Garrett Olson studied engineering at Cal-Poly, and now he’s learning to put together wins in the Orioles‘ starting rotation. The 48th overall pick in the 2005 draft, Olson began building his big league resume last summer, albeit with mixed results as he went an unpolished 1-3, 7.79 in seven starts. The 24-year-old left-hander is having more success this season, having gone 6-3, 5.04 in 13 starts.
David Laurila: In an interview last year, you said that a lot of pitching is mechanical physics. What did you mean by that?
Garrett Olson: I think that you can really define it that way in all sports. Even if you look at hitting, I think that hitting and pitching are pretty similar; they’re both about leverage and ground angles and being able to be efficient with your body. Your arm, for pitching, is a lever. Your hands with the bat, that’s a lever, too. All of the power and energy that you generate, starting from the feet, it ends at the hands and a lot of that is generated from your legs and your core-that’s science based. That’s some of the stuff I studied in college-not necessarily pitching mechanics, but if you look at pitching, there are a lot of similarities.
DL: Former Red Sox left-hander Bill Lee once said of Greg Maddux: “I think he looks at the plate differently than other pitchers. He looks at it in three dimensions with a spatial relationship.” Does that make sense to you?
GO: Completely. The two dimensions, if you look at home plate, are like the K-Zone where you’re looking up-and-down and right-to-left. ‘Three-dimensional’ sounds to me like you’re watching the hitter and seeing what kind of swing he’s taking on the ball. Besides getting the movement on a particular pitch, you’re adding and subtracting speed to throw the hitter’s timing off. It sounds to me like that’s what he was referring to.
DL: Do you think that most pitchers see the same thing in their mind’s eye when they look in from the mound?
GO: I think so, but I’d say you don’t over-analyze it; it’s more instinctual. If you see that a guy is on a particular pitch, maybe based on how he fouls it off–maybe he fouls it straight back–that usually tells me that he’s right on the pitch and I might want to change speeds. And if he fouls it down the line, maybe he’s behind the ball and I want to come inside. There are different ways of reading a hitter’s approach, and that’s how you usually make adjustments and decide what to throw.
DL: Red Sox pitching coach John Farrell said that Jon Lester paid so much attention to hitting charts early last season that he was looking at the strike zone and seeing color-coded squares. Have you done anything similar?
GO: Well, I don’t see it quite like that. Personally, I just try to be aggressive and stick with my game plan and my strengths. When you analyze what certain hitters do with certain pitches, you do take that into account, especially when it’s a count that is in their favor. If you’re behind and it’s a fastball count, that’s when you can make an adjustment and maybe not pitch to your strength, but it’s all dictated by the situation of the game and there are a lot of variables. So I see what you’re talking about with the zone, but I kind of view it as remembering areas that might be hot for someone’s swing, and in a certain situation maybe I’ll pitch around them.
DL: What are your strengths on the mound?
GO: I feel that my changeup has come a long way. I used to be a two-pitch pitcher, but I can say that it’s three pitches now. The curveball has been a great out pitch for me ever since I started pitching. For me, I feel like I’m doing really well when my fastball command is at its best; I’m downhill, attacking low in the zone with late movement. I’ve never been an overpowering pitcher, but I do feel that I have some deception which allows me to sometimes get away with missing over the plate instead of going to the corners. But I usually stay outside or inside; I generally don’t come over the middle of the plate. I guess I’d say that my strength is trying to be accurate.
DL: Where does your deception come from?
GO: Just my motion. I think that I hide the ball pretty well, to the last moment, just based on my arm action and the way I approach the hitter when I’m going toward home plate. It’s kind of hard to explain; it’s really just the natural way that I throw.
DL: There is a school of thought that arm angles are natural and should be left alone. Do you agree with that?
GO: Everybody has a natural way of throwing, but what you want to do is find the most efficient and stress-free motion for that person. I think that sometimes pitchers do drop down, or are in a position where in the long run it could affect their elbow or their shoulder. By the time you finally get to the major leagues, you’ve kind of established those natural mechanics for yourself and are just going to have minor tweaks here and there. You’re not going to try to recreate anything unless there’s something glaring; maybe there’s something you need to correct that creates less drag on your elbow or shoulder.
DL: Rick Kranitz replaced Leo Mazzone as the Orioles pitching coach this season. What do you see as the biggest difference between Mazzone and Kranitz?
GO: I didn’t get a big chance to work with Leo, because I just saw him towards the end of the season when the team was just trying to put together some wins. But from the little I talked to him, his biggest thing was establishing low and away against all hitters. For me, I like to come inside; I feel that’s an important part of the game, because if you stay out over the plate the hitters get comfortable. Rick is more aggressive with his approach to hitters. He really stresses the importance of strike one, whether it’s over the middle of the plate or wherever it is; he likes us to get after guys and get the ball in play within the first three or four pitches. I felt like Leo was trying to get us to stay away from the hitters’ strengths by going away rather than by being aggressive inside.
DL: Do you feel that a one-size-fits-all philosophy is a good thing, or do some pitchers need to work differently to optimize their success?
GO: One-size-fits-all is kind of a cookie-cutter approach, and I don’t think there is just one way. I can go out there on a particular day, and say I don’t have my fastball–my changeup and curveball are going to have to be there. Some days, all three pitches are there. So it varies day-to-day with how you feel. I think we all have natural tendencies and strengths that we need to stay with, because that’s what makes us successful.
DL: You have a plus curveball. If you’re on the mound with great command of it on a given day, is it possible to throw it too much?
GO: It is. You can fall in love with a certain pitch, like your curveball, and my whole approach is that I want to be able to throw everything off of my fastball. If I stick with my off-speed pitch too much, that takes away from my fastball, both the velocity and the accuracy. Other pitchers may have a different approach where everything comes off their changeup or their curveball, but for me personally, I feel that everything comes off of my fastball.
DL: Is the biggest difference between a Triple-A pitcher and a big league pitcher mental or physical?
GO: It’s completely mental. I definitely feel that when I came up last year for my first few starts, I tried to do too much instead of sticking with what has worked for me so far in my career. Yes, it’s the major league level and the hitters are better, but the biggest difference is your consistency; you need to find the strengths and routines that make you successful and stay with them. If you do, you’re going to be able to cope with the ups and downs, and pretty soon you’ll find that it’s only going to take an adjustment here or there to get you right back on track. In the minors, if you get off track it might take you a few starts; you’re not going to be able to make that adjustment as quickly. At this level, guys are able to make an adjustment within a couple of pitches.
DL: Your big league debut came one year ago, on the Fourth of July. What do you remember from that game?
GO: It was very stressful, because your dream is coming true. I know this sounds clichéd, but you’ve waited your whole life for this opportunity. You also have your family and lot of friends who want to come to watch you, and you have to take care of that. The game finally comes around and you feel like you’re all up in knots because you’ve been worrying about all of this other stuff, and then you go out there and try to get the job done. Once I got out there it started to get a little more comfortable, but it was just a real experience because it’s your very first time. I look back at it now, compared to the last starts I’ve made this season, and just the way I approached it is completely different from now. I feel so much more comfortable now, where that first game you’re just so star struck, and so into the moment, that you get away from what you’ve always done, and that can get you in trouble. Fortunately, I got out of that game having pitched somewhat OK, but had I kept pitching that way I don’t think I could have stayed at this level.
DL: Going back to 2004, you pitched in the Alaskan Summer League. What was that experience like?
GO: That was one of my best baseball experiences ever. I didn’t finish too well that year in college, and I went up there and kind of rediscovered myself. I was able to relax and just have fun playing the game, which got me back to why I started to play baseball in the first place–because it’s fun and it’s a game. If you can relax and play the game the way you can, you’re going to be more productive and enjoy it more. And playing in Alaska, you’re not as distracted every day by things like TV and video games. I mean, you have some of that, but we spent a lot of time doing outdoors stuff like fishing, and I even flew a little bit in sea planes. It was just a great experience.
DL: Looking into your future, what comes after baseball for Garrett Olson?
GO: Well, I still have some school left, about a year and a half at Cal-Poly, and I’ll want to finish that and get my degree. I may minor in, or at least spend some time with business, because in this sport a lot of different opportunities and avenues open up; you make a lot of connections. There are just so many things I’ve become interested in, but it will probably be engineering-related, business-related, or something sports-specific, maybe training or something related to the mental side of the game. Whatever it is, hopefully it’s not too soon. I’d like to do this a lot longer.