How MLB lockout helped Detroit Tigers prospect Reese Olson become a strikeout king

Detroit Free Press

Gabe Ribas, the Detroit Tigers‘ director of pitching, was on the backfields at TigerTown, setting the tone.

“Bring positive energy!” Ribas shouted.

Ribas had spent the past four seasons as a pitching coordinator with the Los Angeles Dodgers. But now, it was late February and Ribas was working with a select group of Tigers prospects in Lakeland.

“Let’s go!” he shouted.

In the midst of the MLB lockout, players on the Tigers’ 40-man roster were not allowed to attend training camp. That allowed the entire organization to focus on a small group of prospects.

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Nobody benefited more than Reese Olson, whom the Tigers acquired in the Daniel Norris trade with the Milwaukee Brewers last year.

First, he got a jolt of Ribas’ enthusiasm.

“It’s just big showing up every day and having someone like Gabe Ribas with that much energy to get you going,” Olson said. “Obviously, he’s got tons of energy.”

Then, Ribas and the rest of the Tigers’ new developmental staff made small tweaks to Olson’s mechanics and approach. They changed how he  started his pitching motion, getting him to step back toward second base instead of to the side, so his momentum would flow downhill toward home plate, giving him a more repeatable delivery.

“It’s helped with the command and gave me a more consistent ball flight with all my pitches,” Olson said.

The credit goes not just to Ribas but to the entire developmental team, according to Olson.

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“The new guys the Tigers hired on the pitching side have been great,” Olson said. “During the lockout, all their attention was on the minor leaguers and that was a big time for development.”

The results have been unmistakable. Olson, who turns 23 at the end of July, came into this season as the Tigers’ No. 16 ranked prospect, according to MLB Pipeline. But his stature has risen after dominating at Double-A Erie. He has improved his command, his strikeouts are up and his walks are down significantly. In 2019 and 2021, he walked about 4.5 batters per nine innings; this season, he has’s cut that nearly in half (2.6). During the same time period, his strikeouts per nine has gone from 9.9 to 13.86, which ranks  first in the Eastern League.

“I think things are going pretty well,” he said. “I’m still trying to clean up a few things here and there. But so far, it’s been a good year for me.”

Olson has pitched in 14 games for Erie, recording at least seven strikeouts seven times. That is even more impressive considering he hasn’t lasted more than 5⅓ innings.

“Compared to last year, obviously, I’m walking a lot less people, so that’s obviously one thing I came into the year trying to do,” he said.

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Now that he’s commanding his fastball, he just needs to use it more to move up in the Tigers’ system.

“He is striking people out, not walking people,” said Ryan Garko, Tigers vice president of player development. “He’s got a really good pitch mix. The one thing we asked him to work on is fastball usage and fastball performance, just making sure he uses it. We’re trying to make sure before we move in that the fastball kind of catches up with the off-speed pitches.”

Piling on the pounds

Olson thinks there is one reason for his strong arm.

“In high school, I loved to long toss,” he said. “I was smaller and I just kind of threw the ball as hard as I could.”

Now, looking back on it, he thinks long toss strengthened his arm and taught him how to squeeze everything out of his tall, lanky frame.

As a junior in high school, he weighed 140 pounds and threw about 87 mph.

But he started to gain weight and his velocity jumped. As a senior, he weighed 150 pounds and was throwing 90-93 mph.

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He went from under the radar to a legit pro prospect, and the Brewers took him in the 13th round of the 2018 draft.

On the Erie roster, he is listed at 6 feet 1 and 160 pounds, but he said he now weighs about 185.

“I’ve been gaining a little bit of weight, just naturally I guess, from getting older,” Olson said. ”So maybe getting up to around 195 would be a pretty good spot for me.”

Still a ways to go

Olson learned about getting traded to the Tigers on Twitter.

“I was just sitting in my apartment and I started freaking out,” Olson said. “I called my parents and I told them, ‘I think I just got traded, but I’m not sure.’”

His parents were flying to Wisconsin for his July 31 birthday.

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“I got traded the day before my birthday,” Olson said. “A few minutes later, the Brewers farm director called me and then a few minutes after that, (Tigers GM) Al Avila called me.”

It set up a strange situation. Olson had pitched against the West Michigan Whitecaps earlier in the season. But suddenly, he was joining them.

After a few weeks, he was promoted to Erie.

“The transition to Double-A last year seemed pretty big to me,” Olson said. “But I think this year, it’s been pretty smooth.”

He has had some impressive performances this year.

Like getting 10 strikeouts in five innings of work against the Akron RubberDucks on May 15.

Or recording 11 strikeouts in just 4⅔ innings against the New Hampshire Fisher Cats on May 20. During that game, he threw an immaculate inning — three strikeouts on just nine pitches.

“I didn’t think too much about it in the game, because I was so locked in,” he said. “They got the ball for me after the inning and it was pretty cool. It was actually probably one of the coolest things I’ve done since being (in) pro ball.”

Despite the success, Olson acknowledges that there are things he needs to improve.

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“I still kind of feel like I’m getting into too many counts, too many three-ball counts,” Olson said.

He just needs to control his emotions. Because at times, that lanky kid from a small town in Georgia comes back. The adrenaline takes over, and he just chucks it like he’s playing long toss in the outfield.

“The adrenaline gets to me and I try to overthrow it a little bit,” he said. “But overall, the command has been a lot better.”

Thanks to Ribas and the other developmental coaches.

As well as that lockout.

Contact Jeff Seidel: Follow him on Twitter @seideljeff.

Next up: Giants

Matchup: Tigers (28-44) at San Francisco (39-33).

First pitch: 9:45 p.m. Tuesday; Oracle Park, San Francisco.

TV/radio: Bally Sports Detroit; WXYT-FM (97.1).

Probable pitchers: Tigers — LHP Tarik Skubal (5-5, 3.63 ERA); Giants — LHP Carlos Rodón (6-4, 2.70 ERA).

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