Reese Olson refreshed his Twitter page.
He saw the Milwaukee Brewers traded for Detroit Tigers left-handed reliever Daniel Norris, who was set to become a free agent after the season. He then learned a pitching prospect was involved in the trade deadline move on July 30.
Here’s where it gets funny: Olson decided to play a trick on his roommate, reliever Brady Schanuel, that ultimately backfired on him.
“I told him that he got traded,” Olson said Wednesday. “I just laughed for a minute. And then I went back and sat down in the living room. I refreshed my Twitter and saw my name. That’s how I found out I was traded.”
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For two months of Norris, who didn’t make the Brewers’ playoff roster after struggling post-trade, the Tigers gained their new No. 11 prospect, according to MLB Pipeline. This should already be considered a good trade by general manager Al Avila. For long-term success, the Tigers need to continue funneling arms into their organization, and Olson is equipped with the potential to reach the big leagues.
Olson, 22, debuted in the Tigers’ farm system with High-A West Michigan.
The right-hander pitched 11 scoreless innings with two walks and 14 strikeouts in two starts, so the Tigers had no choice but to push him to Double-A Erie. When the Tigers acquired Olson, Avila said he would quickly make a one-level leap.
“Strikeouts have become one of the biggest things,” Olson said. “‘Strikeout or home run’ is what a lot of people say. I say there’s more to it than that, but for me, my strikeouts did jump up a lot from 2019. I think that’s from sharpening my off-speed stuff. Instead of being fastball, curveball in 2019, I added a slider and threw a lot more change-ups. That was big for me this past year.”
In five starts for Erie, Olson posted a 4.74 ERA, 14 walks and 21 strikeouts across 24⅔ innings. He remained a strikeout pitcher, benefiting from an above-average amount of swings and misses, but his walk rate skyrocketed.
“That was one of my biggest things going into 2021, trying to get more strikeouts,” Olson said. “Being able to do that throughout last year was big for me, mentally knowing that I have the stuff to strike guys out at this level.”
After Olson was drafted in the 13th round in 2018, the next year he pitched nearly 95 innings in Low-A, with 47 walks and 84 strikeouts. The minor leagues were nixed in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, so when 2021 came round, Olson started the year in High-A. His command problems continued, as he walked 35 and struck out 79 in 69 innings for the Brewers.
That’s when Milwaukee traded him to the Tigers.
“I’ve enjoyed my time with the Tigers,” Olson said. “It’s a little bit different from the Brewers in a few ways, a little bit the same. All the guys that I met with the Tigers are great. I know a lot of new guys have been hired, so I’ve met a few of them, talked to a few of them and am excited to meet the rest of the them.”
Adding a new pitch
Olson throws four pitches: fastball, change-up, curveball and slider. His fastball sits in the 93-95 mph range and can reach 97 mph.
He believes his best pitch is the change-up.
Before the 2020 season got shut down, the Brewers called Olson to a training camp and told him to focus entirely on adding a slider. Members of Milwaukee’s player development staff thought Olson had a solid curveball, but they figured the slider would be easier to throw for strikes.
“At the beginning of (this) year, it was probably my best pitch,” Olson said. “There was a point in the middle of the year where I lost a little bit of feel with it. My last two starts in Erie, I tweaked it and started throwing it a bit harder. Instead of being around 80-82 (mph), it jumped up to 84-85 (mph). When I did that, it became a better pitch for me.”
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Lots of strikeouts, lots of walks
Strikeouts have never been a problem, but Olson has struggled with his command as a pro. Spanning three seasons in the minors, he has a career average of 8.8 strikeouts per nine innings and 4.4 walks per nine.
For comparison, here’s what Tigers rookies Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal and Matt Manning accomplished in the majors last season: Mize had 7.1 K/9 and 2.5 BB/9; Skubal finished with 9.9 K/9 and 2.8 BB/9; Manning logged 6.0 K/9 and 3.5 BB/9.
The MLB averages in 2021 were 8.9 K/9 and 3.3 BB/9.
“This has been my thing since I’ve been in pro ball,” Olson said. “All my pitching coaches told me I’m trying to be too nasty with my stuff. I have good stuff. Just not trying to make it nastier than it needs to be. I’m trying to paint the corners too much. I have to let my stuff do its work instead of trying to be too perfect.”
But Olson finished 2021 on a high note, pitching six innings of one-run ball with zero walks and eight strikeouts. The only hit he allowed was a solo home run with one out in the sixth. Of his 59 pitches, he tossed 44 for strikes.
“Getting ahead in the count makes the biggest difference in the world as a pitcher,” Olson said. “That’s what I’ve heard with the three or four pitching coaches I’ve had (in the minor leagues). Just don’t make your stuff nastier than it needs to be. Trying to make it too nasty is never good for you throughout your start.”
Now Olson is back in his hometown of Cleveland, Georgia, about 80 miles northeast of Atlanta. He has attended Line Drive Academy, a baseball facility just 10 minutes from his house, ever since the Brewers drafted him out of high school.
Line Drive Academy is operated by Jared Oliver and McClane Ramey. Oliver, 28, pitched for three seasons in the minors for the Boston Red Sox, reaching Double-A Portland in 2018 before his playing career ended.
“I’m trying to clean up a little bit on my fastball,” Olson said. “I’m trying to clean up the spin it has to make it more efficient. Other than that, like I’ve been talking about the whole time, just sharpening it all up and trying to command everything better.”
Olson isn’t sure where he will end up when the season begins. He assumes the Tigers might want to see his refinements in Erie before giving him a promotion to Triple-A Toledo, but that could change depending on how much better his command is during spring training.
Regardless of the timeline, the Tigers expect Olson to pitch for the Mud Hens in 2022.
And that could set him up for his MLB debut in 2023.
“The biggest thing for me next year is going to be trying to limit the walks and commanding my pitches a little bit better and not falling behind in counts,” Olson said. “Those are the biggest things I’m going to work on this offseason headed into next spring training.”