Watching Garrett Olson go to work, I think a lot of us have, at some point or another, wondered just what it was that made Olson such an interesting prospect back when he was with the Orioles. So today I thought I'd take a break from Chone Figgins trade speculation to reflect on an old Olson write-up from Baseball America, just as I did with Jason Vargas and Jose Lopez.
What follows is the Olson bit from 2007, following a very strong 2006 during which Olson whiffed 162 and walked 50 over 165.2 innings between high-A and AA. He did that as a 22-year-old southpaw, and wound up #6 in the ranking of the Orioles' top ten prospects.
Background: If you're looking for the safest bet in this system to pitch in the big leagues, Olson is it. He jumped to high Class A in his pro debut in 2005, then made it to Double-A halfway through his first full season. The Orioles said the quality of his pitches improved at Bowie, as he seemed to pitch to the level of his competition.
Strengths: Olson has a well-rounded package of pitches, works efficiently and has a desire to learn and improve unmatched by anyone in the organization. He threw his fastball at 88-91 mph early in the season but worked at 89-93 later, complementing it with a hard breaking ball. His changeup has improved significantly, though he still needs to command it better.
Weaknesses: The Orioles say Olson was too fine with his pitches early in 2006, though he got more confident with his pitches and was more willing to pitch to contact later. Some scouts doubt the quality of his stuff and say he'll end up as a lefty reliever.
The Future: There are those in the organization who would like Olson to get a shot at the Baltimore rotation in spring training, though he'll likely open the season at Triple-A Norfolk. Assuming his changeup continues to come along, he has the stuff and work ethic to pitch in the middle of a rotation.
It's worth adding that, in a companion piece by BA that graded the top tools in the system, Olson came away with the best curveball, the best changeup, and the best control.
I'll tell you one thing - Olson made his way to the bigs all right, just as they predicted. He just turned 27 last October, and he's made 99 appearances in the Major Leagues, throwing 283 innings. To show for those 283 innings, he has a 6.20 ERA. 310 different pitchers have thrown at least 200 Major League innings since Olson arrived in 2007. Olson's ERA ranks second-worst. His xFIP ranks second-worst. His regular FIP ranks fourth-worst. Given that so many of his innings have come out of the bullpen, it's worth considering that, over the past four years, Garrett Olson may have been the worst regular pitcher in baseball.
Now, I'm not going to run down a list of specific traits that BA identified, as I did with Vargas and Lopez. Rather, I want to focus on two general ideas. First of all, I think you can see present Olson in that scouting report, with little progress having been made. His fastball spends most of its time between 88-91mph. His curve is all right but his changeup is inconsistent, and he does frequently nibble as if he's afraid of allowing contact. While Olson's career to date has been disappointing, it was by no means an unlikely outcome given his skillset at the time. Without the fastball he apparently flashed in Bowie, he's a guy for whom success can only come by making the most out of kind of a little. Those scouts who doubted the quality of his stuff seem to have been right on, as Olson is now a lefty reliever.
And secondly, one wonders what impact the system context may have had on Olson's hype. Olson was a decent pitcher in a thin organization. Among the Orioles' top ten prospects in 2007, Olson - believe it or not - may be the biggest success story. It's either him or Nolan Reimold. The system graduated a handful of guys the year before, which allowed Olson to stand out. Yeah, they said he had the best curve. Yeah, they said he had the best changeup, and the best control. But compared to who? The arms ahead of Olson on the top ten list were an 18-year-old in A-ball, a 19-year-old in A-ball, and a fastball-first righty with little command. There weren't a lot of intriguing arms in the system, and most of the ones that were threw good fastballs. So Olson wasn't being compared against a deep pool of peers.
Garrett Olson was an effective pitcher in the minors, even up through AAA. He's been a disaster in the bigs, at least out of the rotation. It's a letdown that he's been as bad as he has, but this sort of thing happens to a number of finesse arms who rely on their secondary stuff. Unless your offspeed pitches are truly exceptional, it's hard to survive without a fastball, as Olson has found out.
There's no doubt in my mind that Olson was one of the better pitching prospects for the Orioles going into 2007. And there's little doubt in my mind that his ranking was somewhat misleading, considering the team's relatively mediocre crop of pitching prospects. Given his skillset back then, even moderate big league success was a possibility, but by no means a given, or even all that likely. He needed to get better, and not everyone does.