Scott Olsen is a different pitcher

Pitchers that last in the majors are the ones that reinvent themselves when something’s not working. In a post about Randy Wolf back in September I commented on this consistent trend:

[Wolf is] now a different pitcher. His injury/surgery/time off wouldn’t allowed him to be the same pitcher he was pre-2005. In his early days, he had a higher velocity fastball and threw it by hitters. Now, he uses plus secondary stuff to get hitters off-balance. In 2003 and 2004, he used his slider just 3.1% of the time. He threw it 13.2% last year, 13.9% this year. His K/9 this year is the second-lowest of his career, but so is his BB/9. Billy Beane recently told us, “The one thing about major league baseball is that it’s pretty Darwinian.” Just like Darwin realized that the birds of the Galapagos were two different species of Finches (and not different birds altogether), Randy Wolf hasn’t become a “different” pitcher. He’s still Randy Wolf. He’s just adapted.

Scott Olsen has a similar story. Here’s his Baseball America scouting report quote from 2005:

“He’s a horse when he’s out on the mound. He tries to do anything he can to use his fastball.”

Olsen truly loved his fastball, but so did major leaguer hitters. Here’s Olsen’s corresponding FB%, wFB (which is weighted runs above average for fastballs), and FIP’s for the early part of his career:

2005: 58.5%, -2.7, 5.63
2006: 62.4%, -15.2, 4.33
2007: 70.2%, -22.6, 5.33
2008: 63.3%, -17.3, 5.02
2009: 56.4%, -17.8, 5.24

Olsen’s fastball was not doing the trick. Maybe it was maturity, maybe curiosity, or maybe just plain desperation, but Olsen has changed his game this year:

2010: 48.1% fastball, 28.5% slider, 23.3% changeup

Since 2008, Olsen has increased the use of his slider by 11.9% and his changeup by 2.3%, relying less on his fastball. Here are the results for so far this season:

wFB: -1.4
wSL: 4.5
wCH: 0.9

Not only has his slider and changeup been solid, but because he isn’t overusing the fastball it’s stabilizing and becoming more than just a pitch to hammer. Olsen’s previously being a one trick pony may also have contributed to his high HR/FB rates throughout his career, a rate which has dropped 3.5% below his career low prior to this year.

Pitching is not easy, and hurlers can either stick to what’s not working and fail, or try something new and do their best to succeed. Olsen has chosen the latter.

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Comments

  1. @nonrizzo said...

    Different – yes
    Better – maybe
    Sustainable – doubtful

    Point is his FB is terrible and he can get away from it for a while, but in the end his slider isn’t good enough to be his #1 pitch, his change won’t work for long without the fastball and with his velocity back to the high 80s (where it was when he got shelled last year) it’s just a matter of time before batters adjust too and even if he isn’t a one trick pony now he doesn’t have the bag of tricks he’ll need to survive much longer in the bigs.

  2. Sean Smith said...

    Joe Saunders could take a lesson from Olsen.  A few years ago he was throwing his changeup 27%, this year he’s down to 15%.  Batters sure like his fastball too.

    Joe’s biggest problem this year is lack of control.  Unless he can solve that better pitch selection will be a moot point.  A control pitcher without control ain’t nothin.

  3. Hugh Shull said...

    It’s intersting that you mention Olsen’s hr/fb rate with the idea that he has some effect on that rate.  Sometimes when you see xFIP used the impression is that everything reverts to mean.  I don’t know what the latest thought on that are, but Brandon League’s 2 homer outing today got me thinking.

    Brandon League has pitched 222 1/3rd major league innings. He has never been below 12% in a given year (some very low innings years in there). He has given up 25 home runs and 133 flyballs, I believe, for an 18.8% career rate.

    Since 2004, per fangraphs, only 3 pitchers in any given season of 100 iniings or more has given up as many or more homers/flyball than league in his career.

    Brandon Webb in 2005 at 18.8%. Derek Lowe in 2005 at 18.9%. And Josh Geer last year at 19.3%.

    Brandon Webb, Derek Lowe and Brandon League. 2 guys named Brandon. All 3 extreme groundballers, over 60%. All 3 above the 11% “average” on home runs to flyballs. League is at an extreme in that regard.

  4. Sean Smith said...

    If Olsen now fits the description “lefthander who can throw breaking balls for strikes” he’ll be useful.

    As for HR/FB, hasn’t it been long established that groundball pitchers allow a higher percentage, and flyballers a lower percentage than average?  It makes sense anyway, a flyball given up by a Derek Lowe is more likely to be a mistake pitch, something the pitcher didn’t mean to do, than a flyball hit off Jered Weaver.

  5. Positively Half St. said...

    nonrizzo-

    I certainly hope you are wrong about Olsen. He has been almost as wonderful a surprise as Livan Hernandez, and we Nats fans would prefer to keep it that way. If he does fall apart, hopefully Chien-Ming Wang or Jordan Zimmermann will be available to pick up the slack when it happens.

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