This top pitching prospect could help Tigers in ’23

Detroit Tigers

This story was excerpted from Jason Beck’s Tigers Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

For two innings last Thursday, Reese Olson looked hittable, giving up four hits and a run in the second inning and falling behind hitters. Then came the 94 mile-per-hour fastball on a 3-1 pitch, which made the changeup on the next pitch a tough one to foul off. Then came the biting slider.

Three pitches and a groundout later, another 94 mph fastball, then another at 95.

This is the Olson that Double-A Erie pitching coach Dan Ricabal saw in his side session earlier in the week. Once Olson started mixing in sliders and curveballs, Akron hitters — a group that has punished fastballs this season — didn’t have much chance.

“He was able to command his stuff really well, his changeup, his slider especially,” catcher Dillon Dingler said. “And then once those two pitches start working, then the fastball comes, because he’s more relaxed, more confident.”

After four hits and a run in the second inning, Olson induced three groundouts in the third inning, struck out the side on three different pitches in the fourth, and retired Akron in order on just 12 pitches in the fifth and sixth. The only ball he allowed out of the infield in his final four innings was a line drive that left fielder Dane Myers caught with a sliding grab.

Olson allowed a run on four hits with no walks and eight strikeouts in just 91 pitches over six innings. The performance coupled nicely with his six scoreless innings on one hit with a walk and 10 strikeouts at New Hampshire the previous week.

“He’s a strikeout pitcher when he’s on,” Erie manager Gabe Alvarez said. “He just completely dominates lineups.”

Said Dingler: “Getting that 10-strikeout game under his belt was really big, because it showed him that he was also the same pitcher he was early in the season. He has great stuff. We kind of figured out, fine-tuned some stuff to where it creates the best outcomes for him. We did that and the past two outings have been great.”

Early-season Olson was one of the surprises of the Eastern League, striking out 90 batters in 58 1/3 innings over his first 13 starts with a 3.24 ERA. He fanned 10 Akron hitters over five scoreless innings on one hit May 15, then racked up 11 strikeouts over 4 2/3 innings in his next outing. Pitch counts were tougher opponents for him than opposing hitters.

Olson’s success not only vaulted the former Brewers prospect to No. 9 on the midseason Tigers prospect list last week, it vaulted him from an intriguing prospect in last summer’s Daniel Norris trade into a pitcher who could fit into the Tigers’ pitching plans for next season. Then came a midseason slump.

From June 24 until earlier this month, Olson struggled in seven starts, posting a 7.81 ERA, allowing a 1.053 OPS and walking 15 batters over 27 2/3 innings. He still struck out 30 batters, but a lack of fastball command combined with a drop in his breaking-ball usage took away a lot of deceptiveness.

“I think it was trying to be too perfect with my fastball,” Olson said, “and then that led me to get away from my breaking balls and offspeed stuff. That’s one thing we’ve been working on with the coaching staff the past weeks, doing pretty well, throwing a little more offspeed stuff.”

The struggles, Alvarez said, were a demonstration of the difference between control and command.

“He’s not going to go out and walk a lot of people,” Alvarez said, “but command — not just throwing strikes, but throwing a strike in a certain spot — that’s the key. That’s the key to any pitcher, but definitely the key with Reese. Because of how good his offspeed arsenal is, if he can command strikes with his fastball, the hitter has no shot against the breaking ball and change. Because they’re plus pitches.

“I think it was good for him to struggle a little bit. It made him have to learn how to make adjustments and learn himself. We always tell our guys adversity is just an opportunity to learn and make yourself better and adapt. Turn it into a positive. And I think Reese has done that.”

Olson’s turnaround the last two weeks proved timely, coinciding with an easing of his pitch limits. The Tigers watched workloads with Olson and No. 3 prospect Wilmer Flores in hopes of not only having him available late in the season, but effective.

Now, both of them have a chance to finish strong. In the process, they can help by pitching the SeaWolves into a playoff berth and place them in position to serve as pitching depth next season and make their Major League debuts, much like Alex Faedo, Beau Brieske and Garrett Hill this year.

One Major League evaluator in attendance at Olson’s gem Thursday said he threw three plus pitches — fastball, changeup and slider.

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