As my meandering look at the potential starting pitchers continues, we’re now reaching the guys acquired in the Yankee trade. I think the Pirates like Ohlendorf the most and I think he’s more interesting than Karstens, so we’ll start with him.
When Ohlendorf was traded to the Pirates in the Xavier Nady trade last summer, he was being used in New York as a reliever. The Pirates decided that they wanted to try him out as a starter before they did anything else, so they sent him to AAA Indianapolis and in seven starts there, he pitched about as well as he’s pitched anywhere. He struck out 40 in 46 2/3 innings and only allowed five walks. He did get dinged for a few homers, but all in all he looked pretty good. He then got called up to the Pirates and was terrible: he struck out 13 and walked 12 in 22 2/3 innings over five starts, his ERA was 6.53, his WHIP was 2.12.
I just pulled up his PitchFX page, and it’s not hard to see why he got smoked. In the minors, we heard reports that Ohlendorf was hitting 98 or 99 on the gun with his fastball. With the Pirates, he average about 95 mph and threw the fastball two out of every three pitches with the slider coming the other time. He didn’t throw any other pitches. Not only was he a two-pitch pitcher, but check out his pitch selection based on count (the graph is from the same PitchFX page linked above, and it all comes from Josh Kalk’s blog).
Now, divining these pitch types from the data isn’t an exact science and if you check out the numbers at Brooks Baseball from his starts, Dan’s system classifies some of the sliders as curveballs and registers some changeups. Still, I think it’s easy to see what Ohlendorf’s problems were from this chart. If we just treat the first column as “fastball” and the second as “not a fastball,” the only pitch count in which he mixed fastballs and breaking pitches evenly was the 2-2 count, and besides 2-2, 0-1, and 1-1, he threw the same pitch just about 75% of the time in every count. Again, these numbers aren’t perfect, but they give us a good indication that Ohlendorf was probably pretty predictable with the Pirates last year.
It’s pretty easy to see that if Ohlendorf keeps pitching like that, he won’t find success as a starter in the majors. You can overwhelm a lot of AAA hitters with a well-pointed, mid-90s fastball and a decent breaking pitch, but that won’t fly in the bigs unless that fastball’s hitting the high 90s consistently or it’s got some wicked movement on it.
That means there’s two things to keep an eye on with Ohlendorf early in the year. The first is velocity. Is he hitting the high 90s? Is he doing it the second time through the lineup? The second is pitch selection. Is he working a changeup in? Is it effective at all? If he can’t maintain velocity and doesn’t find a reliable changeup, there’s certainly a place for him in the bullpen. Matt Capps lives throwing fastballs and sliders and he doesn’t have anything near the heat that Ohlendorf is capable of. I’m guessing when it’s all said and done, that’s where Ohlendorf will indeed end up in the pen doing what Neal Huntington hoped Craig Hansen would do. Still, there’s certainly no harm in trying him out in the rotation early in the year when his arm is fresh, just to see what he’s capable of. Just don’t expect that trial to be pretty.