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The Cliffs Notes version is this: While bonuses have escalated in recent years, players on average still produce an effective return for their teams of twice their bonuses. It's a safe bet that when Ohlendorf's career is over, he will prove to have been well worth the $280,000 he signed for when the Diamondbacks drafted him in the fourth round in 2004.
Big Chief has turned up.
Ross's dad found him in a field hanging out with a couple of cows, looking no worse for his dustup with Winner's Edge. And now Ross is showing him off to some guests, luring him across a field with grain pellets. He's also holding a long stick with a golf club handle that when waved at an approaching longhorn is supposed to divert the animal. He looks overmatched.
The standard major league contract forbids players from racing cars, riding motorcycles and skydiving. It says nothing about consorting with 2,000-pound beasts, but if owners around the league got a look at Big Chief, that might change. To be fair, Big Chief is, like most longhorns, fairly docile around people. The worst injury Ohlendorf has picked up in 15 years of ranching was a scratch from a barbed wire fence.
Still, you couldn't blame the Pirates if they're a little nervous. Last year Ohlendorf emerged as an indispensable member of a young staff that could be good enough to allow Pittsburgh, which hasn't had a winning season since 1992, to actually flirt with respectability in 2010. Ohlendorf's path to the bigs wasn't without its bumps. Arizona traded him to the Yankees as part of a deal for Randy Johnson in 2007. But being a young pitcher for the game's richest franchise isn't easy. Because they could go out and purchase free agent starters at a whim, the Yankees had the luxury of sending Ohlendorf to the bullpen. As a reliever, Ohlendorf felt it was his duty to throw as hard as he could—which, granted, is pretty hard. (His heater maxed out around 97 mph.) But he was just throwing, not pitching. Ohlendorf was on the Yankees' Opening Day roster in 2008, but at the trade deadline New York shipped Ohlendorf, who had a 6.52 ERA, to the Pirates as part of a package for outfielder Xavier Nady and reliever Damaso Marte. Pittsburgh immediately sent him to Triple A to become a starter again.
The relearning process took off last spring, when Ohlendorf began working with the Pirates' new pitching coach, Joe Kerrigan. "In baseball they say you want to be smart but not too smart," says Ohlendorf's coach at Princeton, Scott Bradley. "Some people are scared of too much intelligence. But Joe Kerrigan is smart. The combination of him and Ross was perfect. Joe relishes when people ask him, Why?"
"I do have a tendency to overcomplicate things, which can be a detriment," says Ohlendorf. "You want to think about things, but there's also a benefit to keeping them simple. So there were times when Joe would tell me I wasn't allowed to ask questions. Like in spring training, every Thursday I wasn't allowed to ask any."
In addition to keeping things simple, Kerrigan emphasized pitching to contact. As a reliever Ohlendorf threw nothing but fastballs and sliders and averaged 8.7 strikeouts per nine innings. But his WHIP was 1.64. As a starter he's mixed in a changeup and has more confidence in his stuff, and last season he averaged 5.6 K's with a 1.23 WHIP. That's not to say he can't make hitters miss. On Sept. 5 against the Cardinals, he became just the 40th pitcher to strike out the side on nine pitches, in the seventh inning of a tough 2--1 loss.
Last spring Kerrigan also began toying with the idea of having Ohlendorf go to an overhead windup. The plan was to ease Ohlendorf into it gradually—he'd only use it when he and Kerrigan played catch—and then implement it off the mound in the spring of 2010. But after a mediocre July start against the Diamondbacks, Kerrigan sped up the timetable. Ohlendorf was pitching O.K.—he was 8--8 with a 4.51 ERA—but opponents were hitting .276 against him and he seemed stuck in a rut. He took to the mechanical overhaul right away. "It frees him up, makes him looser, makes him more deceptive, gives him a better downhill angle," says Kerrigan. "It was like his natural delivery, like he'd been doing that for years." In nine outings with the overhead windup, Ohlendorf had seven quality starts, was 3--2 with a 2.75 ERA, and opponents hit just .212 against him.