Lakeland, Fla. — Go back and read some of the early scouting reports on Tigers’ No. 11-ranked prospect Reese Olson, the right-handed starting pitcher they acquired from Milwaukee for Daniel Norris. For all the algorithms and technological measuring devices out there these days, talent evaluation remains an inexact science.
You still can’t fully measure what’s in a player’s heart.
Olson was supposedly too small to go very far in pro ball. His delivery was extremely violent, wouldn’t hold up. He projects to be a bullpen arm at best.
Well, 37 starts into his young career, the 22-year-old is holding up just fine. He has already reached Double A and could find himself pitching at Triple-A Toledo, one step from the big leagues, by the end of his fourth professional season.
“I try not to pay attention to those things,” Olson said of the early evaluations. “Obviously I’ve seen them and my friends tell me about it. Thing is, I’ve never heard anything from the Brewers or the Tigers about cleaning up my delivery.”
Watching him throw a bullpen last week, nothing seemed overly violent or forced. He has a whippy arm action and creates a lot of drive with his lower body. Thus, his fastball velocity sat at 93.5 mph last year, reaching 96 regularly.
“It’s just because I throw a little bit harder and I’m a smaller guy,” Olson said. “That’s why they say that stuff.”
After his junior season at North Hall High School (Gainesville, Georgia), Olson wasn’t getting a lot of serious looks from Division I teams. Nor was he on a lot of pro scouting boards. A year later he was on everyone’s radar when he led North Hall to the state championship and his velocity jumped from 91 to 94 mph.
Suddenly it didn’t matter that he weighed 160 pounds. He decommitted from Gardner-Webb University, committed to Georgia Tech and then ended up going to the Brewers in the 13th round in 2018.
“Coming out of high school there were a few teams that were out on me because of my size,” Olson said. “But I think in the last few years since I’ve been in pro ball, that’s gone away a little bit. There are so many guys in the major leagues that are smaller and throw hard. I always thought that was an old-school way of thinking about things.
“Like back in the day you only wanted big guys. But now it’s moving toward where size doesn’t matter as long as you perform well.”
Size may not matter, but command does. And the next hurdle for Olson on his ascent to the big leagues is to master the strike zone. In 14 starts for the Brewers’ High-A team in Wisconsin, he posted a 27% strikeout rate and a 12% walk rate.
In five starts at Double-A Erie, he struck out 20% and walked 13.5%.
“I’ve focused on off-the-field stuff (this offseason), just getting stronger, trying to be more durable during the season,” Olson said. “And mechanically, I’ve cleaned up a few things command-wise, sharpening up my two breaking balls.
“This offseason was a good one. I have a few mechanical cues now that are going to help me big-time with my command.”
Talking to Olson about last season, he doesn’t bring up the 11 scoreless innings he worked at High-A West Michigan right after the trade. He doesn’t talk about how he finished the season at Erie with a six-inning, one-hitter with eight strikeouts against Richmond.
He remembers the blow-up games. The four-walk, seven-run nightmare against Altoona. The seven walks in four innings against Peoria earlier in the year. Those are the ones that fueled his offseason work.
“Just had those few outings where the command blew up on me,” he said. “That was the big thing. The key for me, it’s kind of a flush thing. Just try to erase them when they happen. Just forget it and move on.”
Olson’s slider and curve ball are still works in progress, though both were plenty effective against A-ball and Double-A hitters. His money pitch, though, is the change-up. Paired with the mid-90s four-seam fastball, the change-up helped him limit left-handed hitters to a .193 batting average last season.
“Yeah, the change-up is my best pitch,” he said. “With the breaking balls, it’s every other day one of them is going to be on. And that’s the one I go to.”
It seems logical for Olson to start in Double-A this season. There’s nothing else left for him to prove in A-ball. But those things will shake out over the next two months.
“I don’t know what they’re thinking,” Olson said. “I haven’t been told anything. I’m just trying to perform my best every day.”
He may not have been able to see the finish line — meaning a call to the big leagues — in Milwaukee. But it’s fast coming into focus for him now.
“That’s what I’m hoping,” he said. “Just build off the success from last year and clean up a few things and keep getting better.”