Pirates Pick Olsen Off the Scrap Heap

While his moves didn’t exactly make Ken Rosenthal and Jon Heyman all hot under the collar, Pittsburgh Pirates GM Neal Huntington was busy at the Winter Meetings. Huntington and company selected infielder Josh Rodriguez with the first pick in the Rule V draft, acquired RHP Cesar Valdez to complete the Zach Duke deal, and signed outfielder Matt Diaz and RHP Kevin Correia to two-year free agent contracts. While the deal isn’t yet official, the Pirates have also reportedly come to terms with free agent lefty Scott Olsen on a one-year, $500,000 deal with a $4 million club option for the 2012 season. Olsen’s pact allows him to earn an additional $3 million in incentives based on starts made in ’11, according to ESPN’s Jerry Crasnick.

Olsen won’t turn 27 until January. But the pitcher dubbed the 36th best prospect in the game by Baseball America prior to 2006 is now a journeyman due to injuries and a fastball that gets hit so hard and so far that NASA’s considering hiring him to launch things into orbit once its Space Shuttle program ends next year.

As a 22-year-old rookie with the Florida Marlins, Olsen punched out well over eight batters per nine innings pitched and posted a 4.04 expected fielding independent ERA (xFIP) in 180.2 innings. However, instead of building upon his 2.3 win season, Olsen imploded, with his strikeout rate and fastball velocity dipping. In 378.1 combined innings over the 2007 and 2008 seasons, Olsen K’d just 5.85 hitters per nine. His heat dropped from an average of 90.9 MPH in 2006 to 90.1 MPH in ’07 and a startling 87.8 MPH in ’08. Olsen’s xFIP was 4.95 both years, and he racked up just 1.5 combined WAR over those two seasons.

Florida traded Olsen and Josh Willingham to the Washington Nationals in November of ’08 for a package including Emilio Bonifacio, Jake Smolinski and P.J. Dean. Olsen got throttled early on, hit the DL with shoulder tendinitis in mid-May and threw his last pitch of the year in July. Olsen’s line in 62.2 IP: 6.03 K/9, 3.59 BB/9 and a 4.91 xFIP that suggested he was at least mediocre rather than Ponson-esque, as his 6.03 ERA indicated (the culprit was a near-.350 BABIP). Unfortunately, Olsen’s fastball velocity didn’t return (he sat at 88 MPH) and he underwent labrum surgery in late July.

This past year was more of the same for Olsen: ample DL time and mound drubbings. He missed over two months with shoulder inflammation from late May to late July, and then was shut down with shoulder soreness in mid-September. Tossing 81 innings, Olsen had a 5.56 ERA.

His peripherals were more promising, though. He had 5.89 K/9 and 3 BB/9, while posting the first above-average ground ball rate (46.5%) of his career. That could be significant, as changes in ground ball rate stabilize rather quickly (after about 150 batters faced; Olsen faced 357 batters in 2010). Olsen’s xFIP (4.39) was his best mark since his rookie year, and his ERA wouldn’t have looked so ugly if his BABIP (.321) and rate of stranding runners (63%) were closer to his career marks (.307 and 68.3%, respectively).

Seemingly realizing that Mr. Magoo could square up his fastball (his heat has a career -1.23 run value per 100 pitches thrown), Olsen shifted his pitching approach. He threw his 89-90 MPH fastball just 50.2% of the time, relying more upon a low-80s slider and changeup. For comparison, Olsen threw his fastball about 62% in 2006, 70% in 2007, 63% in 2008 and 56% in 2009.

Olsen signed with Pittsburgh for scraps because he’s possibly damaged goods, he has to pitch backwards and, even if you view his recent work through an optimistic lens, he’s still a below-average starter who neither piles up strikeouts nor displays plus control. That said, there’s nothing for Huntington and the Pirates to lose here. If Olsen’s shoulder acts up again, the team can painlessly cut its losses. But if Olsen stays reasonably healthy and retains his ground ball gains, he could be worth more than his salary even with incentives as a 1-2 WAR pitcher.

It’s a low-risk, medium-to-low-reward sign. But it’s not bad as far as dumpster diving goes.

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A recent graduate of Duquesne University, David Golebiewski is a contributing writer for Fangraphs, The Pittsburgh Sports Report and Baseball Analytics. His work for Inside Edge Scouting Services has appeared on ESPN.com and Yahoo.com, and he was a fantasy baseball columnist for Rotoworld from 2009-2010. He recently contributed an article on Mike Stanton's slugging to The Hardball Times Annual 2012. Contact David at david.golebiewski@gmail.com and check out his work at Journalist For Hire.

29 Responses to “Pirates Pick Olsen Off the Scrap Heap”

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  1. NSCEGF says:

    It’s Rule 5. Not Rule V.

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    • Kirsh says:

      This is releveant, how?

      Olsen’s an okay fifth starter for a bad team, I suppose, but I don’t know that I like him any more than I’d like Morton or Lincoln in that spot.

      I also expect at least one or two out of Owens, Locke, and Morris to be in his rotation spot by September, so we’ll see where this goes. Best case scenario is that he makes Maholm expendable, since the Pirates could probably get something reasonably helpful back for him.

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      • Bill says:

        I agree that Morton or Lincoln could be better options, but it never hurts to have a little competition there. Olsen could always just be a short term filler until they work things out with the other guys.

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      • NEPP says:

        Well, it is annoying when people mess up basic baseball things on a baseball site like that.

        (in reference to the Rule V vs Rule 5 thing)

        What’s the best case scenario for Pittsburgh this year? 65 wins?

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      • Kirsh says:

        Best case-scenario this year is 73-75 wins, and that’s with steps forward from all of McCutchen, Alvarez, Walker, Tabata, McDonald, Maholm, Ohlendorf, and Correia. The odds of a few of those going right are pretty good, but not all of them.

        I expect 67-72 wins.

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    • pitnick says:

      I can’t tell if this is the most anal comment ever or just one that’s ignorant of Roman numerals.

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  2. Tim says:

    Could be trade bait if he has a good first half.

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  3. JimY says:

    I think Olson could be a valuable Vth starter.

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  4. maguro says:

    Roman numerals are typically reserved for World Wars and Super Bowls.

    Just sayin’.

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  5. Cup of Coffee says:

    He might also be a LOOOONG man out of the ‘pen.

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  6. Jake says:

    What is the definition of “Ponson-esque”? Despite the ugly ERA totals throughout his career, Ponson has never managed an xFIP higher than 4.91 in a season with at least 10 appearances. If anything Olsen’s stats do somewhat resemble Ponson, only with higher K rate but a lower GB%.

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  7. Hosoo says:

    If Olsen can’t make it as a pitcher, perhaps he could transition to a role as a IV outfielder a la Rick Ankiel?

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  8. jirish says:

    The Pirates are short of pitching, they don’t have anything extra to trade, Olson is cheap, has a chance to be better than Duke was for them last year, or at least cheaper and about the same, he’s not blocking anyone, and they have got to collect some depth at the position anyway.

    With the state of their infield defense, I think they really ought to get away from contact pitchers if at all possible. It’s a recipe for disaster for them right now as the club is constructed.

    I do like that they are making small deals to improve the club-it’s the only thing they should be considering right now.

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  9. Hosoo says:

    Hey KB, why don’t you go fuck your mother?

    -13 Vote -1 Vote +1

  10. Hosoo says:

    Girlish sensitivity?

    I will make you my bitch, T.

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  11. JP says:

    I could envisage a scenario where Olsen and Correia have good seasons for Pittsburgh, but what does it say for their farm system, when they are signing scrap heap guys that other teams have discarded rather than giving their own guys a chance?

    To anyone who knows the Pirates farm system well: Do they really not have any good pitching prospects waiting for a major league callup?

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    • john sparrow says:

      For the state of the Pirates farm system, please send your abuses to one Dave Littlefield. He is pretty much the sole reason the Bucs havent had a single prospect SP come to the big leagues in the last 3 years (except Lincoln).

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  12. two4emc says:

    There are no high end starting pitchers in the upper levels of the system. Lincoln and Morton have graduated to the majors and are both missing one ingredient from being worthile (Lincoln changeup, Morton makeup)

    There are 3 starters that finished the season in AA (Locke, Morris, Owens) that could be decent, but the best arms in the system are going to be in A or short season next season.

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  13. Justin M says:

    The Pirates farm system pitchers that are considered promising in terms of being big league players were all in AA last year, with one of them getting called up to AA just last season. Out of the group of Pirates pitching prospects, Rudy Owens might make it to the bigs next year late in the year. He is a great control pitcher who tops out in the low 90s IIRC. I personally haven’t heard others say their other decent AA pitching prospects are likely to make it this year but I could be wrong.

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  14. Wham Bam says:

    John Sparrow, that was funny!

    Send your abuses to Dave Littlefield, lol, lol, lol.

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