it's pretty firm. When guys are hitting it, it's because they're cheating hard on it or because I made a bad pitch. If I locate my 4-seamer, I'm getting guys out with it.

Again, I appreciate your openness about this. For Cardinal fans, we have watched Anthony Reyes struggle to master the 2-seamer ---
Yeah, yeah.

--- and it's obviously a struggle. At times he has looked very tentative on the mound, like he wasn't fully committed to his pitches. Let me ask you this question: Would it be easier to learn this pitch if it were something that you phased into your repertoire slowly?
More or less, that's what I'm trying to do. My main focus right now is refining what I already have. What I have is a 4-seam fastball with good life, a sharp slider, and a developing changeup that I'm gaining more and more confidence in every day. And the bottom line for any pitcher is to throw strikes. When I throw strikes, I generally do well. When I don't, I generally do bad. So right now, that's my main focus: throwing those pitches for strikes. The 2-seamer --- yes, I work on it on the side. I know it's gonna be a weapon that's gonna be there for me someday, and maybe it will eventually become even more prevalent than my 4-seamer. But right now I'm still trying to win games. I'm still a young pitcher, and I feel I have a lot to learn about myself. Until I've mastered what I already have, it's not time to totally change what I'm doing.

I just don't want fans to think I'm rebelling, because I'm really not. I think in my interview with Derrick, maybe it came across that I was being cocky or arrogant. In reality I was just feeling confident at that moment. At the time I had like a 2.10 era, and I was feeling really good about what I was doing. And I wasn't afraid to say that. I wasn't afraid to say, "What I'm doing right now is working."

Thanks a lot for taking the time to talk all this over. I've learned a lot. Good luck the rest of this year.
Sure thing, no problem.

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maybe i find this so fascinating because it's really about a lot more than pitching. it's about teaching and learning. in the narrowest sense, that's interesting to me because if the cardinal organization is going to emphasize player development, success will depend in great measure on the quality of teaching and learning that takes place in its farm system. in a more universal sense, i find it fascinating because we are all teachers and learners throughout our lives. we all find ourselves at times in a position of "knowing better," wanting to steer a less experienced person away from youthful mistakes; and we also sometimes find ourselves learning to adapt, and trying to judge whether the cost of change outweighs the benefits. neither position, teacher or learner, is an easy one to be in; both can involve very difficult, and very personal, judgment calls.

it'll be interesting to see how they fare on this one.