Lefty Oliver Applies Lessons From Detroit Drubbing

TOLEDO—Last season lefthander Andy Oliver hoped to pitch in the major leagues. He got his wish, starting five games for the Tigers in June and July.

This season, he still has that strong desire to return to the majors. But little else is the same for the 23-year-old, one of Detroit's brightest pitching prospects.

A second-round pick in 2009 out of Oklahoma State, Oliver starred for Team USA in the summer prior to his draft year. After a brief stint in the '09 Arizona Fall League, the lefty began his first pro season with Erie in the Double-A Eastern League.

"I didn't know what to expect because it was my first year," Oliver said. "I saw what it was like a little bit when I pitched in the Arizona Fall League—and I was successful—so I didn't have any concerns heading into the season."

In 14 starts with the SeaWolves, Oliver went 6-4, 3.61, striking out 70 and walking 25 in 77 innings. The Tigers called him up to make a June 25 start at Atlanta, which he lost despite allowing just two runs in six innings.

"Obviously that was something that I wanted, so I was excited," Oliver said. "But I had to control my emotions. I thought that it was the same game as it was when I was in Double-A.

"But I learned quickly that I got away with some stuff (in Double-A) that I wouldn't get away with in the big leagues. (Major league hitters) know how to work counts. They have a better eye, so they are able to take certain pitches, and when you fall behind they take advantage of it."

Oliver struggled after that initial success, however, and after his July 18 start his record stood at 0-4, 7.36, at which point the Tigers optioned him to Toledo.

"Andy got to the big leagues in a hurry, and he got knocked in the head a few times—like a lot of young pitchers do," Toledo pitching coach A.J. Sager said. "You always are a little nervous how it's going to go when they come back down.

"He handled it just fine. He learned the right things up there, and he was able to throw away the wrong things. He came down knowing the things he needed to work on and ready to work on them."

Lessons Learned

Oliver regained his footing with the Mud Hens, finishing 3-4, 3.23 in nine starts while striking out 49 and walking 25 in 53 innings. In six August starts he was especially impressive, posting a 2.61 ERA and allowing just 30 hits and three homers in 38 innings.

"In the majors I learned that you have to get ahead of guys, and that you have to throw lower strikes," Oliver said. "Up there I was high in the zone, right around belt-high, and that is easy for (major league) hitters to get to. It's right in their swing path.

"So I focused on working down at the knees and worked on my secondary stuff."

In the offseason Oliver focused on adding a two-seam fastball to his repertoire, which already included a four-seam fastball, slider and changeup. He also tinkered with his mechanics slightly, putting his front foot down earlier in his deliver.

"That has helped my delivery, making my arm slot more consistent, and also helped my slider," Oliver said. "I'm able to get on top of my slider and get more depth with it."

Phil Nevin, Oliver's manager at Erie last season and this year in Toledo, has noticed the difference.

"He's made tremendous strides in a year," Nevin said. "Going from Double-A to the big leagues, you learn a lot along the way. And he is good at wanting to learn. He takes his bullpen sessions very seriously, and he seems to improve from outing to outing."

Secondary Importance

Sager also has noticed the difference in the 6-foot-3, 210-pound Oliver.

"I think Andy commands the ball down in the strike zone better, and I think his changeup and slider have become much more reliable pitches for him," Sager said. "And his confidence in those pitches has grown.

"He'll throw (his secondary pitches) when he's behind the count, and he throws them to both sides of the plate. He's made giant strides."

This season, Oliver went 2-0, 3.50 through his first three starts, all Mud Hens wins, while leading the International League with 22 strikeouts in 18 innings. Louisville touched up Oliver for five runs in 4 2⁄3 innings in start No. 4, shooting his ERA to 4.76, though he trailed only Durham hurlers Alex Cobb and Alex Torres with 25 strikeouts.

While Oliver is improved, there still are things for the young pitcher to work on.

"It's a matter of getting innings for him," Nevin said. "We have to remember that he's just two years out of college. He has made some big jumps.

"Younger guys need to learn how to pitch. You can blow away minor league hitters, but in the big leagues you have to know how to pitch. It's learning hitters, it's learning when to throw pitches in situations, and learning what you're capable of doing. I think he's gotten better each time out at that."

And while his early season success this season mirrors his successful start last year, Oliver said he has learned how to best handle the talk about him earning a promotion to Detroit.

"(Talk about getting called up) is something I'm not really focused on," he said. "You hear it, but if you get caught up in it—or caught up in trying to fulfill that—it takes focus off what you need to be working on and what you need to accomplish.

"I need to work on my command and my secondary stuff. If I were to start thinking about that and focusing on that, I wouldn't be able to accomplish much down here."