Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Scott Olsen dilemma

Photo by Mark Zuckerman / NATS INSIDER
Scott Olsen was yanked after recording only five outs.
The velocity was there. In fact, Scott Olsen probably threw the ball harder tonight than he had in any of his previous 21 starts with the Nationals. His fastball, which hasn't even averaged 90 mph this season, was consistently at 92 mph tonight and topped out at 94 mph.

Velocity, of course, does not equate to victories, as Olsen found out during this 9-5 mauling at the hands of the Marlins. No matter how hard Olsen fired it toward the plate, it came back with even more velocity.

Base hit to left. Double down the left-field line. Homer into the Red Porch. It never ended.

Olsen faced 15 batters before getting the unceremonious yanking from Jim Riggleman. Ten of those batters reached safely, eight via base hit.

"Certainly, he can pitch at 92," Riggleman said. "But the other stuff has got to go with it. And tonight, he just didn't have the other stuff."

No, he didn't. Olsen's answers to reporters' questions about his performance were brief and blunt as could be.

What wasn't working for you tonight? "Everything. Next."

What adjustments can you make? "I just have to be better. I made terrible pitches. You make bad pitches, they hit them."

Were there any mechanical problems? "My mechanics are solid. I really don't know how else to explain it, other than making absolutely horse---- pitches. Simple as that."

Well, it's not really as simple as that. For some pitchers, a seven-run, eight-hit, 1 2/3-inning start could be written off as an anomaly. A blip on the radar screen. Nothing to worry about.

With Olsen, it's not that cut-and-dry. Every time he takes the mound, everyone watching is well aware of the shoulder injuries that have ransacked his time in Washington. Every poor outing -- and there have now been two of them in a row -- is met with skepticism, because of the left-hander's injury history.

Olsen, of course, says his arm feels great. And Nationals officials expressed no concern after this game about his physical state.

So then it becomes a question of Olsen's pure pitching performance. We've seen him pitch with incredible effectiveness this season; he's allowed two earned runs or less in six of his 11 starts. We've also seen him pitch with incredible ineffectiveness; he's failed to make it out of the fourth inning three times, including tonight.

Again, for most pitchers, this wouldn't be that tough a decision. Let him keep going out there every five days, and by season's end it should be clearer whether he figures into next year's plan or not.

But for the Nationals to do that with Olsen, it's going to cost a pretty penny. After getting non-tendered following labrum surgery last summer, Olsen signed a one-year, $1 million contract to return. But that contract included a bunch of incentives based on games started. Tonight, for his 11th start of the season, he earned an extra $250,000. For his 12th start (presumably Tuesday in Atlanta) he'll get another $250,000. After that, it's $100,000 for each start he makes the rest of the season.

Are the Nats willing to eat the equivalent of Stephen Strasburg and Drew Storen's combined 2010 salaries just to find out if Olsen has anything left in the tank? Depends on how much they think he fits into the 2011 rotation.

In the Nationals' perfect world, they'll have five better starters than Olsen next spring: Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, Yunesky Maya, Jason Marquis and either Livan Hernandez or John Lannan. Of course, what are the odds of the perfect world being realized? Pretty slim.

So Olsen, if healthy and effective, would be a nice piece to have at the back end of a rotation that is heavy on right-handers. And the only way to find out if he can fit into those plans is to keep throwing him out there for the next eight weeks, no matter the cost.

Riggleman sidestepped the question of Olsen's future when asked about it tonight, insisting he's not thinking about such things at the moment.

"As far as next year, those things, you add it all up at the end and get everybody's opinion: the coaches, myself and Mike and Stan, and everybody will evaluate how we move forward at that point," the manager said. "He's had some good ballgames for us. Tonight, he didn't have a good ballgame. That's all we can do: Put him out there, see what we get and evaluate it at the end."

For his part, Olsen sounded like a pitcher itching to get back on the mound after tonight's fiasco. As bad as the results were, he was relieved to know his shoulder felt strong and he could throw the ball harder than he has in two years.

Does that make it even more frustrating, to know you're physically strong yet still couldn't get hitters out?

"Is it more frustrating? No," Olsen said. "I mean, you get your ass kicked, you get your ass kicked, regardless if you're throwing 88 or 95. It really doesn't matter. You're still out there just getting killed. So it's frustrating any way you look at it."

No less frustrating than it must be right now for the Nationals. It's mid-August, they still can't draw any substantive conclusions on Olsen and it's going to cost them significant dollars to perhaps have an answer by season's end.


Section 222 said...

Wow. That contract just sounds crazy. Maybe they should have required quality starts or at least starts of more than 3 innings....

Anonymous said...

Let's dump Olsen in favor of the Cuban phenom. Go with J. Zimmerman, Strasburg, Livan, Maya and Marquis -- at least to get us through 2010. The Nats need to find out if Marquis has anything left in the tank.

Dryw Loves the Nats said...

Section 222, I was thinking the exact same thing and like your solution. A contract that pays per start seems custom-made to encourage a pitcher with shoulder problems to lie!

Jeeves said...

And to think the nats could have had Dan Hudson who has pitched seven or eight innings for arizonia giving up only one run in each game. Do we have anyone this side of LH who can even throw that many innings? I realize i am one of the few who thinks the nats should have traded dunn. And I still think so.

Sunderland said...

With Olsen the incentives really shouldn't come into play.
Suppose he plays out the year, throwing 9 more starts. He'll have earned $2.3 million this season.
Now it's all silly money to us, but in the world he works and lives in, that's not a crazy contract.
Let the guy pitch, see where we are at the end of the year, see if we want to re-sign him.

It's no different than the CM Wang contract.
We're paying $2 million to see if he can pitch next year.

Richard said...

The pitching rotation has been an incredible mess the last couple of years and even before that with Patterson's and Shawn Hill's struggles. Makes you envious of the Marlins current rotation.So, we blame Riggs (and Acta) for ... alot, but few mention the rotation they've been handed. ... I hope that JZimm and Maya can help. BTW, Tom Milone did well again yesterday in Harrisburg.

JayB said...

Agreed...the money should not be an issue at all, just noise that obscures the real issue really. Good point with Wang.

Jason M. now that is a real waste of money and I did not see it coming.

I hope Rizzo's super smart (sorry Joe G. 2.0) Front Office can keep us out of too many of these fails.

SpashCity said...

Teams aren't allowed to give incentives based on performance such as number of wins, home runs, stolen bases, quality starts, etc. Only stats such as games played, innings pitched, plate appearances, games started, etc. or awards such as All-star game, MVP, Silver Slugger, Gold Glove, ROY, etc. are allowed to be built into contracts as incentives.

NatsJack in Florida said...

I'm on the road today so won't be posting my usual 2 cents worth but JayB is correct. Marquis is the contract that is burdensome. I won't blister Rizzo on this but it sure should have involved more due diligence based on Colorado's act of deleting him from the playoff roster.

As for next year, I'm not going to give up on Olsen till he fails in his next 3 starts. I gave up on Lannan and he showed signs of life after his last start.

Doc said...

I didn't follow the game last night, so I didn't get a chance to track his pitches. Olsen was at his best earlier in the year when he was throwing that hard slider---it really worked for him.

In his last two starts, before last night's game, he relied on a fastball and a change-up---neither which seems to be fooling the hitters. Was he throwing the slider last night?

JayB said...

yea but it was not a sharp downward break when he did throw it. He throw more fastballs than anything and he did not have the change up working either. Marlins can pound SS fastballs...they can hit Olsen fastballs too.

Mrs. Z. said...


markfd said...

Ok first Detweiler was going to be a key piece of the rotation down the stretch and he gets hurt and now Olsen looks like a one trick pony. He needs to be sent down immediately to work on his other pitches and make room for JZimm!

Steveospeak said...

I don't get why everyone hates on Olsen, yeah the injuries are frustrating but even if he pitches the rest of the year he will make under $3 million which is roughly what he would have gotten in Arb. so it ends up being a decent contract for the Nats. Yes he has missed time, but for the most part he has been very effective this season. If he shows he is healthy for the the rest of the year maybe try to trade him in the offseason since they do have pitching depth (hopefully) but otherwise I'm okay with Olsen. He isn't exactly breaking the bank, and he hasn't been bad all year.

Anonymous said...

Olsen is another pitcher, just like Marquis, who came to the Nats as damaged goods. His velocity was waning big time with the Marlins and that was a tell tale sign, which is probably why the Marlins were interesting in dumping him. As soon as he got here, he broke down. Management needs to do a better job of checking these guys out, both physically and statistically, before agreeing to take them.

Anonymous said...

Is Livo a free agent in 2011?

We need to bring Dunn & Livo back...

Anonymous said...

I think you have to keep sending Olsen out there. Presuming that there are three-four spots in the 2011 rotation basically locked up - Stras, Zimm'nn, and then two of Marquis, Maya and Livo, that means this offseason, Rizzo's going to have to decide what to do with the AAAA-level pitching "inventory" that is piling up. Lannan, Stammen, Olsen, Detwiler, Martis, Chico, Atilano, Mock, Wang, Martin - there are two full five-man rotations there (ok, pretty terrible ones), before you even get to the Bergmann/Balester land of failed starters. Some of those guys will have trade value and need to be packaged up for a 2b or an RF or a CF, depending on what they do with Bernadina. But in order to figure out who to trade (or try to trade), you need to know what you really have, and that means those guys have to see action this year. Olsen needs to keep rolling out there, Maya needs to come up, Stammen should start and not be in the pen. If it were up to me, they'd shut Stras down sooner rather than later (look, we know he's going to be fine, and we don't need him now) and try to deal Livo in a waiver deal and close out the year with a Lannan-Marquis-Olsen-Maya-Zimm'nn rotation, with Stammen and Balester coming in to mop up when those guys blow up. No, it's not pretty, but it's necessary. We've got 10-12 guys all of whom are basically the same, some of whom could actually become a serviceable 4/5 starter.

The Great Unwashed said...

"Teams aren't allowed to give incentives based on performance such as number of wins, home runs, stolen bases, quality starts, etc."

Splash City, how do you explain A-Rod's contract that awarded him incentive dollars for hitting his 600th home run, and will reward him for surpassing Babe Ruth's home run total, etc.?

Anonymous said...

On one hand, I think the decision should be based solely on performance, not on dollars.

But, on the other hand, I also think this organization has fooled around with too many injured pitchers too long, and should cut bait with Olsen, Marquis and Wang (the free agent injury squad) and paid the money to get solid starting pitching in the off season. I also think the organization should take some additional precautions by hiring additional medical personnel to examine potential free agents like Marquis. Clearly their hearts were in the right place with this signing but he hasn't been right since day one, and you hope that there's something they can do to see potential problems like this before they sign them.

Pedro said...

Olsen was looking like a huge bargain until he broke down. Then he came back and the last two starts raised big questions. But he's still a bargain even with those incentives, which the Nats probably make back every day on Strasburg t-shirts. Give him some more chances.

Marquis is the bigger problem with that contract going through next year. Whodathunk he'd be such a mess?

And does Wang actually get paid out there, wherever he is? Seems we're more likely to see Jesus Flores as a starting pitcher than Wang.

Anonymous said...

Completely off topic but nothing on the Nats plate concerns me as much as letting Dunn walk. They need to sign him.

greg said...

anon 10:16, i believe everyone *knew* he had risk involved when they traded for him and willingham. that, along with the very mild salary dump, is why the nats got him for so little. there were velocity questions about him before he came here.

so it wasn't necessarily an issue of "checking him out better." just an issue of getting him turned around, both physically and psychologically. and there was a decent amount of risk involved. i would say that, overall, that trade has worked out well for the nationals. I don't think anyone is really pining for Emilio Bonifacio, Jake Smolinski or P.J. Dean right now.

Anonymous said...


I disagree with your basic premise that the team under performed; they were basically a 70 win team and they will be right around there at the end. You keep harping on the same tired points about issues which had marginal effect on the team. Harris may be an easy target for this forum but his contributions or lack of same are essentially meaningless in the overall scheme; same for your backup catcher and in any event they won't be there next year.

Criticizing the Marquis signing is Monday morning quarter backing; the Nats felt that they needed a veteran, decent pitcher (and everything about Marquis history puts him in that category) and this is the cost for such a commodity.

70 wins is a nice step forward from last year; in order to take the next step to .500 and beyond you to keep producing your own talent both for the big leagues and for trade bait; when I see the Marlins with 3 rookies in the starting 8 and with a home grown pitching staff I see a GM who knows what he's doing; they would be a perennial playoff team if their owner wasn't so cheap.

Finally; I see that Riggleman is a pretty good target around these parts; IMHO he's not a great manager and not a terrible manager; I think that his overall effect one way or the other is negligible; having said that I don't think they would contend with any manager at the helm; they are not good enough yet.

Next year with a better rotation the Nats should be right around .500 so relax everyone and stop dissecting every great and terrible play you see on a daily basis.

SpashCity said...

@The Great Unwashed

Teams are prohibited from paying bonuses to players based on statistical achievements, but Major League Baseball and the Players Association have apparently signed off on Rodriguez's bonuses because the Yankees are classifying his home runs as historical milestones.

Anonymous said...

Ray Knight had the most amazing observation in the post game about Olsen's performance. He said that only on two of his pitches did batters swing and fail to make contact. Some they fouled off but only twice did they not make contact. They were apparently seeing his pitches very well and swinging freely.

Anonymous said...

Unless they sign Cliff Lee ... and then its a different story where left-handed starters are concerned. Hopefully they sign Sammy Solis ... and soon!!!

The Great Unwashed said...

Good to know, Splash City. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Looks like Dibble might be in beeeeeeeeeg trouble?

Anonymous said...

Happy Birthday Mark!

Tegwar said...

I'm also pretty sure that the players union would get involved if Olsen was not allowed to pitch unless an injury was involved. Also any player would become very weary of this tactic being used in future negotiations with the Nationals. Maybe if Olsen had repeated bad starts the team could make the case but as it stands now the Nationals will play him. It also makes sense since they control him for another year to see if it is worth resigning him and for how much.

natsfan1a said...

If you're referring to Steinberg's item on the Post site, I would reply: not in this (female) Nats fan's army. I wasn't offended by the comments (which I didn't see live but read about out of context on the Bog). Ooh, a male pro athlete may have indulged in gender sterotyping. Stop the presses - not.


Looks like Dibble might be in beeeeeeeeeg trouble?
August 12, 2010 1:17 PM

natsfan1a said...

Oh, and I'll add my happy birthday wishes for Mark (assuming that it is, indeed, his birthday).

Mark Zuckerman said...

natsfan1a: The rumors are indeed true. Today is not only the 16th anniversary of baseball's 1994 strike but also the 34th anniversary of my birth.

natsfan1a said...

Well, I hope they have a cake ready for you in the press box, if you're working tonight!

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