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Tyler Olson thriving with Indians despite lack of velocity

The soft-tossing lefty is a vital piece of the puzzle for Cleveland’s near-future.

MLB: Boston Red Sox at Cleveland Indians Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Certain things usually preclude success in baseball. Being small, unless you're Jose Altuve. Being slow, unless you're Yadier Molina. For pitchers, the biggest killer is usually not throwing hard. Unless you're left-handed. Then you have a ten-year career.

The Cleveland Indians have two left-handed relievers. One is Andrew Miller, who is all kinds of incredible. The other is Tyler Olson, who has thrown the ball 90 mph or more nine times this year. Nine times. Despite that, Olson has been nothing short of fantastic as a replacement for Boone Logan. Even that is selling him short. Olson has been about as perfect as a pitcher can be.

To the casual eye, nothing Olson does makes sense for the success he's having. Again, nine times. Yes, he's ostensibly a LOOGY, but at least doesn’t get blasted by right-handed hitters. He's faced 27 lefties and 25 righties this year, and held the right-handed guys to a basically league average .317 wOBA. It's not amazing, but he can work a whole inning. As long as there are more than a few southpaws for him to feast on. And feast he does — they're hitting .148/195/.152 against Olson this year, good for a .169 wOBA. Again, it's only eight innings worth of work out of the 13.1 total he's worked, but it's still amazing. He fun to watch work because he doesn't have the physical skills, so he has to finagle his way through. Perhaps you've seen his mini-ball constructed by Trevor Bauer:

MLB: Baltimore Orioles at Cleveland Indians Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

Ignore the saltily bearded old ship captain in back. Olson is the half-topus in front. The arms, if you were curious, are for the angles he comes from, as shown in reality here:

I love any time a pitcher does this. For so long pitchers are taught to repeat their mechanics, to refine their release point and always seem to be coming from the same spot. For deception among one’s pitches and whatnot. But what if you can't throw it by people? Why not suddenly come from a different place altogether? It's one of the things that makes Rich Hill so good, and it seems effective enough that even Clayton Kershaw has mess around a bit with changing release points. I'd love it if there were a couple dots just way down at the bottom, and Olson spent a few pitches pretending to be a lefty Joe Smith. It's effective, especially when combined with the spread his pitches allow. Check it out:

Yes, there's some speed variation, but everything breaks so distinctly that he's hard to catch. It's amazing guile where velocity is absent. It also helps that, unlike most LOOGYs (or relief pitcehrs in general for that matter) he throws three pitches with decent regularity:

Tyler Olson pitch usage

Pitch Usage Avg Velo (MPH)
Pitch Usage Avg Velo (MPH)
Four-seam 34.2% 89.1
Curve 38.4% 74.6
Change-up 21.4% 84.4
Sinker 5.9% 87.4

The change helps with righties as well as lefties, and that he actually throws a curve instead of a boring old slider just makes me so happy for some reason. I love curve balls. It is the best pitch, the way it rises so high and then plummets out of the air. So tantalizing. Not enough people throw them anymore, and Olson’s is excellent. It’s 2750 RPM spin rate is about 250 rotations above average, meaning it’s got some extra drop-off-the-table. It’s so fun to watch lefties in particular just flail at it. Plus he throws it more than any other pitch.

We've seen starters like Trevor Bauer and Corey Kluber lean on their breakers more, and there was a stretch where Andrew Miller had a near 50/50 split on his slider and fastball. Drew Pomeranz of the Red Sox and Hill in Los Angeles have both had runs where the curve is the main pitch. It’s neat. Why not throw your best pitch more? Olson gets it, and since he can barely break glass with his fastball, he just does what he can. Power pitching is overrated anyway.

Olson is going to get tagged. It’s 13 innings we’re talking about here. Nobody has a 0.00 ERA forever. But to think he’s going to collapse and become another Kyle Crockett is selling him short. He exists to let Andrew Miller be a full-fledge fireman, just as Boone Logan did before him. The way that curve falls out of the sky, the way he can locate the fastball with such precision, and that change make him so hard to figure out. Throw in the arm angles, and he’s a surprisingly good tool for Terry Franona. The Indians found a neat thing in Olson. It’s always good to have neat things.