Calm, in control and nasty: How Reese Olson pitched a gem in MLB debut with Detroit Tigers

Detroit Free Press

CHICAGO — He was calm. He was in control. He was nasty.

A spot-on evaluation came from Detroit Tigers manager A.J. Hinch as he praised right-hander Reese Olson, a 23-year-old prospect, for his performance in Friday’s game against the Chicago White Sox. It was the moment Olson had been waiting for his entire life. In his MLB debut, he took a no-hitter into the sixth inning, displayed elite secondary pitches and solidified his spot in the Tigers’ rotation for now.

Less than four weeks ago, Olson had a 9.67 ERA through seven starts in Triple-A Toledo.

“I think my struggles in Triple-A for the first month helped me a lot tonight,” Olson said Friday. “It calmed me down, not getting sped up. I think that was one of the biggest lessons I learned in Triple-A. I’m happy that I struggled for that month for that experience, so I know how to react out there.”

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Olson’s father, Lee, watched from the stands in the lower bowl behind home plate. About 30 family members and friends showed up at Guaranteed Rate Field in support, and after the game, his son thanked everyone for coming out.

Before the game, Lee felt nervous for his son. When Reese stepped on the mound, Lee thought back to all the baseball memories, from T-ball to Triple-A Toledo. As tears swelled in his eyes, he watched his son throw the first pitch of his big-league career to Chicago’s Tim Anderson.

“That came out of nowhere,” Lee said. “I wasn’t expecting that.”

He saw what everyone else saw — a 96.1 mph sinker — but he wasn’t surprised.

“Even when he struggles, he seems under control,” Lee said. “I can tell what’s happening, but the average person isn’t going to know the difference.”

Olson, who replaced an injured Eduardo Rodriguez in the Tigers’ rotation, retired the first three batters he faced on 18 pitches in the first inning. He struck out Luis Robert, a right-handed hitter, on three pitches for the third out and the first strikeout of his career.

Painting the down-and-in corner with a sinker allowed Olson to throw down-and-away sliders. He generated whiffs with back-to-back sliders for that memorable strikeout.

Adrenaline was pumping through his body, but he stayed calm.

“He went about his routine and looked like a pro,” catcher Eric Haase said. “He threw his pregame bullpen and everything looked sharp. He took that right into the game. For a guy as young as him, with the stuff that he has, it’s really all you can ask for. He made good hitters look bad all day.”

His fastball maxed out at 97.2 mph in the first inning. He threw all five of his pitches in the 89-pitch effort: 34% sliders, 24% sinkers, 22% four-seam fastballs, 15% changeups and 6% curveballs.

“He’s got a lot of weapons,” Hinch said. “What he showed is confidence throwing any pitch at any point. There was a lot to like from him. He threw a lot of fastballs, even more than we expected, given how good he felt, but I was excited to see him use his whole repertoire and show no fear.”

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The changeup is the best pitch in his arsenal, but the slider devastated the White Sox during his first time through the batting order. The way he implemented his slider was nothing short of masterful. The rookie was able to pick and choose when to land the slider for called strikes or when to put it outside the strike zone for whiffs.

That pitch produced six of his 12 whiffs and six of his 16 called strikes.

And his slider averaged a 2,946 rpm spin rate.

“Tonight was probably the best my slider has ever been,” Olson said. “I was throwing it hard and commanding it well. It’s been a high-spin pitch for me all year this year. Seeing how well it performed was a nice confidence boost.”

Olson broke out his revered changeup, considered one of the best secondary pitches among the Tigers’ prospects, during his second time through the batting order. The White Sox were bewildered again.

That pitch, often thrown below the knees of White Sox hitters, produced the other six of his 12 whiffs, plus one of his called strikes.

He struck out Anderson swinging with it to conclude the third inning. He then went back to his slider for back-to-back strikeouts against Robert (swinging) and Eloy Jimenez (looking) in the fourth.

In the fifth, a changeup had Yoan Moncada whiffing.

“He should take away a lot of pride that he came in and showed that he could pitch at this level,” Hinch said. “First start against a team that thrives on momentum, he never really gave them momentum until the very last inning.”

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Olson — drafted in 2018’s 13th round out of high school by the Milwaukee Brewers and acquired by former Tigers general manager Al Avila at the 2021 trade deadline for lefty Daniel Norris — had a 6.38 ERA in 10 starts with Triple-A Toledo this year.

But his past three starts for the Mud Hens, in response to his struggles at the beginning of the season, featured a 1.26 ERA, six walks and 22 strikeouts across 14⅓ innings. Toledo pitching coach Doug Bochtler helped him develop mental fortitude.

“It all boiled down to not getting sped up and focusing on executing pitches,” Olson said.

With the Mud Hens, his changeup had a 45.8% whiff rate and his slider had a 39.7% whiff rate. A newly incorporated sinker allowed him to limit quality contact from right-handed hitters and avoid overexposing his four-seam fastball.

A pitch to monitor moving forward is Olson’s four-seam fastball: He didn’t get any whiffs with his four-seamer or sinker against the White Sox, but those two pitches combined for eight of his 16 called strikes.

The heater was hit for damage by opponents in Double-A Erie last season, when Olson relied on his changeup and slider to set the affiliate’s single-season strikeout record. When he commands his fastball, though, he can tear apart opposing teams with his secondary repertoire.

That’s what happened Friday in Chicago.

“It’s a day I’ll never forget,” Olson said. “It was great to have my family and a bunch of friends here to experience it with me. As far as my outing, I thought I did pretty well. Maybe got a little tired in the sixth inning. Other than that, everything was working for me.”

A proud Olson stood in front of his locker in the visitor’s clubhouse at Guaranteed Rate Field after his performance. He was asked about his first career strikeout — specifically about the baseball — and pointed to the cubby in the top corner of his locker.

“It’s right there in my locker,” Olson said. “I’m sure my dad will want to do something crazy with it.”

Actually, Lee has special plans for two baseballs.

“I’ve got his first pitch, and he’s got his first strikeout,” the proud father said. “I’ll do something with both of them.”

Contact Evan Petzold at epetzold@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold.

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