The Detroit Tigers have seen some pretty big years so far from the pitching prospects. From the emergence of Wilmer Flores to the successful major league debuts of Beau Brieske and Alex Faedo, and more. Arguably none of them have made quite the impact, however, that Reese Olson has made.
Last year’s trade deadline was pretty wild, but the Tigers were idle until they jumped in late with one trade: Daniel Norris for Reese Olson. It didn’t quite make sense for the Brewers, even at the time, but that can remain our little secret. They needed a lefty. Since that trade, Olson has blossomed.
The numbers tell the story, but they don’t shed light on the true strides Olson has made as a pitcher. Through 53.1 innings Olson has a 1.88 FIP, 13.67 K/9, and the key stat is a 2.19 BB/9. In a word, he’s been dominant in Double-A, and it’s been consistent. His season even includes an immaculate inning.
Reese Olson with an immaculate inning! 9 pitches, 3 strikeouts in his second inning of work. Here are the three strikeout pitches pic.twitter.com/gBMKjQXAY5— Trevor Hooth (@HoothTrevor) May 20, 2022
Entering The 2022 Season
Before the season everyone had the same concern for Olson. His command. The actual arsenal he uses contained all the weapons he needed to be a starter, his spin rates were excellent, it was just the issue of command.
My colleague at Bless You Boys, Brandon Day, summarized it perfectly in Olson’s pre-season prospect report, saying the command and violence in the delivery put a question mark on his future role. The scouting report I wrote about him for Prospects Live gave him an optimistic 50 future command, but I noted that in order for his walk numbers to decrease in 2021, he would leave the ball over the plate in hittable locations. These examples aren’t isolated to Bless You Boys staff members, it was clear Olson’s command needed to be a focal point in his continued development.
So what does Olson do? He comes out in his very first outing of the year and shows us something.
Tigers Reese Olson looked phenomenal today. Had everything working. His changeup looked different and very lethal, it accounted for 4 of his 7 strikeouts across 4 innings of work. Slider was working too. Been hyping him on @blessyouboys a lot. Great first outing. pic.twitter.com/gEbWKNRbhd— Trevor Hooth (@HoothTrevor) April 9, 2022
What This 2022 Season Means
The numbers tell the story of how that string of success has continued throughout this year. What the numbers can’t show is what Olson has done to emerge from the pack of arms to be one of two potential frontline starters in a future Tigers rotation. Big words, I know.
It’s not easy to go from questionable rotation arm with relief risk to potential frontline arm. The two things holding him back were violence in his delivery and command, which are obviously related. The delivery itself seems to be calmed down a little bit. This is far from the reason he’s seen so much improvement, but still worth noting. The violence is still there, but he has toned down the headwhack at the point of release. Headwhack is when a pitcher releases the ball and their head jolts hard off the target line. It’s not a death sentence, but it is a sign of effort in the delivery. The camera angles are different, but this is Olson on the left, just before the trade to Detroit, versus a start this year. You can see the head isn’t looking down as much and his posture is a little more upright through release.
The toned down delivery is a nice improvement and the results are showing up in his numbers. There is still a lot of effort with his arm violently whipping through the motion with a lot of late acceleration. That may never change. But he’s made some positive strides that are worth noting.
It’s the command that has really allowed Olson to flash his true upside. When his command is working there are undoubtedly 4 pitches that can work against MLB hitters. His mid-90’s fastball, slider, changeup, and curveball. All of them are used as out pitches, early count pitches, and everything in between. When his command is on, he can sequence a deep mix of tough offerings and absolutely tie Double-A hitters into knots. We’re seeing a lot more outings like that, and it’s the biggest jump in his development for me.
Sequencing is a simple concept that can get really complex. If a pitcher sequences really well he can set he batter up for whiffs and weak contact. It can be done in a variety of ways, changing speeds, location, and it can even be effectively done if you miss your spot with a pitch. There’s sequencing in at bats, but it can play out over a full game, too. Olson does this extremely well.
Let’s take a first inning at bat from Olson’s most recent outing by Giants prospect Will Wilson. Olson gave up two singles to start the game, but wasn’t rattled. He starts Wilson with a first pitch slider that finds the outside corner.
From here, Olson can go just about anywhere. A fastball up could work, but having dropped a slider on the outer edge, running one in on the hands would also be a solid idea to see if the hitter starts leaning to cover the outer edge. A curveball to change the look, or even another slider a little farther out of the zone might get a chase. This isn’t an exact science. What Olson does is come back with a beautiful changeup that falls off the table and gets Wilson lunging.
Now Olson has Wilson 0-2. He’s thrown a slider and a changeup, the changeup clearly had Wilson on his front foot. Where to go from here? Later in the game, I may double up on a changeup or go back to a slider. This is the first inning, Olson wants to establish that fastball, and that’s what he does. But notice the location of the slider and changeup, both away. So the hitter may be leaning out because of that, plus the front foot swing, that says bring velo to the inside part of the plate. And, well.
Good morning. Good afternoon. Good night. It was that quick. That is just one example of what his improving command of all four pitches allows him to do. He can set guys up and then set them down with ease. The thing is that in all the starts I watched from Olson in years past, he never really got to show what he could do from this standpoint. He was just throwing fastballs and whatever secondary pitch he felt comfortable with from start to start. Now that he’s spotting all four offerings, we are getting a glimpse at how special he could be.
Future For Olson
If Olson can continue this progress with his command, let’s say I bump the optimistic 50 grade in future command to an optimistic 55 grade. That then coincides with a plus fastball, above average-to-plus slider and changeup, and an fringe-to-average curveball. The stuff would even play up a bit because of the command and sequencing. That could make him a frontline guy, even if a mid-rotation starting role is more realistic.
The thing to watch now, is whether the improvements in command are just a flash and not here to stay. It’s a legitimate concern, and watching how well it holds up as Olson looks to build his innings total out this summer will be interesting. Still, he’s sustained this type of performance for 10 weeks, and I think it’s fair to say that even if the command starts to waver a bit at times, we can confidently believe this is pitcher is still there and the command will return.
There is still violence in his delivery, there are still some red flags. But for my money, not a single pitcher has raised their stock this season as much as Reese Olson has. He doesn’t look like a brand new pitcher, he looks like a head and shoulder better version of himself. This is a rotation arm in Detroit sooner than later, and he’s shown us that his absolute ceiling is the front of that rotation.