the memphis redbirds are in colorado springs for the first time since 2007, so i drove down to the game on Sunday night to catch the opener. to my great disappointment, former VEB prospect fave trey hearne won’t be pitching out here; he threw a beauty on saturday night in salt lake city and won’t pitch again until friday in memphis. but i did get to see another worthy pitcher, 2006 1st-rounder adam ottavino, in the series opener sunday night. the redbirds won 7-6, and ottavino picked up the win, his 5th in 6 decisions after opening the season 0-9. herewith my impressions:
first things first: is ottavino still a prospect? you might think not; he rarely gets mentioned anymore within the HPGF, with hopes for a homegrown starting pitcher now pinned on garcia, boggs, lance lynn, and even pj walters. if the ghost of chris lambert has possessed any pitcher in the cardinal system, it’s not todd wellemeyer but ottavino, another 1st-round college arm gone bad. after ranking among the organization’s top 5 prospects on the preseason lists for 2007 and 2008, otto fell to about 20th on most lists this spring on account of a jarring transition to the high minors last year — a lambertesque 3-7 record, 5.23 ERA at double A.
but ottavino finished strong last year, posting a (roughly) 2.5 to 1 k/bb ratio over his last 90+ innings, with a FIP in the 4.30 range. and he still has superior stuff — better than any of the pitchers who passed him on the prospect-watch lists. for those reasons, he was promoted to triple A out of spring training this year in the hopes he’d bounce back. he hasn’t, much — after saturday's start, his 22d of the year, ottavino’s line reads 5-10 with a 4.66 ERA and one very ugly peripheral, a walk rate of nearly 6 men per 9 innings. that figure ruins some otherwise decent-looking stats that include a healthy K rate (7.8 per 9 IP), low HR rate (0.8 per 9), and good groundball ratio (43 percent and rising). a little discreet pruning makes ottavino’s line look slightly better; after a stupendously bad first month in triple A (0-3, 7.94 in 4 april starts), otto has gone 5-7, 4.08, over his last 18 starts (97 innings). unfortunately, he still can’t hit the strike zone — even excluding april, ottavino’s bb/9 stands at 5.9.
many’s the hard young thrower who was undone by lack of control, but there are those who get it figured out in time to have a career. ottavino can still be one of those. he’s only 23 years old, and his ability is big-league caliber — as i witnessed in person on sunday night.
ottavino reminds me of wainwright on the mound -- tall and thin and loose of limb. he’s got a smooth, languid delivery with a low kick and medium stride; his knee remains well below the waist throughout, and his elbow stays well below the shoulder. he’s balanced and generally upright; it’s an extremely simple, clean motion. to my eye (and i'm far from an expert in these matters), it seems that ottavino relies overmuch on his arm to generate power -- ie, maybe he's underutilizing his legs. here’s a triptych that illustrates ottavino’s delivery:
ottavino is a fastball-slider pitcher, with a changeup (otto calls it a split-change) for use against lefties. he uses the slider against hitters from both sides of the plate. the fastball ranges from 90 to 94; the pitches in the lower part of that range are probably 2-seamers. the 4-seamer explodes; hitters were putting very late swings on it all day. even matt murton, an above-average major-league hitter, could do no more with the pitch than to foul it off the other way. ottavino’s slider comes in at 79-81 with good movement; the change travels at about 83 mph.
he breezed through the first two innings while throwing about 90 percent fastballs, yielding only a couple of two-out singles. but in the third, protecting a 2-0 lead, he walked the opposing pitcher leading off. he was pissed at himself; you could see it from the stands. ottavino got the next guy on a force, but then gave up a base knock on a one-hop smash that got through descalso. the next two hitters, matt miller and murton, rank 3d and 4th respectively in the PCL batting race and have EQAs in the .250 range -- average big-league hitters, roughly. ottavino attacked miller with sliders, got ahead 0-2, wasted a fastball up, and then struck him out swinging on a slider down and away. beautiful job. but then he walked murton on four pitches, loading the bases for another former big-leaguer, left-handed slugger dan ortmeier. ottavino went right after him, got ahead 0-2 and then froze him with a changeup . . . . but didn’t get the call. he threw a fastball that ortmeier fouled off, then left the next pitch up; ortmeier whacked it into right for a two-run single to tie the game.
another walked ensued, re-loading the bases and bringing blaise ilsely out for a conference, before ottavino finally ended the frame on a ground out to short. he used up a lot of effort in that inning; 8 men batted, and ottavino threw well over 30 pitches (all but a handful of them out of the stretch). by the end of the frame he’d slowed down considerably, taking a lot of time between pitches.
he got through the 4th on 7 pitches, after the redbirds retook the lead in the top of the inning. he took a 4-2 lead to the mound in the 5th and gave up a double leading off the inning to jonathan herrera, with miller and murton coming up. he struck out miller again, fooling him again w/ sliders; he air-mailed a pitch to the backstop during murton’s at-bat, sending the runner to 3d, but broke off a 2-2 slider to strike murton out swinging and freeze the runner. ortmeier stepped in, and otto got ahead with a change and then heaved another fastball way above the batter’s head. pagnozzi got a mitt on it (barely) and kept it from going to the screen, but the ball trickled away behind his back, just a few feet from home plate on the first-base side. he couldn’t find it, and herrera scored a gift run; ortmeier popped out to center moments later, and ottavino’s outing was over.
the final line: 5 innings, 5 hits, 3 runs (all earned), 3 walks, 4 strikeouts. he induced 6 groundball outs vs 5 flyballs.
i talked to ottavino after he went back to the clubhouse -- the clubhouse guy was kind enough to send back a note. i didn’t have a recorder w/ me, nor a laptop, and thus had to take notes by hand. i didn’t get anything close to a transcription, but i did get enough stuff down to paraphrase.
first i asked ottavino how he felt about the outing, and he said it was frustrating. he was still kicking himself over that walk to the pitcher back in the 3d. he’d pitched very carefully after that and felt he did a lot of things right. he tried to get a double play on the next hitter and succeeded in inducing a groundball, but it was too slowly hit for a dp. he threw three terrific sliders to miller and struck him out; the walk to the next hitter, murton, was an accommodation ottavino decided to make after falling behind 2-0. i couldn’t groove one for him, otto said, he’s to good a hitter; i didn’t want to give up a 3-run homer. he executed his game plan against ortmeier with the sacks jammed and thought he’d struck the guy out on the 0-2 changeup; ottavino claimed that the umpire later admitted that he’d missed the call. the rbi single 2 pitches later came off another changeup. then he lost focus and walked the next guy while still thinking about that missed call on 0-2 . . . . he’s lucky the game didn’t blow up on him right there. ilsely’s trip to the mound was well timed.
ottavino was also angry at himself about the 2 wild pitches. i struck out their 2 best hitters with a guy in scoring position, he told me, and i let him score anyway. he didn’t say it quite this way, but basically he knew that if he could have eliminated the walk to the pitcher and the 2 wild pitches, he’d still be out there working on a shutout instead of watching the 7th inning on the clubhouse tv, and the big-league brass would be getting a report about ottavino’s gem in colorado springs (one of the hitter-friendliest parks in the minors). instead, the results were a mixed bag, and the kid had mostly himself to blame. and he knew it.
he told me he’s been searching all year for command of his fastball; that’s his best pitch, but also the one that gets him into the most trouble. a few starts ago he made an adjustment, moving toward the first-base side of the rubber, in the hopes that this might help; it hasn’t so far. the walks have been coming in bunches, he said. i'll have good location and then i’ll lose it; it comes and goes.
when i asked where he thinks he has made the most progress in his game this year, he said without hesitation that his slider is vastly improved. that was his primary goal in the off-season -- to tighten up the break and gain better command. i feel really confident throwing it now, he says; i’ll throw it from behind in the count, i'll throw it on 3-2. i know i can throw it for a strike. he also bulked up over the off-season, at the behest of the development team (who thought he was too thin last year and thus prone to fatigue). he said he has a ton of confidence in all his pitches, which is a big change over last season, when he was tentative and searching for himself. last year, he said, he hurt his shoulder in the batting cage during the spring and then tried to pitch through it; after about 30 innings (and 20 walks) he went onto the dl, and although he pitched much better after he came back ottavino never felt comfortable. he was toying with his delivery -- he eliminated a sharp stop at the bottom of his motion, where he’d freeze his arm briefly before starting it forward for the pitch -- and as a result he was always thinking about his mechanics while on the mound. now i’m not thinking about it, he says. my motion is much more natural. it’s not the motion i had in college, but it must be natural because i don’t have to think about it. and that means i can think about other things while i'm out there.
i asked how the recent spate of trades had gone down in the memphis clubhouse, and he said it was kind of a shock. ottavino was good friends with chris perez; the two were drafted the same year and came up through the system more or less together. we thought we’d pitch together in st louis for years, he told me. mort and jess were friends of mine too; we kept hearing that jess might be the second player in the trade, and it was hard knowing he might be gone any day. at the same time, ottavino admitted (at my prompting) that the deals have created greater opportunity for the pitchers who are left. i asked ottavino if he felt, given the sudden exodus of relief pitchers from the system, that he might eventually be converted to a reliever himself. that fastball-slider combination might get you some mileage in a big-league bullpen, i suggested. he gave the obligatory responses -- "i'll do whatever they want me to do," and "i've always been a starting pitcher and that’s how i view myself" -- while adding that he, and all the other memphis players, are dying to be a part of the pennant race in st louis. blake hawksworth’s success in the cardinal bullpen so far has not escaped notice down in memphis; if that’s the ticket to the big leagues, ottavino would gladly take it. but he knows he’s not gonna get called up until he gets command of his fastball, and that’s what is foremost in his mind -- not a callup.
i came away encouraged by what i'd seen, and heard, out of adam ottavino. he has two big-league pitches and an intelligent approach to the game; he seems able to identify his weaknesses and work hard on shoring them up. plenty of guys have fashioned careers out of less. he essentially has one problem left to solve -- stop walking people -- before he becomes a viable option in st louis. unfortunately, it’s not a small problem. there have been glimmers of improvement -- after walking 6.3 men per 9 in the first three months of the year, he has walked 5.0 men per 9 since july 1 . . . . . like i said, "glimmers" of improvement. he’s still got to do better. i'd like to see him cut his walk rate to the vicinity of 3.0 bb/9 by this time next year.
a final thought about my trip to colorado springs: the memphis hitter who most caught my eye was mark hamilton, the first baseman. why is this guy no longer considered a prospect by anyone? at the time the cards selected him (number 76 overall in 2006), draft experts were gushing; kevin goldstein wrote, "The Cardinals got one of the steals in the 2006 draft with Hamilton in the supplemental second round." as late as july 2007, goldstein had hamilton ranked as the 9th-best first-base prospect in the minors, on a list that also included daric barton and joey votto. "Hamilton’s power ranked with that of anyone else in last year’s draft," goldstein wrote then.
after his promotion to double A in mid-2007, hamilton struggled for a year and a half -- only 14 homers and a .383 slugging average in roughly 500 plate appearances, although he retained a decent batting eye (about a 10 percent walk rate). this year hamilton has returned to mashing. he’s slugging .542 in 227 at-bats split between double A and triple A and seeing the ball very well, with a walk rate above 13 percent. this guy is as big and powerful as chris duncan but has a much shorter, more direct swing. he just turned 25 years old a couple weeks ago; probably wouldn’t hit for average in the big leagues, but would draw walks and hit for power.
if it were up to me, i'd find a way to call hamilton up to the cardinals before august 31 and see what he can do. the cardinals need a good left-handed bat on the bench; hamilton could be it. the problem is that he only plays one position, first base -- in other words, hamilton would be strictly a pinch-hitter, because there’s nowhere to put him in the field. but with khalil greene, julio lugo, mark derosa, and skip schumaker all on the roster, the cards have plenty of flexibility. i still wouldn’t dump joe thurston (unlike most of you); if you dump superjoe and hamilton doesn’t pan out, then your next best option for an lh bench bat is john jay. i do like jay, but i'm not convinced he offers more than thurston does in the short run. so i'd drop the pitching staff to 11 pitchers for a day or two to get hamilton onto the roster and qualified for the postseason; after sept 1 there’s plenty of room for him.
allen craig had 4 hits in the game, and i like his swing too; he looks like a big-league hitter to me. too bad he doesn’t play a decent 3b, he could make everyone stop lamenting the trade of brett wallace.