Olson confident in progress as he eyes rotation spot

February 29th, 2024

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Few pitchers with a 9.82 ERA have felt better about their outings than did when he walked off the mound Thursday at JetBlue Park.

Olson allowed two runs on four hits, striking out three batters in two innings against the Red Sox, but despite his final line, the 24-year-old viewed his outing as a step forward.

“I felt way better about today than my last one,” Olson said after the Tigers’ 5-2 loss to the Red Sox. “I was in the zone way more; a few weak hits there to start the game -- those happen.”

Olson’s debut last Saturday was a rocky one, as he gave up two runs on one hit and three walks over 1 2/3 innings against the Yankees. While his command was virtually nonexistent in that game, he threw the ball where he wanted for the majority of his 42-pitch outing on Thursday.

Boston opened the first inning with singles by Tyler O’Neill and Rafael Devers, then Trevor Story doubled to right field, giving the Red Sox a 1-0 lead. Rob Refsnyder added an RBI groundout to make it 2-0, but Olson bounced back with a solid second inning, allowing a single while striking out three batters.

“He had to battle through a few things, but I do think it was a step forward,” manager A.J. Hinch said. “Part of me likes when they have to pitch through a little bit of stress, and I liked how he finished.”

With Kenta Maeda, Tarik Skubal and Jack Flaherty locked into the top three spots in the rotation, Olson, Casey Mize and Matt Manning are competing for the final two starting jobs.

Hinch didn’t take much out of Olson’s uneven debut, noting that he typically “throws out” the first start of the spring for information-gathering purposes.

“We want him to challenge the strike zone; that's going to be what this competition is about,” Hinch said. “I expect these guys to get a little bit better and better. I always tell them: we don't expect perfection on the front end, but we do want progress.”

Raw numbers will play some part in the Tigers’ ultimate decision-making process, but Hinch has stressed that spring stats won’t be the deciding factor in the competition.

“It is hard because it's somewhat mixed messaging to players when you tell them they've got to do well to win a competition, but you want them to do it a specific way by inserting a third or fourth pitch or focusing on first-pitch fastball strikes or something that could put them in harm's way in a box score,” Hinch said. “You try to build up as much trust as you can that you're asking them to do things that they're being judged by. I can't tell you right now what a guy is hitting or what their ERAs are; I know who has controlled the strike zone and who hasn't.

“But as a player, it's hard not to think that the scoreboard stats aren't part of the equation -- but the reality is they're not. There's a lot more that goes into forming the first deadline of making the team on Opening Day, but I was a player who doubted it once, too, so I understand the stress that comes with having a bad game or two.”

Results aside, Hinch believes a spring competition can be beneficial to everybody involved. Few teams remain injury-free through the 162-game grind, so regardless of who wins those two spots, the Tigers will need to rely on more than five starters over the long season.

“If we want to be a better team, then we need to be a harder team to make,” Hinch said. “You need that competition to bring out the best in everybody. I can't say this enough: the Opening Day roster is just the first of many checkpoints, it's just the biggest one that’s focused on in the spring.”

Olson has already proven he can put up solid numbers in the Majors, pitching to a 3.99 ERA in 103 2/3 innings over 21 outings (18 starts) during his 2023 rookie campaign.

The righty insists he’s not concerned with his numbers in spring games nearly as much as he’s worried about his ability to locate pitches.

“I’m pretty confident my numbers are going to be there; it’s more about execution,” Olson said. “That’s what I’m trying to continue to improve on start to start, so definitely a huge increase in the execution from my last start. That’s all I was really worried about, so I’m happy with it.”