Injuries, bad luck, led to Ohlendorf’s decline
Ross Ohlendorf has never been anyone’s bargaining chip. When the Yankees unloaded Randy Johnson in 2006, grateful to get his attitude and slipping skills off their hands, they were essentially forced to take whatever the Diamondbacks were willing to give them. What they got was a package of maybe-prospects and mediocre middle relief. Among the unproven, thrown in between a promising righty in Steven Jackson and slick-fielding Alberto Gonzalez, was Princeton graduate Ross Ohlendorf, an odd combination of size and finesse with an easy lightness to his delivery. With his brilliant mind (he graduated with a financial engineering degree and a 3.75 GPA) and his bulldog presence on the mound, Ohlendorf’s potential for greatness was an intimation that ran smack into a spate of bad luck before it could blossom.
After showing flashes of effectiveness when he debuted in September 2007, posting a 2.84 ERA and a 1.11 WHIP, Ohlendorf struggled on a weak 2008 pitching staff, losing his command and bloating his WHIP to a 1.75, with a 4.3 walk rate over nine. He became part of what was then seen as highway robbery when the Yankees traded the righty, along with inconsistent Jeff Karstens and then-number two position prospect, OF Jose Tabata, to the Pittsburgh Pirates, for Xavier Nady and Damaso Marte. At the time, analysts cried foul, citing the trade as yet another example of the Yankees managing to fleece baseball. Nady was an above-average outfielder with solid numbers coming off an above-average career incline and Marte was one of the game’s premier lefty relievers. But if baseball has taught us nothing else, it’s that the intended outcome cannot be assumed. In the years since the trade, Nady has undergone his second Tommy John surgery and bounced around baseball, and Marte has thrown a total of 31 regular-season innings since 2009. The great blockbuster the Yankees pulled off had essentially gone up in flames. Anything the Pirates got would simply be a bonus.
Out of the glare of New York, Ohlendorf put up a surprising and effective 2009 campaign. With a 3.92 ERA and a 1.23 WHIP, the new Pirates’ ace reined in his command, posting a career-low 2.7 walks per nine and putting together impressive outing after impressive outing. His fastball was riding the mid-high 90s, and his breaking balls were sharp. Unfortunately, the Pirates’ offense was the Pirates’ offense, and the 62-99 Bucs could only manage a .252 batting average and 636 runs scored for the young pitching staff. Ohlendorf’s record sat at just 11-10, despite the above-average performance. Ironically, the small-market atmosphere that may have contributed to his success also made for very poor run support. Still, the crisp pitching garnered plenty of attention, culminating in an impressive 8.0 inning effort that September against the St. Louis Cardinals that saw Ohlendorf strike out 11. Both he and the Pirates anticipated great things out of their ace going forward, and looked for a noteworthy performance in the coming year.
Unfortunately, Ohlendorf’s 2010 would end up being memorable for all the wrong reasons. His season could be considered one of the unluckiest in major league history, as his 4.07 ERA and 79 strikeouts over 108 innings resulted in only one win. According to Dejan Kovacevic, Ohlendorf’s 11 losses make him the first pitcher to have an ERA that low with so many losses and so few wins since 1993. But game outcome was only part of the problem: his play was sporadic, due to back spasms, and injuries to the head and leg also forced him to miss starts. Finally, in August, Ohlendorf was diagnosed with a strained lat muscle, slamming the door on his season for good.
Although Ohlendorf’s season was dismal in many ways, an arbitrator panel awarded him for service time and past performance with a $2.025 million paycheck. What that amounted to was $53,000 per inning pitched in 2011, as the injuries mounted and Ohlendorf’s effectiveness waned. Throughout 2011, the former ace suffered from back and shoulder problems, ultimately landing on the 60-day DL before returning for a final wheeze in September. In his nine starts, Ohlendorf allowed nine home runs, including three in his final game. Though his velocity returned slowly in September, his command was abysmal and his breaking pitches lacked bite, as hitters got on base 42% of the time. To the surprise of no one, the Pirates neglected to tender him a contract at the end of the 2011 season, and Ohlendorf remains unsigned.
All aspects of Ohlendorf and the Pirates’ organization can be parsed in the effort to understand what went wrong. The injury bug is nothing new, as the right-hander struggled in AAA to stay healthy. Yet his career trajectory was on the incline until the gears started coming loose. What is possible is that the pressure to override a poor offense could have caused unhealthy tweaks to his mechanics. His momentum and release are large and a bit jerky, easily prone to go out of line. If that’s the case, then a low-impact role on a solid ballclub with superb coaching could assist his comeback. A team like the Rangers or Rays might be a good fit. If he can stay healthy, Ohlendorf’s brilliant mind and dedicated work ethic (his family are longhorn cattle ranchers in Texas and he participated in an internship with the Department of Agriculture during the 2009 offseason) can carry him the rest of the way. With a caveat that large, most teams probably won’t take a flyer, especially since arbitration rules will prevent him from earning less than $1.8 million at the major league level in 2012. But if Ohlendorf can find a fit, and be given a chance, it’s possible that he could return to the form that once struck out 11 Cardinals on a September afternoon.