Historic tough luck continues for Olson in 8-inning gem

Despite scoreless start, 1st win of 2024 eludes righty as Tigers' offense gets shut out

May 15th, 2024

DETROIT -- When the Tigers signed Jack Flaherty last offseason, received a request for his jersey number: 45. Considering Flaherty signed a free-agent contract worth $14 million, Olson could’ve put a price tag on the number. Instead, he gave it up with no expectation in return except some new jerseys for family members with his new number, 40, which he received in Spring Training. When asked why he did it, Olson shrugged and said it was just the number he’d been given when he debuted last year.

Consider that selflessness, and it starts to make sense how Olson can handle the dichotomy of this season with grace, class and focus -- including after the Tigers' 1-0 10-inning loss to the Marlins on Tuesday. Olson’s eight scoreless innings, the longest outing of his career, dropped his ERA to 2.09, which is tied for eighth-lowest in the Majors as of Tuesday night. The only thing Olson has won so far, though, is his old jersey number back, after Flaherty switched to No. 9.

“He’s been tough luck,” manager A.J. Hinch said, “but that doesn’t mean he hasn’t done a real good job. I think his ability to just do his job and stay focused -- he hasn’t complained about anything, nor should he. He’s got one job.

“I’m proud of how he’s pitching and the way he’s executing the game plan. … He’s putting up zeros; that’s his part.”

According to Opta, Olson is the first Major League pitcher with a sub-2.25 ERA and an 0-4 record or worse through his first eight starts of a season since ERA became an official stat in 1913.

Tuesday marked the sixth time this season Olson has thrown five or more innings with one earned run or less and not gotten a victory. According to Baseball Reference, Olson tied Justin Verlander (2016), Frank Tanana (1989) and Joe Coleman (1972) for the most such outings by a Tigers starter over a full season in the past 60 years. The only Tigers starters with more such outings in the live-ball era (since 1920) are Jim Bunning, with eight in 1960, and Don Mossi, with seven in 1961.

Even in an era when individual wins have been de-emphasized, it’s an odd combination amidst an incredible stretch for a 24-year-old in his first full Major League season. By comparison, teammate Tarik Skubal is 5-0 with a 2.02 ERA.

“I’m just focused on throwing strikes,” Olson said. “And our guys have been scoring runs, so I believe in them.”

The Tigers, for all their offensive ups and downs, have had outbursts. They just haven’t had them when Olson is on the mound. The Tigers have totaled 17 runs in Olson’s eight starts: They’ve scored 12 runs when he has been the pitcher of record, and seven runs when he’s in the game.

Four of those runs came last Wednesday in Cleveland, when Olson allowed one earned run on one hit -- a two-run single -- over six innings before the Guardians rallied off Detroit’s bullpen.

On Tuesday night, Olson allowed just three singles with no walks, 10 groundouts and six strikeouts, and didn’t allow a runner in scoring position. He was virtually duplicated by Marlins starter Ryan Weathers, who also scattered three singles over eight scoreless innings with no walks and four strikeouts.

“Reese was awesome,” Mark Canha said. “He's the MVP of that game if we squeak it out. He's been great. He's been awesome. It's fun to watch. He's obviously doing a lot of things really well, so we're lucky to have him.”

It’s not just the low scoring. Olson has allowed just 32 hits and 15 walks over 47 1/3 innings, good for a 0.99 WHIP. Just six of those hits have gone for extra bases -- all doubles. He hasn’t allowed a home run since Max Muncy took him deep at Dodger Stadium on Sept. 20, 2023, a homerless streak covering 53 innings and 213 batters. Olson's ability to pound the strike zone, throw his slider and curveball for strikes and utilize his sinker have made him an extreme ground-ball pitcher, ranking in the 86th percentile in ground-ball rate according to Statcast.

Ironically, Muncy’s homer last September was the only run Olson allowed that night in a win. If he keeps pitching like this, he’s bound to get his next eventually.

“I’m happy with the way things have gotten off,” Olson said. “Just continue to build on that. Obviously I have all the confidence in the world in myself.”