FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla., Feb. 28 -- On the day the Baltimore Orioles selected him with the 48th overall pick in the 2005 draft, left-hander Garrett Olson took a thermodynamics final at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. While Olson is not the Orioles' most celebrated pitching prospect, he's one of their most intelligent. Olson, drafted during his junior year, is just a few credits shy of an engineering degree, and a few innings short of a chance at the majors.
"We heard an awful lot of good things about him, and it's nice for me to actually see who he is," Orioles Manager Sam Perlozzo said. "We feel good about him and we want him to be ready to help us at any time."
After most of his teammates had departed for the day, Olson stood in the clubhouse, pantomiming his pitching delivery, searching for a particular glitch that led him astray in his two-inning outing on Wednesday. If pitching were, say, a calculus equation, Olson would grab a piece of paper and solve the problem easily. He approaches pitching problems the same way because he doesn't know how else to do it.
"Pitching, a lot of it is mechanical physics," Olson, 23, said. "You could get technical about it, I try not to. Between the lines I try to keep it as simple as possible. Maybe with injury or how certain actions occur in a motion, you could understand a little more. When you can visualize it and understand what's going on, it can help you in the long run. It can help you understand your body a little more."
Had it not been for his ability to make his pitches dance around the plate, perhaps Olson would be preparing this spring to start work as an engineer for the FBI, a dream he had when he entered college. Instead, he allowed one run in two innings in his first appearance of the spring, an intrasquad scrimmage.
Olson's success in baseball was difficult to predict. Neither his father, Ken, an engineer, nor his mother, Donna, a librarian at Fresno State, was an athlete. In fact, Donna despised baseball because her grandfather was an avid fan and insisted on listening to games on the radio, which annoyed her. It was not until her son began to play that she began to watch.
"I was hooked watching him play," she said.
Olson began to pitch in the fifth grade after he was snubbed for a youth all-star team. To give him a better chance to make the team the following season, his parents sent Olson to a professional pitching coach. He quickly learned pitching fundamentals, much the same way he had shown an affinity for math and engineering at an early age. In elementary school, Olson built a replica of the Golden Gate Bridge out of balsa wood.
"Kids would want to copy what he did and put together," his mother said. "It was a natural thing for him to get into everything."
Olson was a good pitcher in high school, but not a star, and was not drafted. Instead he went to Cal Poly. After his sophomore year, he pitched in the Alaskan summer league, compiled a 7-0 record with a 0.88 ERA, and became a top prospect.
"I just felt like at school we worked on so much to develop me into a better pitcher," Olson said. "I had so much going on in my mind that I kind of lost focus on what was important, which was throwing strikes and believing in myself. Going to Alaska allowed me to do that."
Shortly thereafter, the Orioles became interested. In a report to scouting director Joe Jordan, scout Alan Marr gave Olson a favorable, though not glowing, review. But Jordan could tell Marr liked Olson more than he was letting on.
"I could tell in his voice," Jordan said. He watched a video of one of Olson's outings and after three pitches, he knew he wanted to draft Olson, who is 12-10 with a 2.82 ERA in his minor league career.
Olson already has impressed the team with his work ethic. Hours after practice, he heads to a local gym and goes through a regimen that includes a set of plyometrics, exercises that emphasize a quick and sudden use of force. When he performs these unusual exercises, people will stop and watch and occasionally inquire about them. And, of course, Olson gives an analytical explanation.