No need for suspense: Olson named to Tigers' rotation

Strong spring convinces club that second-year starter is ready to make leap

March 23rd, 2024

LAKELAND, Fla. -- Saturday was supposed to be ’s final audition for a rotation spot, a meeting with the Yankees on the final weekend of Spring Training to show that he was ready for the grind of a full Major League season. Instead, the Tigers had seen enough from his past few starts to make the call early.

“Nothing was going to change,” manager A.J. Hinch said. “There was no need to delay it any further.”

So before the Tigers' travel squad boarded a bus for Clearwater on Friday morning, Hinch called Olson into his office.

“He asked me what my anxiety level was; I said pretty high,” Olson said. “And then he told me.”

That’s a lot for Olson, who doesn’t show much emotion on the mound. He’s a cool customer, which helped him get through the roller-coaster of emotions last season that ranged from dominant outings to a rough stretch.

So while No. 16 prospect Brant Hurter started Saturday against the Yankees at Joker Marchant Stadium -- a week after starting on the same mound for the Tigers’ Spring Breakout prospect showcase -- Olson prepared to start on the back fields in a Minor League game Sunday. If all works out, it’ll be Olson’s last taste of the Minor Leagues for a long while.

Though Olson was a revelation as a midseason callup last season, the Tigers challenged him to evolve this spring, improving his command, sharpening his changeup and working on pitch sequences with his nasty arsenal. After showcasing his raw talent last year, Olson was tasked with learning more about how best to use it.

“The biggest thing coming in was first-pitch strikes,” Olson said. “I think I've done a pretty good job of that this spring, and then just commanding all five shapes. Everything feels pretty solid right now. My mechanics feel really good, pretty dialed in.”

Add the fact that this was essentially Olson’s first big league camp pitching -- he was in camp last year but was sidelined for much of it -- and the performance was all the more impressive.

Olson walked three of his 10 batters and hit another in his Grapefruit League debut Feb. 24, then allowed two runs on four hits in two innings five days later. Since then, he has dominated, allowing just two runs on six hits over 11 innings with one walk and 11 strikeouts.

Olson did all this while making a small barnstorming tour of the Grapefruit League, facing the Red Sox, Braves and Astros over a three-start stretch at Fort Myers, North Port and West Palm Beach, respectively. All of them are multi-hour drives from Lakeland, and each game featured opposing lineups of established Major League players to greet him.

“I think being able to face the big league teams doing that is kind of a good test for me to see where my stuff is at, see where my command is at,” Olson said. “To be able to go there and throw well after all those miles is fun.”

Olson’s last Grapefruit League outing was a piggyback start, following Kenta Maeda against the Orioles. He allowed the last of O’s prospect Kyle Stowers’ three home runs on the afternoon, but he also drew 10 swinging strikes, six of them off his changeup, which he had tweaked a bit. He also induced two called strikes on his high-spin curveball, a bonus for him going into the season.

That variety is what appeals to the Tigers. Matt Manning, though more experienced, is getting there with his work on his pitch mix, but the 24-year-old Olson has a better grasp of sequencing and setup at this point.

“He can attack so many different game plans with so many different weapons,” Hinch said. “He gets in-zone misses. He can throw any pitch in any count. He can be unpredictable. He’s really good.”

Fittingly, his first regular-season start of the year will be on the road in a challenging environment. He’ll start one of the first two games against the Mets at Citi Field. At least he won’t have a long drive.