Breaking Down Ross Ohlendorf’s Start


When the Nationals announced that Ross Ohlendorf had been recalled from Triple-A Syracuse to make his first major league start since August 17 of last season, many fans’ expectations were not high. This lack of enthusiasm was not without reason, as Ohlendorf entered the game with a 5.10 career MLB ERA, and had compiled a 4-5 record with a 4.27 ERA in his 12 starts in Syracuse this year. Adding on to all this, his opponent, the Rockies, are a strong hitting team playing in a notorious hitter’s park.

February 15, 2013; Viera, FL, USA; Washington Nationals pitcher Ross Ohlendorf (43) throws during spring training at Space Coast Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brad Barr-USA TODAY Sports

Yet once the lights were on, the Princeton grad delivered a clutch start, turning in six strong innings, allowing only two hits, two walks, and just one run. Using his throwback windup, he kept the National League’s second-ranked offense at bay, as the Rockies hitters failed to get into a rhythm and were kept quiet. Given Davey Johnson’s announcement that Ohlendorf will remain with the Nationals as a long reliever, now is a good time to look at a statistical breakdown of his start.

Looking only at Ohlendorf’s low first pitch strike percentage (50%) and his undesirable 5:11 ground ball to fly ball ratio, which does include a number of infield popups, one would have not predicted that he would have turned in a quality start. His pitch selection was pretty diverse, but he ended up relying mostly on his fastball, which he threw about 70% of the time, as opposed to his slider (18%), and his changeup (12%).  All three of his pitches were effective, however, which allowed for his successes.

Although Ohlendorf’s stuff is not overpowering, as evidenced by his meager two strikeouts, his consistency with all three pitches, combined with a little luck, made for an effective night.

His fastball, which averaged 91 MPH with good arm-side run, showed some life at times, topping out at 94 MPH. He was frequently hitting his spots with movement, and despite several fastballs left up in the zone, as seen in the graphs below, the Rockies got only one hit off the pitch. Although the hitters were unable to turn the mistake fastballs into hits, Ohlendorf will need to work on locating his fastball down in the zone in future appearances.

In addition to the fastball, hitters were fooled by Ohlendorf’s slider, and its late break caused them to chase 40% of the ones thrown outside of the strike zone. Lastly, his changeup, which averaged 84 MPH, provided a good change of pace from his fastball, and led to outs all three times that it was put into play. Given the success of these two pitches against the Rockies, who managed only one hit off the slider, look for Ohlendorf to continue to mix up his pitches, possibly even more than he did Wednesday night, in future outings.

As a result of this effective repertoire, the Rockies offense managed a measly .111 BABIP (batting average on balls in play) off Ohlendorf, whose career mark is .300. This extremely low average shows that Rockies hitters were constantly making weak contact, but it does not take a genius to realize that there was luck involved in this dominant number, given the low first-pitch strike and high fly ball rates and the fastball mistakes upon which the Rockies could not capitalize. Of course, Ohlendorf could have suddenly transformed into a pitcher far more effective than Justin Verlander, who has a .270 career opponent BABIP, but that’s unlikely.

Ohlendorf’s first start was good enough to show that he belongs in the Major Leagues, and while his dominance is unsustainable, the Nats hope that he will provide a serviceable arm out of the bullpen. In the future, if he can get ahead of more hitters on the first pitch and improve his ground ball to fly ball ratio while commanding his fastball better, Dan Haren could possibly find his spot in jeopardy.

Graphs and stats courtesy of Fangraphs.