A player’s first trip to the major leagues is always special, even if the circumstances are pretty far from optimal. The Detroit Tigers have been absolutely ravaged by injuries yet again and will be hard pressed to continue their solid play in May. For pitching prospect Reese Olson, this is an opportunity. For the Tigers, this isn’t really how they wanted things to go in general, nor for Olson specifically.
Ideally, Olson would’ve gotten another few months at the Triple-A level to continue honing his game before facing a major league lineup for the first time. On the other hand, he reached the Double-A level in the summer of 2021, so he’s got plenty of work in the upper minors already. He’ll be 24 in a few months. There’s enough seasoning there that he’s ready to take the next step and hang in there should, like most young pitching prospects, the initial introduction be a rocky one. He’s also on a nice little run with two of his best ever starts in a row leading to his debut.
Olson is one of the more debated prospects in the Tigers’ system over the last two years. Acquired in a really nice trade with Milwaukee in 2021 that sent them lefty Daniel Norris, he’s been durable and effective but a little too home run prone to book as a future rotation stalwart for the Tigers despite excellent strikeout numbers and low walk rates.
In 2022, Olson made 25 starts for the Double-A Erie SeaWolves and posted a 33.1 strikeout rate and a 7.5 percent walk rate. You don’t see a whole lot better numbers at that level over a full season, though that’s partly because most pitchers with those numbers are rapidly promoted. Instead, rankings within the system typically have Olson in the teens. MLB Pipeline ranks his 11th. We ranked him 13th in the preseason. FanGraphs has him 12th currently. You get the picture. At times, Olson has flirted with the backend of top 100 lists, but generally he’s regarded as minor league starting pitching depth or a future relief role.
Still, Olson has pretty good stuff overall and took a big developmental step in 2022. Two key issues have held down projections for his future, with most, including our own rankings, expecting him to end up in the bullpen eventually.
Scouting Reese Olson
First, despite very solid walk rates for the most part, Olson still struggles quite a bit with command and can waste too many pitches nibbling around the edges of the strike zone. Secondly, despite a bump in velocity last season that saw him consistently sitting 93-95 and reaching back for 97 mph when he wanted it, his fastball continues to get hurt over the plate a little too often.
Those two things are inter-related of course, but they stand out because Olson does have a good set of secondary pitches. He and Joey Wentz don’t have a ton in common as pitchers, but both have to contend with a mediocre fastball that gets them in trouble, and the occasional burst of wildness. Each looks good when they’re on, and can suddenly look terrible when things go awry. Olson does have significantly better secondary stuff than Wentz, however, and arguably has the better chance of sustained success as a starter.
A solid 79-80 mph, 12-6 curveball is the lesser of Olson’s three secondary offerings. It’s more than a strike stealer though. He’ll use it first pitch occasionally to catch a hitter off guard, but he’s willing to go to it in 2-0 and even 3-0 counts once in a while, and will just mix it in here and there when he’s used his main breaking ball, a mid-80’s slider, enough that hitters are starting to read it better.
The slider is his most used secondary pitch and the high spin breaker generates a lot of whiffs for him. He can shorten it up for strikes or really break off a nasty version that dives hard for the dirt. You should see plenty of them Friday night as my assumption is that Chris Fetter’s game plan will be focused on mixing in everything against a powerful White Sox offense in a launching pad of a park on a very warm evening.
Finally, Olson’s best pitch may well be his high 80’s one-seam changeup. The velocity separation isn’t huge, but when he’s in command of the changeup Olson gets plenty of swing and miss on it. It falls off the table with sharp, late tailing action and keeps left-handers in check and unable to simply look for fastballs. Olson will throw right on right changeups as well and is pretty fearless with it, often doubling up with it, so it should be interesting to see if he tries that against hitters like Tim Anderson, Luis Robert, and Andrew Vaughn.
Olson has a fairly tight delivery though it’s not quite as high effort as it was when the Tigers got him. His overall athleticism has improved as he’s added muscle and that was proven out somewhat with the jump in velocity last season. He’s still on the smaller side for a starter at 6’1”, 185 pounds, but he’s definitely more muscular than he was two years ago. The Tigers also improved his stride and got him generating more momentum down the target line, as opposed to the heavily rotational delivery he arrived in Detroit with.
However, Olson is still a short strider with mediocre extension, a factor that makes his fastball velocity play down, and his movement profile is just average. He does appear to mix in some sinkers here and there, which helps him collect some ground balls and keeps hitters from dialing in too quickly on the fourseamer, which is usually at the top of the zone.
Olson does have the depth of repertoire to overcome a fastball that even at his peak velocities is only a slightly above average pitch. The issue is command. Olson has always wasted too many pitches, and strangely has often had more trouble spotting the fastball than the slider or changeup. Part of that may have to do with the delivery issues and effort, but he’s also seen the heater get hit hard in the heart of the strike zone too often and has arguably gotten a little gun shy at times. As a result, he’s often pitched from behind too much and gets forced to throw the heater over when he’s down in the count, which only exacerbates the home run trouble.
Put simply, he’s been something of a frontrunner. When he’s ahead in counts and pressuring hitters, he looks good. When he falls behind or has to pitch through plenty of traffic, he has a tendency to walk batters, give up homers, and sometimes implode rather abruptly. That’s not unusual for a young pitcher, but it’s something he absolutely has to conquer to have success in the major leagues. Recent signs of maturity have come in the form of Olson settling back in after a rough couple of at-bats and continuing to pitch well rather than pressing too much to make the perfect pitch.
The most impressive thing about his last two starts, both of which have been pretty dominant for the Toledo Mud Hens, is the improved command of the fastball. If he can keep that going in his major league debut and get ahead of hitters by mixing his pitches early in counts, he’ll probably do alright. There is just always the specter of too many hard hit balls when he falls behind hitters.
So, Olson has the stuff to succeed, but only recently have we seen the overall pitchability and game control show more flashes of major league quality. However, despite the challenge of facing major league hitters for the first time, pitching for the Tigers should bring a few advantages as well.
First of all, he’ll be working with a better catcher. The Tigers have prioritized defense in their catching group since A.J. Hinch took over, and in Jake Rogers or Eric Haase, Olson will have a little more help getting those extra strikes around the edges. That will help him quite a bit, as will the better defense behind him overall. Olson is getting plenty of ground balls this year (51%) and a lot of weak fly balls and pop-ups. As long as the Tigers play a clean game behind him, he should be able to collect plenty of routine outs and avoid the pressure packed jams that have often seen him crumble a bit in the past.
Finally, for a pitcher who racks up plenty of strikeouts and, other than his first batch of starts at Triple-A, keeps the walks down, the key weakness remains the long ball. As a result, Comerica Park makes a pretty good home for him. UPMC Park in Erie is kind of a launching pad in the summer, and unfortunately the same is true for the White Sox home, Guaranteed Rate Field. This is a tough assignment tonight, and hopefully, however it goes, the Tigers will stick with Olson and give him a few starts to work with Chris Fetter and his staff, and try to settle in.
My prediction tonight is that Olson isn’t very efficient but manages to keep the White Sox from blowing him off the mound. Either way I wouldn’t expect a long outing. For now, I’m just curious to see what Fetter and company have in store for Olson’s gameplan. If he’s sharp, he could certainly surprise us with an excellent debut. Just keep expectations modest.