Profile: LHP - 6'3" - 210lbs -BT:L - TH:L - 2011 Age: 23
• FB4 93-95: Average run but good velocity. Command needs work. (50-60)
• SL 83-84: College curve has morphed into pro slider. Decent depth, inconsistent tilt. (45-65)
• CH 84-85: Lacks impressive movement, but he has a good feel and good differential. (50-55)
Oliver was actually initially drafted in the 17th round of the 2006 draft by the rival Minnesota Twins. He decided to turn down the overtures from the Twins to go play for Oklahoma State where he'd go on to be one of the top 10-15 college pitchers of the 2008 season. After another strong season his junior year the Tigers would take him in the second round and signed him for 1.495m, above slot.
A power lefty who average 93.8 mph with his fastball in his abbreviated pro debut last year, Oliver has a very quick, loose arm action that allows him to generate impressive velocity despite a relatively low effort delivery. He delivers from a 3/4 slot and does pitch across his body somewhat which I feel hampers his lateral control at times and adds stress to his shoulder. Given the low effort, repeatable nature of his delivery, it's a tad surprising to see that he's struggled so much with command throughout his professional career, and he's going to need to make significant strides in that regard to play up to his arms potential.
While Oliver's fastball needs refinement, especially in regards to command, he does generate solid if unspectacular movement which, when paired with the vertical nature of his slider, should help him induce at least a league average number of ground balls. It helps that the delivery you get from his body, which is fairly low-effort, doesn't match what you get from his arm, which is pretty impressive. That helps the pitch play up.
Of his off speed offering, his changeup is probably more polished, but I like his slider more on a long-term basis. He isn't always able to get consistent tilt on the pitch yet, but it does have good late vertical bite which will help him throw it under the bats of righties. Given that he hasn't thrown the pitch for that long, I expect there is still plenty of room for improvement and that eventually it'll develop into his best pitch though right now, it's probably his worst. His changeup is a solid offering and will be an effective secondary offering against righties for now, and a third option vs them as his slider continues to develop and improve.
The Tigers are known for pushing players they like aggressively, and Oliver certainly got that treatment in 2010. Signing too late to make his professional debut in 2009, the Tigers sent him directly to AA, a level where even polished college pitchers can struggle, but he more than held his own and quickly earned a promotion to AAA. It was there that his control problems began to manifest themselves, but he continued striking guys out. When the Tigers ran into injury issues with their rotation, Oliver eventually got the nod and managed in his first pro season to reach the show. Once there he found out that MLB hitters are much more discerning at the plate than AA or even AAA hitters.
He's going to need to really work on his command before he can be a plus starter, but he's got the tools and his delivery is low effort enough that the Tigers coaching staff should be able to help iron out some of his consistency issues.
Right now I see him as more of a poor control thrower, not because of a lack of feel for pitching, but due to a lack of refinement, and as a result, lack of confidence, with his secondary pitches. As his slider improves and he gains confidence and feel for his change he looks like a high strikeout, high walk #2 or #3. If the command doesn't come around and proves to be too big an issue at the MLB level, he could be a lights out three-pitch reliever.
Corey Ettinger is a Senior Writer for Baseball Digest as well as a proud contributor to both 612Sports.net, 312Sports.com, and 313sports.com. He also provides extensive analysis of the American League Central Division at his own blog, AL Central In Focus. Be sure to follow me on Twitter @Coreyettinger for the latest updates, random thoughts and general tomfoolery.