Olson spins slider, 5 1/3-inning gem for 1st MLB win

Detroit Tigers

DETROIT — Tigers reliever Brendan White was roommates and teammates with Reese Olson at Double-A Erie last year, when Olson was primarily a fastball-changeup starter. His slider was arguably not even his best breaking pitch at the time.

You’d have a hard time convincing Twins hitters of that after their first look at Olson on Saturday night, a 3-2 Tigers win at Comerica Park that earned Detroit’s No. 11 prospect a standing ovation and his first Major League win.

“It’s become a weapon for him, no doubt,” said White, who also roomed with Olson early this season at Triple-A Toledo. “He’s able to see that now. It’s a fun pitch to watch.”

It turned out to be a nightmare for Minnesota. And as the Tigers sort out their rotation in the coming weeks, with Matt Manning, Tarik Skubal and Eduardo Rodriguez working back from injury, Olson’s slider could be a game-changer that keeps him in the Majors.

One after another, Twins batters swung at Olson’s slider. One after another, they came up empty — 10 swings and misses off Olson’s slider in the second and third innings alone, 11 out of 15 swings over his 5 1/3 innings of one-run ball. The pitch accounted for five of his nine strikeouts, including two when he fanned the side in order in the third inning. He spotted five other sliders for called strikes.

Olson threw Joey Gallo three consecutive back-foot sliders to fan him to end the second inning, then used fastballs to set him up for the same back-foot slider to fan him in the fifth.

“He spins it really well. I think it’s 3,000 rpm,” Twins catcher Ryan Jeffers said. “The higher the spin rate, the harder it is to pick up out of the hand. The shadows were really tough early on, so that didn’t help at all to pick it up.”

Olson is averaging 3,050 rpm on it for the season, the highest average spin rate on a slider this year according to Statcast. He averaged 3,016 rpm Saturday, topping out at 3,174. He has spun it as high as 3,247 rpm this season.

“That’s been his best pitch, and he featured it quite a bit in his debut [June 2 against the White Sox],” manager A.J. Hinch said. “And it all depends on lineup construction. He was able to throw it to lefties tonight, which is really good, and change the shape, throw a little more of a curveball and get a little creative. But he demonstrates so much poise and calmness and the ability to get back into counts.”

Not bad for a pitch that Olson spun partly by accident.

“Honestly, last year, when I moved to the third-base side of the rubber, it kind of clicked,” he said. “I gained like 200-300 rpm for whatever reason.”

Olson picked up tips from White, a pitch-design aficionado who throws a high-spin sweeper as well as a slider. Once Olson started throwing his slider 4-5 mph harder, it became a wipeout pitch for him.

If that was his only out pitch, he could be a reliever in the mold of White or veteran Matt Wisler. But what makes Olson effective as a starter is having that pitch as well as his changeup, which has a 50 percent swing-and-miss rate. He can play both off of his 95 mph fastball, both four- and two-seam. 

“I think he was able to find that mix,” White said, “where he was able to fine-tune his arsenal and figure out what pitches played best.”

In fact, Olson threw all fastballs in his first inning Saturday, setting up his breaking stuff.

“It’s just the command,” Olson said of his heater. “If I put the pitch where I want it, there’s not much they can do with it.”

The Tigers have spent heavy Draft capital in recent years looking for arms with dominant raw pitches like that. They found one in Olson, acquired by former Tigers general manager Al Avila at the Trade Deadline two years ago when he traded Daniel Norris to Milwaukee.

Ironic, then, that Olson’s emergence — after posting a 6.38 ERA in 10 starts at Toledo — could give the Tigers some decisions leading into this summer’s deadline. Detroit called up Olson out of necessity due to their aforementioned injuries. Rodriguez, Skubal and Manning could reclaim rotation spots in the next few weeks, but with the Trade Deadline a month away, Rodriguez could become a top commodity once again.

That could give Olson and his slider a longer look.

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