Adam Ottavino’s Harlem Hide-Out
The ambient pop of a catcher’s mitt greets you before you see the interior of the Lab. Inside the unmarked door on St. Nicholas Avenue in Harlem, past the canvas tarp blacking out the windows and around the ladder serving as a makeshift camera stand, awaits an 80-foot-long pitching mecca where the outside world quickly disappears.
The hurried passers-by might think this place amiss, but the former shoe store two blocks from the Apollo Theater and beneath a Chuck E. Cheese’s feels just right to the ballplayers who trek uptown to hone their craft.
On a Wednesday in January, that group included Adam Ottavino, the facility’s gatekeeper, host and a major league reliever for the past seven seasons; four minor league pitchers; and one Baruch College catcher. Ottavino’s father, John, an actor based in Brooklyn, is also there.
“These guys are just a bunch of big kids,” said the older Ottavino, gesturing to the men aged 22 to 33. “I come in and clean the place once a week. If they can’t find something, I usually know where it is.”
On this day, that meant finding a misplaced blue lacrosse ball that his son uses for warm-up exercises. On any other Wednesday, Adam Ottavino would be throwing off the portable pitching mound, but on the eve of the day his life would change, there was a bit too much at stake.
“Something good might be happening soon,” a coy Ottavino told the five fellow ballplayers who hope to follow in his footsteps. “I can’t get injured today.”
The next day, Jan. 17, Ottavino, a 33-year-old right-hander from Park Slope, completed a three-year, $27 million contract with the Yankees.
At the Lab, Ottavino sat behind a laptop and a tripod, filming his friends with a small, blue 3,350-frame-per-second camera and giving advice between pitches. The cameras are part of the data-driven pursuit with which Ottavino has saved his career. Now, after a breakout 2018 season with the Colorado Rockies, he’s spreading the word as he prepares for spring training, which opens Thursday.
“You learn things in here, about preparation and practice, that you didn’t even expect to pick up,” said Alex Katz, a St. John’s alumnus now in the Chicago White Sox organization. When Katz finished throwing, one of the Lab’s most loyal regulars, a 30-year-old left-hander named Andres Caceres, took the mound. A Queens native and veteran of independent leagues, Caceres is trying to perfect a cutter with tons of late movement.
“Whatever it is, it’s filthy,” said Ottavino, suggesting Caceres put more pressure on his pointer finger.
Asked about his role as the veteran sage in a circle of peers still chasing their major league dreams, Ottavino was direct: He’s no one’s superior, nor has he cracked some magic code. Rather, he is still searching for ways to improve.
“I don’t ever want to be the guy who’s always telling people what they’re doing right or wrong,” Ottavino said. “But if I do have some insight, I try to be fair about sharing it and see if we can get each other better. I learn from these guys all the time.”
A die-hard Yankees fan, Ottavino was at David Wells’s perfect game in 1998 and attended the team’s Fanfest annually with his father. Ottavino played ball at the Youth Service League in Brooklyn and graduated from Berkeley Carroll School in Park Slope in 2003. Three years later, he was drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals in the first round out of Northeastern University.
He made his debut with the Cardinals in 2010 and was claimed off waivers by Colorado in 2012. After missing most of two seasons because of Tommy John surgery, Ottavino struggled mightily in 2017. He logged a 5.06 earned run average and 39 walks in 53 1/3 innings and was left off the playoff roster.
“I knew the next year was do or die for my career,” Ottavino said. “But that’s the stuff I really enjoy — attacking the root of the problem. It’s better that I hit rock bottom because I wasn’t holding on to anything I’d done before.”
A power pitcher with a dominant slider, Ottavino decided his command and consistency needed fixing. Having spent time at Driveline — a data-driven performance training center in Washington State — he determined that videotaping every practice session would be his answer, rather than making adjustments based on “feel” or opinion. Fully committed to coaching himself, he bought two cameras — a Rapsodo to measure spin rate and a high-speed Edgertronic SC2 that compresses each pitch into a slow-motion replay. Then he worked to become more fluent in the data.
The resulting knowledge, he said, helped establish a consistent foundation and led to increased confidence. The only problem? Ottavino had nowhere to do any of this. His off-season throwing partner, the Mets starter Steven Matz, had moved away, and daily trips to a facility on Long Island ate up too much time that could be spent with his wife and two toddlers.
In stepped his father-in-law, a developer with a vacant Harlem storefront for rent. After Ottavino, with his father’s help, spent two weeks laying turf, buying equipment and learning to use the cameras, the Lab was in session and the real fun began.
“If he didn’t have this place,” John Ottavino said, “it might have been over for him.”
Ottavino was one of the best relievers in baseball last season with a 2.43 E.R.A. and a career-best 112 strikeouts to 36 walks in 77 2/3 innings. He held right-handed batters to a devastating .142 average and ranked 12th in the majors with 12.98 strikeouts per nine innings. He shut down a Chicago Cubs rally in the National League wild-card game last season, proving capable of getting postseason outs. Can he do it in the Bronx?
Ottavino said the time spent hidden in Harlem — “scheming in an evil lair,” he joked — had prepared him for the challenge.
“You want to show up to spring training with a secret weapon,” he said.
The topic of pitching at Yankee Stadium has often been discussed. In December, he boasted on a podcast that he “would strike Babe Ruth out every time” because players these days are so much better prepared physically.
“If I have a slow start, I’ll never hear the end of it,” he said.
The Lab, in its current state, will close for good this month. Ottavino, Katz, Caceres and the other honorary members will report to their respective clubs with new tricks to unveil, hoping to rescue or advance however much career they have left.
Ottavino, his wife and the children are moving to the suburbs, where he said he would find a suitable space in Westchester County for another lab. So long as it’s hidden, preferably in a dark basement. Or maybe a wooded cabin.