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Giving Ross Ohlendorf Another Chance

Should the Pirates give Ross Ohlendorf another chance?

On Wednesday, Pittsburgh Pirates right hander Ross Ohlendorf put up his worst line of the season, giving up seven runs on seven hits in two innings.  The outing took his season ERA to 8.29 in 33.2 innings in an injury filled 2011 season.  Ohlendorf was eligible for arbitration this past off-season, and was awarded $2.05 M.  That means that he’s likely due a raise over that number through arbitration in 2012, as the arbitration process focuses on the entire body of work, and not just the recent season.

There are a lot of people calling for Ohlendorf to be non-tendered after his most recent start.  That’s understandable when you think about the idea of giving more than $2 M to a pitcher with an 8.29 ERA.  But how much can we take away from 33.2 innings?  And how can you give credit to those 33.2 innings and totally disregard the 285 innings that Ohlendorf pitched in the previous two seasons?

In 2009 and 2010 Ohlendorf combined for 285 innings.  In those innings he put up a 3.98 ERA, a 1.29 WHIP, a 5.9 K/9, a 3.1 BB/9, and a 1.2 HR/9 ratio.  He missed some time due to injury in 2010, and each year he started off slow before picking up the pace late in the season.  But the results were there, and they were much better than what we’ve seen in 2011.  In the two years he combined for a .307 BABIP, a 75% strand rate, and a 9.7% HR/FB rate.  The strand rate indicates some potential regression, but the other two numbers are close to average.

Coming in to the season I warned that Ohlendorf could see a regression from his 2010 numbers.  His HR/FB rate was lucky last year, and his BABIP was low.  This year has been the opposite.  His HR/FB ratio and BABIP are both unlucky.  He’s got a .398 BABIP, which is well over the average for starters that usually sits in the .300 range.  His HR/FB ratio of 12.2% is over the 10% average.  His strand rate has also been horrible, with a 59.8% rate, well below the 70% league average.

Coming in to the year, Ohlendorf was overpowering his pitches, which was flattening out his two seam fastball, and preventing his slider from breaking.  That led to a lot of home runs in Spring Training.  As Pat noted last year, he increased the velocity of his fastball in the second half of the 2010 season, leading to more home runs, but less break on his sinker ball, which tells us that this issue with Ohlendorf isn’t new.

The thing is, Ohlendorf isn’t this bad.  His xFIP is 4.93.  In a “neutral” year, his numbers would probably be in the 4.50 ERA range, although the injury issues do raise another issue, as he’s pitched less than 150 innings over the last two seasons.  So what do the Pirates do with Ohlendorf?  Do they bring him back, and hope for 2009/2010 results?  Do they non-tender him and go in another direction?

There’s also another issue to consider: his injuries.  Ohlendorf has dealt with a shoulder injury the last two years, limiting his innings.  He threw a lot of sliders last year, which is a good way to bring on shoulder injuries.  The shoulder could be a long term issue, which might be more concerning than his numbers this year.

It’s going to be a tough decision, no matter what the Pirates decide.  If they try to keep Ohlendorf, we can pretty much rule out getting a discount for his 2011 season.  Ohlendorf is a smart guy.  He took the Pirates to arbitration last year and won.  He probably understands that the arbitration process awards pitchers based on their body of work, rather than their most recent year.  His 2009 and 2010 seasons were enough that he should see a raise in 2012.  If the Pirates want to keep Ohlendorf for $2 M in 2012, he could take them to arbitration and earn more.  We’re probably talking somewhere in the $2.5-3 M range.

If the Pirates non-tender Ohlendorf, and try to bring him back at a similar $2 M salary, they run in to the same issue they ran in to with Matt Capps in 2009.  Despite the down year, another team will probably take a chance on Ohlendorf, hoping to capture his 2009/2010 magic.  He’s got options remaining, so in the worst case scenario, he’s getting $2 M to be the 6th starter out of AAA, with a chance to turn his career around and bounce back to his pre-2011 numbers.  The difference between the Capps situation and the Ohlendorf situation is that it was easier for the Pirates to find a comparable reliever to Capps.  They added Octavio Dotel on the free agent market that January.  They’re not going to find a guy on the free agent market who put up the numbers that Ohlendorf did in 2009/2010.

There’s also the question of whether the Pirates need to take a chance on Ohlendorf.  As I mentioned last week, the 2012 pitching staff looks like it’s set.  The Pirates have Charlie Morton, James McDonald, and Jeff Karstens holding down rotation spots.  They’ve got Brad Lincoln and Jeff Locke as candidates to start out of Spring Training.  They’ve got Kevin Correia making $4 M, Paul Maholm with a $9.75 M option, and then Ohlendorf.  It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Lincoln get the fourth spot, which leaves one spot open.  Ohlendorf does have an option remaining, so he could pitch out of AAA, although he’d be an expensive AAA option.

It seems easy to ignore what Ohlendorf did in 2009 and 2010, especially when we’re at the end of a horrible 2011 season.  With Ohlendorf, I’m less concerned with the numbers, and more concerned with the injuries.  Without the injuries, it would be an easy decision for me to bring him back, as I weigh his numbers over 285 innings between 2009 and 2010 more than I weigh his numbers in 33.2 innings in 2011.  Because of his injuries, I put him more in the Rich Harden/Erik Bedard category, only without the upside that those pitchers have.  Ohlendorf is a number 3-4 starter at best when healthy.  That would be worth $2.5-3 M with just one of his concerns, but not when you’ve got both the performance concerns, and the injury concerns.  The best course might be to non-tender him, and try to sign him back at a lower rate.  You run the risk of another team signing him, but if that happens you’re losing a guy who isn’t even a lock to make the 2012 rotation.

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Tim Williams

Tim is the owner and editor in chief of Pirates Prospects. He started the site in January 2009, and turned it into his full time job during the 2011 season. Prior to starting Pirates Prospects, Tim worked with AccuScore.com, providing MLB, NHL, and NFL coverage to various national media outlets, including ESPN Insider, USA Today, Yahoo Sports, and the Wall Street Journal. He also writes the annual Prospect Guide, which is sold through the site. Tim lives in Bradenton, where he provides live coverage all year of Spring Training, mini camp, instructs, the Bradenton Marauders, and the GCL Pirates.

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  • Anonymous

    His body of work recently is that 2 million a year is grossly overpaying for what he can provide a rotation. His last start was one of the worst performances I’ve seen in a long time. If they can’t sign him for what they want to pay, it will be time to move in another direction. I never thought I’d see the day where Jeff Karstens was the best pitcher we got in that deal.

  • Anonymous

    You make a good argument, Tim. I was against it before but now I’m at least open to bringing him back depending on what they plan to do with FA, Trade, Maholm and Correia.

  • Anonymous

    I would like to see a low base, high incentive contract that could go as high as 3.5-4M based on innings pitched for next year.

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