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What Happened to Scott Olsen?

Yesterday, Peter talked about a Marlins starter headed toward acedom (if he’s not there already) in Ricky Nolasco. Today, I’m going to examine a Florida hurler who is headed in the exact opposite direction: left-hander Scott Olsen.

A few years back, Olsen looked like an organizational pillar. In his first full year in the big leagues (2006), he struck out 8.27 batters per nine innings. Sure, he needed some refinement (3.74 BB/9), but young lefties equipped with a hopping 91 MPH fastball, a good slider and a promising changeup do not grow on trees. Olsen posted a 4.33 FIP ERA as a 22 year-old, with seemingly plenty of room for growth.

Whatever the reason might be, Olsen’s 2007 campaign surely did not turn out the way that many people expected. He was hammered for a 5.81 ERA, and while that was partially the result of an abnormally high .350 BABIP, his controllable skills were not much better. Olsen’s FIP ERA soared to 5.33 in ’07, a full run higher than his breakout rookie campaign. After punching out over 8 batters per nine innings in 2006, Olsen’s K rate fell to 6.78 and his walk rate soared to 4.33 per nine innings. After having thrown his fastball 62.4 percent in 2006, he threw the heat over 70 percent of the time in ’07 while neglecting his changeup (he threw it 19.2% in ’06, but just 8.5% in ’07). His fastball also showed a slight dip in velocity, from 90.9 MPH to 90.1 MPH.

In 2008, Olsen went back to throwing his changeup more often, but the results were not much better. Sure, his 4.20 ERA seems like a dramatic improvement over his 5.81 showing the previous year, but that “improvement” is built upon a house of cards. Olsen was the beneficiary of a very low .266 BABIP, and his FIP ERA was still an ugly 5.02. His strikeout rate fell precipitously (again), all the way down to 5.04 whiffs per nine innings. He did exhibit better control (3.08 BB/9), but it wasn’t enough to offset the dramatic downturn in his K rate. The most startling aspect of Olsen’s 2008 campaign was his total lack of velocity: his fastball averaged just 87.8 MPH, with his slider and change also coming in slower.

Since his stellar rookie season, Olsen has lost 3 MPH off of his fastball. With that loss of zip, Olsen’s strikeout rate has fallen off of a cliff, as he’s gone from a pitcher capable of dominating lineups to a guy who struck out fewer batters per nine innings than Jarrod Washburn and Darrell Rasner. Be it a physical problem or something coaching related (he’s had a few run-ins with teammates and was suspended in 2007), the current version of Olsen is not nearly the fledging ace that we saw during the 2006 season. The ERA sure looks better, but his improvement in 2008 was illusory. Until Olsen proves that he’s capable of missing bats once again, he’s someone that you want to avoid investing in.