One of the things I like to do when I write is bring some exposure to good players on bad teams. But this article is about a good player on a good team, which seems boring. Everyone knows Kris Bryant, Bryce Harper, Jose Altuve. Even the quieter stars this year like Jose Ramirez, Charlie Blackmon, and Anthony Rendon. Seemingly, I must think the A’s are a pretty good team if I’m writing about a good player on a good team. The good player in question, of course, is Matt Olson. Since the beginning of July, the A’s have the sixth best offense in baseball, running a 107 wRC+ as a collective unit. The A’s have been mashing lately. So are they actually any good?
Well, no. They’re still not very good. You could really stretch and try to make an argument, but here’s the thing; I’m not writing about Matt Olson. And I’m actually not writing about the A’s. I’m writing about the Indians. While one Olson has jumped onto everybody’s “unknown player” radar (ironically), there is still another Olson out there doing amazing things on a very good Cleveland Indians team. Today we’re going to dig into Tyler Olson, a left-handed relief pitcher for the Cleveland Indians.
What do we know about Tyler Olson? Well, to start, we already know he’s destined for greatness, or extreme usefulness as he is a former Mariner. Kidding, I think. But Olson has already proven himself to be fairly useful, carrying a 0.00 ERA. That is not a typo; Olson has not allowed an earned run yet in 17.2 innings. He’s primarily been used as a LOOGY, appearing in 27 games with a low amount of innings. Lefties this year are slashing an abysmal .143/.216/.176. Joe Smith was acquired at the deadline, as the Indians desperately needed relief help. Unfortunately, they still needed a left-handed reliever. But then we kind of stopped hearing about that for some reason; that reason has been Tyler Olson.
Let me give you an example of how good, yet unrecognized Olson’s been. If you look at his player page on Fangraphs, he’s only appeared in one article as an “Other of Note” in a Mariners organizational prospect write-up from 2015. Not exactly a strong pedigree. He was signed for $10,000 out of Gonzaga in 2013 (senior signing), and never really stood out in the minors. He’s really come out of nowhere, and conventional wisdom tells us he’ll likely fade into obscurity. But that’s not nearly as fun.
Olson was really good in the minors this year. With an 11.57 K/9 and 2.57 BB/9, clearly this seemed like Olson was making a conscious change. In an admittedly small sample size of his other major league appearances, Olson threw his changeup 9.4% (2015) of the time, and actually decreased to 2.1% last year. This year he’s throwing his changeup 19.2% of the time. His primary pitch? His curveball, which he’s thrown 42.1% of the time. We’ve seen lots of this type of transformation recently, especially amongst pitchers with fringe fastballs, which Olson has. One of the other things somewhat unique to Olson is that he is deceptive.
This is just from a game Olson recently pitched in. Take a look at where his front foot is and where his throwing arm is. Olson is extremely closed off when he throws, especially to left-handed batters. They don’t get to see the ball for a long time.
This is the same pitch, just a different frame. There are a few very important things to notice here, the first is obviously his arm angle. Everything is going to bear in on lefties given the natural spin of the ball from that angle. He probably doesn’t even have to pronate the changeup that much to get it to move, but the more he does, the more it’s going to move. Second thing to notice; this is the first time the hitter really gets to see the ball. That doesn’t seem like a big deal until you get to the third point here; Olson is more upright than he was in that first screenshot. What he’s been doing, intentional or not, is changing the eye level of the hitter in his motion. Olson’s roughly an average height for a pitcher at 6’3″, however not many pitchers are that upright when they throw. This often leads to a higher perceived velocity, in addition to not seeing the ball until late in his motion.
And, while not overly scientific, Trevor Bauer has acknowledged that Olson throws from varying arm slots, as indicated by this surprisingly well made sculpture. He’s changing eye level when he wants, putting opposing hitters in a very uncomfortable position.
None of this matters if it doesn’t translate to results. Olson’s throwing his fastball a career low 27.7% of the time, yet his fastball is the best it’s ever been, with a pitch value of 2.3. This lines up with the hypothesis above. He’s also throwing his best pitch the most (curveball) and getting the best results (3.6 pitch value). His recent stats in the minors, as well as his success in the majors, suggests that this improvement may very well be sustainable. Let’s also not forget all the recent success Cleveland has had with developing pitchers. It’s entirely possible they were able to identify something they liked about Olson (former Mariner), and simply had him make a mechanical change, or a change to his game approach.
I don’t think Tyler Olson is the next Andrew Miller by any means. He’s still a LOOGY and should be used as such. But I do think he’s really, really good (as if the Indians needed more good players). The Indians may have found themselves a real asset, for the future, and for October. Mariners fans, rejoice. You’ve done it again.