Commentary

Ohlendorf brimming with intelligence

Pirates right-hander, a graduate of Princeton, always the smartest guy in the room

Originally Published: June 6, 2009
By Tim Kurkjian | ESPN The Magazine

It was a conversation that has rarely, if ever, taken place in a baseball clubhouse. As Pittsburgh Pirates players were milling about, doing nothing of particular interest, Pirates pitcher Ross Ohlendorf stood at his locker and discussed his senior thesis at Princeton. Pittsburgh closer Matt Capps walked by, laughed and said, "Is that the thesis that you stole from me?''

[+] EnlargeRoss Ohlendorf
G Fiume/Getty ImagesRoss Ohlendorf has been in the Pirates' rotation ever since being called up by the team in early September last year.

Ohlendorf is a good young right-hander with a 95-mph sinker. He may be the smartest player in baseball and the smartest person in almost any room he enters. When Padres pitcher Chris Young, a Princeton graduate, was asked if Ohlendorf was smarter than he is, Young said, "Oh, he is way smarter than I am. He's on a different level.'' Ohlendorf did not get an 800 (a perfect score) on the math portion of the SAT. "I got one wrong,'' he said, without pretense, but he took a similar test, "and I'm pretty sure I got them all right.''

Ohlendorf majored in Operations Research and Financial Engineering at Princeton, a major that combined mathematics, engineering and economics. His thesis was written on the June amateur draft, which will be held on Tuesday. Ohlendorf examined the top 100 picks from 1989 to 1993, tracked the progress of each player for a 12-year period, starting with the draft, to determine the value of the picks. Ohlendorf studied the investment (signing bonus) and the financial return from signing the player.

"The financial return is not cut and dry like the signing bonus, so I did my best to estimate it for the players in the study,'' he said. "The vast majority of the return was determined by the player's contribution in the major leagues prior to reaching free agency, and his salary over that period.''

What were his findings?

"On average,'' Ohlendorf said, "the player brought twice the return.''

The 126-page thesis is brilliantly written and so complex, only a mathematician would be able to completely comprehend its meaning. So Ohlendorf broke down his thesis in layman's terms. For each player, he estimated how much less the team paid the player in each of his pre-free agency years than it would have paid a comparable free agent. He gathered salary data for both the players in the study and for all free agents for the relevant years. He used Win Shares (a statistical formula used by Bill James) to determine each player's value.

"Many of the players in the study did not make the major leagues,'' Ohlendorf said. "However, many of those who did produced tremendous returns for the teams who drafted them. When looked at as a group, the internal rate of return on all the draft picks in the study was 60 percent. This is an extremely high rate of return. It is saying that if you invest $1, it will grow to $1.60 after a year and $2.56 after two years, and so on … I believe the stock market has had a historical rate of about 7 or 8 percent, prior to the last year. So even though many of the investments did not work out, the upside on those that did was so great, signing the high picks to large bonuses appears to have been a very smart investment.''

Ohlendorf determined that the average signing bonus during those years was $210,236, and the average return was $2,468,127. Here are the top 10 players from his study.

"So based on the assumptions I made in my paper, the A's signing Giambi was the biggest winner in top-100 picks of the 1989 through 1993 drafts because he played extremely well in his first six years of major league service,'' Ohlendorf said. "The White Sox did the best job in these drafts, with an internal rate of return of 217 percent. Their best signing was Frank Thomas.''

Ohlendorf's thesis and his findings are of particular interest this June because Stephen Strasburg, the spectacular pitcher from San Diego State, and his agent, Scott Boras, are in a position to perhaps change the face of the draft. Depending on who you talk to, Boras and Strasburg are expected to ask for a six-year deal worth between $25 million and $50 million -- a long, long way from the average signing bonus of $210,236 in Ohlendorf's thesis.

Ohlendorf was selected by the Diamondbacks in the fourth round of the 2004 draft, the 116th overall pick. He signed for $280,000. He has since been traded to the Yankees, and then to the Pirates. Ohlendorf was asked what kind of return his teams have gotten from him.

"This is a good bonus, but is relatively small compared to the salaries paid to most free agents,'' he said. "I believe the Diamondbacks felt my signing bonus would be repaid by only a minimal contribution in the major leagues. Having a little over a year of service time at this point, I would guess that the savings the Yankees and Pirates have realized from paying me the league minimum instead of signing a comparable free agent have exceeded my signing bonus. My hope is that the answer will be an obvious 'yes' in the years to come.''

The Pirates are just happy that Ohlendorf, 26, is on their team. In 11 starts this season, he is 5-5 with a 4.85 ERA. He has exceptional stuff, tremendous control and a really good idea how to pitch. He is amazingly well grounded for someone as smart as he is, and with stuff as good as his.

"When he was thinking of coming here,'' Princeton baseball coach Scott Bradley said, "Ross told me that he threw in the mid- to upper 80s. His pitching coach in high school, Lee Tunnell, who pitched in the big leagues, told me that mid- to upper 80s was not accurate. I thought to myself, 'What, is it closer to upper 70s to low 80s?' Lee told me, 'He is 92-93, Scott. He hasn't thrown a pitch in the 80s since he was 15 years old.'''

Well grounded?

"His freshman year at Princeton,'' Bradley said, "our baseball team had to clean up the lacrosse field. We had to pick up big bags of trash and throw them into a truck. We have some guys from, say, privileged backgrounds here. Some didn't want to pick up any garbage. But Ross ran from his dorm to the lacrosse field. He was on a mission. He was like Paul Bunyan. He was carrying bags and bags and bags of trash on his back. I looked at my assistant and said, 'How special is this kid? He's the smartest kid on the team, he's the most talented kid on the team, and today, he's on a mission to be the best trash-picker-upper on the team.' His mother is so high up in the administration at the University of Texas, she answers only to the university president. But nothing is beneath this kid.''

Matt Capps It's like everything he does, he has a plan for it.

-- Pirates closer Matt Capps on Ohlendorf

Smartest kid on the team?

"There was a famous card game at Princeton when Ross played cards for the first time with his teammates,'' Bradley said. "He raised in the middle of a hand. His teammates said, 'What in the world are you doing raising now?' And Ross said something like, 'Three hands ago, Steve had an ace and a king …' He was able to recall plays from three previous hands. At that point, guys threw their cards down and said, 'Let's do something else.'''

Smartest kid in the school?

"He got a B-plus his first semester in a writing seminar, the first B he had ever gotten in school, and he was miffed, so he went to talk to the professor,'' Bradley said. "The professor looked at Ross and said, 'This is a writing seminar at Princeton. With an A, there's nowhere to improve.' He just wants to learn. So when he asks a question about his arm angle, or something about his breaking ball, he just wants an answer. I think [Pirates pitching coach] Joe Kerrigan has done a great job with Ross. He's not afraid of Ross' intelligence. He's not afraid to talk to him because he's a smart guy from Princeton.''

Ohlendorf is also a popular guy in the Pirates' clubhouse. "He is so smart,'' said Pirates shortstop Jack Wilson. "We give him a hard time about how smart he is, and he'll come right back at us. We'll say, 'Ross, what is the percentage chance of this or that happening?' and he'll say, 'The percentage chance of you winning that game of Pluck [a card game] is 65.678 percent, not 65.667 percent.'''

Capps said everyone on the team is dazzled by Ohlendorf's intelligence. "It's like everything he does, he has a plan for it,'' Capps said, then laughed and said, "He didn't steal the thesis from me.''

The thesis was so good, Ohlendorf was given an Associate Membership into the prestigious Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Society. And, by the way, what grade did he get on the thesis?

"I got an A,'' Ohlendorf said.

Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book "Is This a Great Game, or What?" was published by St. Martin's Press and became available in paperback last May. Click here to order a copy.