Reese Olson stakes his claim in the Tigers starting rotation

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Detroit Tigers starting pitcher Reese Olson makes for an interesting case study as the organization continues to improve its player development system. A year ago, Olson wasn’t particularly well regarded as a starting pitching prospect. He had a really good slider-changeup combination and racked up plenty of strikeouts in his rise through the minor leagues. But an average fastball and inconsistent command kept him off top 100 prospect lists.

Still, as Olson proved in 2023, breaking into the major league rotation isn’t just for the elite pitching prospects in the system anymore. The Tigers are doing a pretty good job identifying issues and devising solutions under Chris Fetter’s leadership. For Olson, that wasn’t the development of a new pitch. He’s always had a nasty secondary stuff. What he needed was to spot his fastball more effectively.

He made pretty good strides in that department last year, throwing more fastballs for strikes early in counts without getting hit too hard. That in turns sets up his slider and changeup and Olson had no trouble getting plenty of whiffs and weak contact against major league hitters.

Olson debuted on June 2, 2023 with a solid five innings of two-run ball with six strikeouts. He had some rough outings but he also mixed in a few really impressive performances early on where he racked up eight strikeouts against the Royals on June 19 and then punched out nine Minnesota Twins hitters in his next outing. A rough stretch in July and early August aside, Olson generally strung together a lot of good starts.

Natural skepticism about his ability to sustain that good performance rapidly gave way to growing confidence in the 23-year-old rookie. By season’s end, Olson had put up 103 23 innings of work with a very solid 3.99 ERA and 4.01 FIP combination, and was the team’s best starter after Tarik Skubal and Eduardo Rodriguez.

With three rotation spots already assigned to Tarik Skubal, Kenta Maeda, and Jack Flaherty, competition for the final two positions in the rotation is one of the few big roster decisions remaining. Based on his 2023 performance, Olson would seem to have the inside track.

Matt Manning and Casey Mize are also in the hunt for a spot and throwing the ball well this spring. Mize is coming back from UCL reconstruction and will have some restrictions on his workload, while Manning’s two foot fractures limited him to 78 innings last season, though they were pretty effective innings. It’s a bit hard to imagine any of three pitching for the Toledo Mud Hens unless things go pretty well awry, but it feels like Olson has earned the chance to start his own games over the other two based on recent performance.

It still seems pretty likely that the Tigers will take all six starters north and piggy back some starts early on. If they’re so fortunate as to have everyone healthy they should probably take advantage and try to get through the first month of a long season without having to overextend anyone, particularly those who aren’t built up to throwing a full season because of injuries. And again it’s hard to fathom sending any of Olson, Mize, Manning to the minor leagues without really good cause.

Still, Olson’s combination of durability and performance last year should mean that one of the two final spots is his to lose this spring, and with two weeks remaining until Opening Day, he’s done nothing to lose it. Without much in the way of roster battles on the position player side of things, how the Tigers deploy their starting pitching depth is one of the most interesting questions left in spring camp. Hopefully they continue to be so fortunate as to have too much pitching as their key problem.

Fastball command is key

The big key for Olson in 2023 was in resolving the key issue that sometimes held him back as a prospect. He was able to command his fourseam fastball more effectively, and as a result he was able to get ahead and put his breaking stuff and changeup to work.

His first pitch strike percentage was a very respectable 60.2 percent and he just didn’t waste as many pitches fishing for whiffs as he did in the upper minor leagues. He still had stretches where he was inefficient, but he was making in-game adjustments and really pitching well down the stretch in 2023 as he settled in.

The fourseamer in particular had a big disparity between the actual wOBA and Statcast’s expected wOBA, and Olson was pretty fortunate not to take more damage against it. Right-handers didn’t do much against the sinker and Olson continued to succeed with heavy doses of his three secondary pitches. When he was able to handle lefties with his fourseamer and changeup, he was excellent. Sometimes he still took too much damage.

When it was right, it was really right. By mid-August and September, Olson was attacking hitters aggressively, throwing right-on-right changeups and mixing in his curve, and really went on a run. The rookie shook off a tough stretch when the home runs allowed got out of hand in July and early August, and then put together a very nice seven start run to close out the season. You have to like a rookie finishing strong with a 2.68 ERA through his final seven starts at the end of a 140 inning campaign at age 23.

One statement game came on August 28th, when Olson struck out 10 Yankees and allowed just one earned run. He did walk four and couldn’t get out of the fifth inning, but peak Reese Olson for a few innings was pretty jaw-droppingly good. Over those final seven starts he posted a 1.51 ERA, and while there was some batted ball luck involved, you have to love a young starter who continues to pile up the innings year after year, adapted to big league hitters after a rough stretch, and finished their rookie season in pretty overpowering fashion.

Revisit that Yankees outing for a moment.

Here’s a random changeup from back in September for good measure.

Now here’s another right-on-right changeup from Monday’s start against the Houston Astros. Yep, still nasty.

Olson still has some flaws, of course. He remains somewhat home run prone and has pretty pedestrian movement on both fastball types. He sits 94-95 mph and can run it up there above 97 when he wants it, but he also has below average extension to the plate. Overall, it’s a solid fastball, but not the type of heater a pitcher can lean on for 60 percent of his offerings. Olson threw 48.3 percent fastballs in 2023, and that sounds like the right percentage for him, mixing types and just trying to keep out of hitters’ sweet spots while still throwing enough strikes to set everything else up.

He’s always going to be dependent on his elite slider, and his ability to back those up with good changeups and a quality curveball. Often guys who have to use a lot of breaking stuff and offspeed struggle with walks, but Olson still posted a below average walk rate to go with his above average strikeout rate last season. He was a little home run prone, but as he settled in that problem was alleviated in August and September and trending in the right direction. There’s still potential that he has some home run trouble this year and can’t quite repeat his 2023 results, but if he’s got good command of his slider and changeup again he’s still going to be hard for hitters to deal with.

There may be some debate about where Olson stands in the rotation hierarchy at the moment, but in terms of pure stuff, Stuff+ metrics say he might be the Tigers nastiest starting pitcher, and the major public projection systems like ZiPS or PECOTA back up the notion that only Tarik Skubal projects to be significantly better for the Tigers in 2024.

Olson really should be assumed for the fourth spot unless something disastrous happens, with Manning and Mize competing for the final spot. Sure, these are somewhat arbitrary rankings. Whoever actually pitches the best this season will eventually win out, and however the Tigers align things, it’s hard to imagine any of Olson, Manning, Mize getting sent to Toledo.

The point is that Olson is arguably the second most talented pitcher on the staff and has cranked out good performances across 120 innings in 2022, and 140 innings in 2023. He’s not the one whose workload needs to be strictly managed. Despite his youthful appearance and smaller stature, Olson continues to be a horse with the best swing and miss stuff on the staff, and he should be under no workload restrictions at all.

All signs are positive

Spring training performance doesn’t mean much of anything in terms of forecasting how a player’s season will go, but the vital signs are all there for Olson right now. His stuff is basically in mid-season form already. He’s averaged 95 mph with both his fourseam fastball and his sinker just as he did in 2023. The movement on his slider and changeup looks really good, and both will again be good weapons for him. He continues to break off a pretty good curveball as a fourth weapon to keep from being too predictable. It’s all there for Reese Olson to have another good season.

On Monday, Olson was in control against a pretty good Houston Astros lineup featuring Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman, Kyle Tucker, and the fearsome Yordan Alvarez. He allowed a run on two hits over four innings, striking out three with one walk. Everything appears to be going according to plan with presumably two outings left in spring camp.

He may never be the guy with the biggest fastball, but Reese Olson is already a solid option for the Tigers’ rotation. Just a little more consistency will take him a lot further.

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