Critics may be missing point, but Olson may be missing a curve

BASEBALL

April 25, 1993|By JIM HENNEMAN

Let's start this week's essay with an understatement -- Gregg Olson has not pitched very well in the first three weeks of the season.

OK, call it a no-brainer. You win. There's no argument, not even from Olson. He knows the difference between good, bad and ineffective -- and that sometimes two out of three doesn't cut it.

Even though the Orioles have five wins and he has four saves, Olson knows better than anybody that he hasn't been good, or even close.

And, no matter your feelings, it should be noted that Olson does not hide behind lame alibis. He does not dodge tough questions in tough times or duck the issue of fan discontent. He's handled the glory with dignity and the agony with decency, and, hopefully, that won't change.

A year ago, Olson was judged, by himself as well as others, as having a poor season because he converted 37 of 44 save opportunities. That's an 84 percent success ratio, so if you understand how that can be construed as failure, then you should realize that the save is either the most overrated or underappreciated statistic in baseball, maybe both.

Olson has more saves (135) at his age (26) than any other reliever inbaseball history. He has an 82.3 percent success rate, and only once (1990, when he converted 37 of 42 chances for 88 percent) has he exceeded either that or his record of last year.

Do you get the picture here? Anything under 100 percent in the save business is basically unacceptable. When a team has the lead in the ninth inning, which is Olson's time, it is supposed to win. Period. That is the nature of the profession.

However, when the first hitter is on base, the odds change, big time. Especially with a one-run lead, which is usually as good as it gets with the Orioles these days. And the first hitter reached base safely against Olson in seven of his first eight appearances, six via hits, the other on a walk.

So, with all the statistical gymnastics put aside, the question remains: Why has Olson been ineffective in the early weeks of the season?

That's a question that ultimately has to be answered by the reliever himself, manager Johnny Oates and pitching coach Dick Bosman. There has been no indication of either a physical or ability problem, and pitching mechanics, as important as they might be, can't always be the reason for ineffectiveness.

But there has been a gradual transformation for Olson in the past four years. He came to the big leagues with two pitches -- a quality fastball and a curveball that was instantly judged as the best in the American League.

From the outset, there was a question about using a curveball pitcher as a closer in the big leagues. Jim Palmer, who got there with three pitches, suggested early that the addition of a changeup would provide Hall of Fame potential for Olson -- as a starter.

But that wasn't, isn't and shouldn't be his role. He has the makeup of a closer, even if he doesn't fit the classic mold. The bottom line is, he has been highly successful. The trick is trying to make him better, without diminishing his results. It hasn't been easy, as everybody should understand by now.

In that regard, Bosman and former Orioles pitching coach Al Jackson before him have tried to improve Olson's technique -- and his variety of pitches. Both have succeeded to some degree.

Olson has more pitches than when he broke in -- he now throws a sinker and a slider occasionally.

But there does seem to one thing missing. Olson used to throw two curveballs -- a nasty one that was unhittable and sometimes unstoppa

ble (remember the wild pitch Jamie Quirk couldn't handle in Toronto?) and another that he could better control when he needed a strike.

For whatever reason, it appears "nasty" got an eviction notice in favor of more variety.

It's true that there aren't many closers who rely on the curveball. Neither are there many, if any, who rely on more than two pitches. Maybe "nasty" deserves another look.

And maybe this is the best time to find out if variety is the spice of success for Olson. Oates has temporarily relieved Olson of his job as the Orioles' closer, which should provide an opportunity for fine tuning.

It could also be the right time to make a decision. Olson had a lot more success relying on two pitches. Starting pitchers generally require one trip through the lineup, or a minimum of two innings, to establish all of their pitches, and rarely do they use them all in the same game.

The idea is to find out what is working best and stick with it. A closer doesn't have the luxury of time to tinker with three, four or more pitches -- he has to have his best act ready when he enters.

The impression from this vantage point is that Olson has gotten away from his best pitch -- the one hitters feared the most and the one that made him one of the game's top closers. Right now he doesn't appear to have a specific "out" pitch, relying instead on a variety.

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