You know, there used to be a time when the Baltimore Orioles churned out sensational rookies like they were built on an assembly line.
During the franchise’s glory years, the club’s farm system was a source of strength, constantly supplying fresh, productive youngsters to help the Birds remain one of the American League’s most elite contenders. And the O’s had the hardware to prove it; from 1960 through 1982, the Orioles racked up five Rookie of the Year awards, more than any other AL club.
Not all of those Orioles ROYs went on to sterling careers in Baltimore. For every Eddie Murray and Cal Ripken Jr., there was a Ron Hansen or a Curt Blefary. Still, the O’s had a reputation for calling up a rookie and seeing him immediately take the league by storm.
Those days now seem like a distant memory. Yes, the Orioles have had a few breakout rookies in recent years — Trey Mancini in 2017, John Means just last season — but they haven’t bagged a Rookie of the Year award for their mantle. (Mancini and Means had the misfortune of going up against Aaron Judge and Yordan Alvarez, respectively, each of whom won the ROY by a unanimous vote.)
In fact, it’s been 31 long years since an Oriole last won Rookie of the Year. And that brings us to player No. 49 on our Top 50 list, the Birds’ all-time saves leader, Gregg Olson.
It isn’t easy to be voted the league’s top rookie in the same year that Ken Griffey Jr. debuted. But that’s just what Olson did in 1989 — and he deserved it, too. At 22 years old, Olson grabbed hold of the Orioles’ closer job in April and never looked back, racking up 27 saves in 33 opportunities, including 15 conversions in a row to start his career. His 1.69 ERA in 64 games was the lowest mark of any MLB pitcher, rookie or otherwise, who made that many appearances that season.
Olson’s dominance didn’t come out of nowhere. He was a highly touted draft prospect out of Auburn in 1988, so much so that the Birds made him the fourth overall pick, the highest ever for a relief pitcher. (Can you imagine the ensuing Twitter firestorm if the O’s drafted a reliever that high today? And you thought the Heston Kjerstad pick was controversial.) Olson was seen as more or less a finished product at the time he was drafted, following a stellar collegiate career in which he twice led the SEC in ERA — including an NCAA-best 1.26 mark in 1987 — and pitched for the US National Team.
The Orioles gave “Otter” — so nicknamed, apparently, because of his body shape — a $200,000 signing bonus and, as part of his contract, agreed to call him to the majors that year. After just 16 minor league games, Olson was brought to the bigs. He debuted Sept. 2, 1988, throwing a scoreless eighth inning in Seattle, and ended up earning the victory when the O’s staged a three-run comeback in the ninth. His Orioles career was off to the races.
Olson showed a fearlessness and determination that went beyond his years. His first big league save (other than a three-inning save he vultured in a blowout win) came in Oakland on April 26, 1989, when he preserved a one-run lead by pitching two perfect innings. He struck out the side in the ninth, including Hall of Fame-caliber sluggers Dave Parker and Mark McGwire.
Olson’s bread and butter was his sharp-breaking, knee-buckling curveball, a pitch that especially helped him neutralize left-handed batters. During his career, he held lefties to a .209 average and .597 OPS, the kind of reverse splits you don’t often see from a hurler. And hitters simply couldn’t elevate the ball against him. In his six years with the Orioles, Olson gave up only 10 home runs in 350.1 innings.
Olson’s breakout served as a perfect symbol for the 1989 “Why Not?” Orioles’ surprising success. He was the young, untested closer on the youngest team in baseball. The Birds were expected to rot in the cellar of the AL East after their then-franchise worst 54-107 record in 1988, but instead they shocked the baseball world by flirting with first place for much of the season and falling out of contention only on the next to last day. Through it all, the fresh-faced right-hander was there to lock things down at the end.
The script for that magical season didn’t end quite as planned, and Olson is sometimes (unfairly) associated with the Birds’ most heartbreaking loss. In the final series of the year, the O’s had a chance to tie for the division lead with a win in Toronto, but lost the opener when the Blue Jays scored the tying run in the eighth on an Olson wild pitch and later walked off in the 11th. Even still, Olson threw 2.2 scoreless innings in that game. And it didn’t take away from Olson’s remarkable first-year success. He handily won Rookie of the Year honors over Griffey and Tom Gordon, and finished sixth in the Cy Young voting and 12th in MVP.
Olson’s dominance extended well past that first season. In 1990, he racked up 37 saves, which would remain a career high, and was named to his first and only All-Star team. Olson got off to an especially sizzling start that year, allowing a run in only one of his first 21 appearances while converting his first 14 saves, prompting the Washington Post’s Tom Boswell to call Olson, to that point, “the most effective pitcher in big league history. By far.”
“At the moment, his season ERA is 0.51 in 22 games and his career ERA in 96 games over three seasons is 1.23. That’s so far beneath the major league record — 1.82 by Big Ed Walsh in the dead ball era — that it’s hard to fathom,” Boswell wrote. “We’re in a Mark Fidrych or Fernando Valenzuela mode here. Kid Phenom: Is He The Best Reliever Ever?”
We know now, of course, that Olson didn’t become the best reliever ever. But he did become arguably the best in Orioles history. His closing career in Baltimore continued through 1993, during which he racked up 160 saves, a mark no other O’s pitcher has touched. He’s the only pitcher ever to lead the Orioles in saves for five straight years.
Ultimately, Olson’s career was derailed as so many others have been: by injuries. Amidst an otherwise stellar 1993 season (in which he posted a career-best 1.60 ERA), Olson suffered a torn ligament in his elbow that he attempted to pitch through. Though he avoided surgery, his effectiveness waned. The Orioles considered his injury too big a risk and non-tendered him after the 1993 season, after which Olson bounced between six different teams in the next four years, posting a 5.40 ERA and just 13 saves.
Against all odds, Olson found new life as a closer with the expansion Arizona Diamondbacks in 1998, racking up 30 saves. (His manager that year? Buck Showalter.) Remarkably, he even hit a home run that season, in just his fourth major league plate appearance, in what would become the only hit of his career. Olson had another solid year for Arizona in 1999, though he lost his closer job to midseason acquisition Matt Mantei, and pitched in the postseason for the first time, facing two batters in the NLDS. After that, he spent two ineffective, injury-marred years with the Dodgers before calling it a career.
Olson was inducted into the Orioles Hall of Fame in 2008, and you can currently hear him as an analyst for the Orioles Radio Network. You can also find him @GreggOlson30 on Twitter.
Sources: Baseball Reference, SABR BioProject