NEW YORK -- Ross Ohlendorf, onetime prospect for the New York Yankees and Arizona Diamondbacks, spent the 2013 season reinventing himself, successfully, for the Washington Nationals. The sinkerball pitcher is throwing primarily four-seam fastballs in 2013. And he's yet to throw a two-seamer, which was, until this year, his primary pitch.
You may not have noticed. In fact, Ohlendorf seemed surprised that anybody had when I asked him about it in the tunnel beyond the Washington Nationals' dugout prior to Tuesday night's game at Citi Field against the Mets.
"Where'd you get that number from?" Ohlendorf asked, surprised to hear it quantified. The Princeton grad, whose senior thesis covered MLB draft signing bonuses, took my iPad and studied the Brooks Baseball numbers, comparing them to the tab I made of his pitch selections entering the season.
"That's pretty accurate," Ohlendorf said. "I'm surprised you picked up on it."
That may be because the move to emphasize the four-seamer came less from a conscious decision made in spring training, like Adam Wainwright's, and more from Ohlendorf reacting to what's been working to accomplish his goal of cutting down walks.
"Not necessarily going to more four seams as opposed to two seams," Nationals' pitching coach Steve McCatty told me in front of the Nationals' dugout Tuesday afternoon. "I told him, he's got good stuff, throw it over the plate, and trust them to hit it. Now, you know ... Ross likes to mix things up. And he's kind of a deep thinker. He thinks a little bit differently than I do," McCatty added, chuckling. "So I'd like to see a guy more aggressive early, and get quicker outs. But he's done a great job, mixing in that four-seamer a little bit more."
He has done a great job, though it hasn't been just a little bit more. Entering 2013, he'd thrown his two-seam fastball just under 40 percent of the time, his slider 26 percent, his four-seam fastball around 24 percent. His change made up most of the rest, around nine percent.
In 2013, he's throwing his four-seamer more than 65 percent of the time. He's throwing the slider 21 percent of the time, also down, and the change, a natural complement to the four-seamer, around 13 percent.
"My velocity's up more from where it had been," Ohlendorf said. He's right, of course: His four seamer checks in at 93 miles per hour in 2013, more than a mile per hour better than it was in 2011 or 2012. "I've just been getting really good results with it. The movement on the two-seamer was inconsistent, it was flatter, at times, than it had been in the past. So I just decided to go ahead and stick with the four-seamer, and take advantage of the late life I was getting."
The results have been encouraging. He's cut his walks in half from last season, from 4.4 per nine to 2.2 per nine, and he's still striking out 6.6 per nine, right around his career norm. His ERA this year is a solid 3.28, and it doesn't seem to be much of a fluke: his xFIP is 4.02. He hasn't dominated, but then that's not likely to be in the cards at this point for the 31-year-old Ohlendorf. His ERA was 7.77 last year, 8.15 the year before. Ohlendorf needed to prove basic competence.
"I've had good stretches before, but the last two years have been really challenging," Ohlendorf said. "I feel like I've gotten back to the pitcher I was before, even if it's not the same way I've had success in the past."
Interestingly, Ohlendorf doesn't believe that it is the fact that he's throwing a four-seamer more that's made his control better, as much as that he's simply throwing fewer pitches.
"I think my command's been really good. I don't know that that's just because of the four-seamer," Ohlendorf said. "But I think just throwing the one fastball's really helped my command. In the game, it's just easier to throw the ball where I want to when I'm throwing one pitch."
McCatty agreed, pointing out that much of the battle for command is fought before a pitcher ever takes the mound.
"Minimizing your pitches in the bullpen before you have a few innings to throw I think can really help," McCatty said. "Because if you throw too many pitches, you can really get yourself in trouble. If you have five pitches as a starter, and you only have command of two of them, why you gonna throw three more?"
McCatty and Ohlendorf, though, both understand that the fewer alternatives a starter has to throw, the fewer different looks he can give hitters several times through a batting order. Even this season, when Ohlendorf has a 3.62 ERA as a starter, hitters are posting a .647 OPS first time through the order, .687 second time, and 1.254 the third time through.
"Anybody, to me, that really had average-to-above pitches they can command, can start," said McCatty. "Now, it's always nice to have a changeup, or whatever the other pitches are. But it's not having five pitches you need to start. You need to throw the pitch, the ball, where you want to."
And that's been as critical a change, according to Ohlendorf, as throwing fewer pitches: He's less willing to allow himself to walk hitters. A few minutes after we'd finished talking, Ohlendorf approached me in the dugout to talk more about his season, something sports writers rarely experience. "The walk rate being better, I think a huge part of it was just focusing on not walking guys," Ohlendorf said. "The pitching coach stressed it, and being around Dan Haren, he really focuses on not walking guys. The main thing is, when I get into deeper counts, just trying not to walk guys ... Maybe just not go for the strikeout as much 2-2 as I have in the past."
But Ohlendorf, as mentioned earlier, is striking out just as many hitters as before.
"I think my stuff's better than it's been the last couple of years," Ohlendorf explained.
Whatever Ohlendorf figures out in 2013 can help the Nationals in 2014. Ohlendorf has another year of team control remaining, as long as the Nationals tender him a contract offer. Still, manager Davey Johnson didn't hesitate to pull Ohlendorf from the rotation, and give Tanner Roark, five years younger, Ohlendorf's spot.
"Ross has done a good job out of the pen, Ross has done a good job starting," Johnson told reporters from the Nationals' dugout Tuesday afternoon. "Right now, Roark deserves to start over him, and the job he's done, give him the opportunity to start some games ... both of them have done a good job both places."
That's the struggle Ohlendorf is going to face now, older than what baseball typically considers a prospect. For all his intelligence, he'll need to figure out not only how to pitch, but how to get teams to give him chances to do it. But with good pitching always in short supply, it's a safe bet some team will notice Ohlendorf's 2013.