Dan Otero’s career as an Indian came to a quiet end last week as the front office stated they weren’t picking up his option. It makes sense, over the last two years he’s been pretty unimpressive — just 88.1 innings over those seasons with a 5.09 ERA, a 1.347 WHIP and both strikeout and ground ball rate falling each season. That second was the true death knell for an unimpressively velocity’d, heavy ground ball pitcher. The writing was on the wall, so nobody is surprised to see Otero headed out of Cleveland.
I was just thinking though, remember that one year Otero was unhittable?
That year, 2016, was a blessed one for Cleveland baseball. From José Ramírez exploding and Francisco Lindor flourishing to Andrew Miller showing up and that party at Napoli’s raging until August, it was a magic summer even with the little blips of sadness. Specifically the Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar IL stints and the whole not winning the World Series thing. Otero was a part of a monstrous machine of a bullpen, a group of pitchers that gave no relief to hitters that finally got one of the Indians’ handfuls of ace starters out of the game.
In another place and time, a 1.67 ERA, a 67 percent groundball rate a sub-1 WHIP would have garnered more attention. Otero was working behind Miller, a still great Cody Allen, and Bryan Shaw (who was good, god dammit) so one would be right to not have it it first in your mind when you think of either Otero or that Indians season. It makes it feel like a fever dream after seeing him so hittable the last couple years.
We do see strange outlier seasons out of relievers. It tricks us into believing in the next great bullpen arm — a guy has a crazy breakout season and gets a nice little contract for himself, and falls apart a year or so later. The Indains did it a few times with Jeff Manship and his 0.92 ERA in 2015, or Alex Claudio for the Rangers in 2017 with his 2.50 ERA in 82 innings before ballooning up above 4 the following two years, or Archie Bradley the same year at 1.74 then sliding to merely solid 3.4ish in 2018 and ‘19. Again, sample size looms large for these guys. Joe Borowski set a record for highest ERA while leading the league in saves in 2007 with a 5.07 mark and 45 saves. Was he good? Eh. He wasn’t bad though. I don’t think. Whatever he was, a few bad outings certainly inflated his ERA a bit.
The thing with Otero was that you always knew a shoe was going to drop at some point. It happens to ground ball guys. Eventually the ball will find holes, right? He didn’t have elite velocity, so he had a very thin margin for error even as he forced the ball down. He always had a high home run rate because of the lack of fly balls he allowed inflating the ratio, but in 2016 it simply didn’t matter. You couldn’t get the ball off the ground against him. It could have been one of those seasons where everything - specifically everything about his sinker - was going right for him.
Statcast was in its relative infancy in 2016, so we didn’t have reference points or sample to make judgements. Looking back paints an interesting picture though. Otero’s sinker was very good that year and in 2015 and 2017, but in 2016 he had it at its best combination of attributes. It had 2.4 more inches of drop than the average 2016 sinker, which in the Statcast era is actually his second lowest mark but still top 10 in baseball. It also had 1.8 more inches of horizontal movement than the average sinker, which again was top 10 in baseball and which he also did better than in both 2017 and 2018. The big separator? In 2016 he averaged 90.8 mph, the last year he averaged over 90 on the sinker in his career. That extra little oomph, combined with the top echelon movement, meant great outcomes for Otero.
It’s a little silly to think that a tick or two could really be the game changer, but we’re also talking about a pitch that’s been swiftly falling out of favor as hitters chase low balls to launch into the ether, and as velocities across the game have climbed each year. Between 2016 and 2019 sinker usage has fallen from 18.7% to 14.1% across the game, while that pitch velocity has climbed from 92.4 to 92.6. Not a huge leap, but it’s a definite marker.
It could be that 2016 was simply the last gasp of the sinker, that Otero was merely the last bastion of a once great pitching tradition that soon would collapse. Its peak was 2012, when it was thrown 22.5% of the time, then it began a precipitous fall to where it is now. Otero took advantage of a point in time just before it became a moot point as a pitch, and also happened to have his own best version. It could have been luck, or just “one of those things”. Players just feel good sometimes, or hit that perfect mark of physical ability and experience that allows them to dominate like they never did before.
Whatever it was, Otero was something special for just a minute. Excellence comes in a lot of forms, and that sinker of his, for those 162 games, was just that.