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Tyler Olson and Rich Hill, cut from the same cloth

A former and current Indian have some neat, good things in common.

Cleveland Indians v Boston Red Sox Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

For 20 innings in 2017, Tyler Olson was untouchable. From his debut with the Indians on July 21st to the end of the season he allowed no runs on 13 hits, ending the season with a 0.00 ERA, a .950 WHIP and 3-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio. All this while throwing the 550th hardest fastball in baseball among guys who threw at least 50 pitches — I didn’t even know there were that many pitchers in baseball.

The velocity Olson works with alone a legitimate encore seem untenable in 2018. But there’s something about Olson that brings to mind a former Indian pitcher, one that discovered success late in his career: Rich Hill.

Hill’s time with Cleveland wasn’t pretty. In 38 innings of work in 2013 he struck out 28 percent of batters, walked 15 percent and ended up with a 1.73 WHIP and 60.3 percent strand rate. None of these are good numbers for relief pitchers. But since that time he’s morphed into some kind of very special pitcher. As a 36-year-old he signed with the Dodgers for $48 million following a three-year stretch covering stints with at least four teams where he logged a 30.7 percent strikeout rate, 7.7 percent walk rate, .98 WHIP, and 80.9 percent strand rate. This wasn’t all relief either, he turned into a very good starting pitcher. He’s done this despite, like Olson, barely if ever cracking 90 on his fastball. He’s done it the way soft-tossing lefties have since baseball began — guile and garbage. More specifically, fiddling with a release point and a ton of breaking balls.

Hill famously has a very inexact release point. That’s actually a bit of a misnomer, as it’s on purpose. Hill throws from all over the place, and has in his arsenal of grabage at least two different curves. In 2017 those breaking balls came starkly different locations:

This, in conjunction with Hill being really good at throwing it — he throws it in the zone 53.1 percent of the time for his career including 51.2 this season, while also getting batters to swing at it outside of the zone 37.9 percent of the time, and whiff 12.2 percent of the time - makes him hell on hitters even without the killer fastball. He keeps hitters off-balance, which leads to bafflingly good numbers considering what the radar gun is showing. He made 25 starts this year with a 3.32 ERA, 3.72 FIP, and he struck out 30.1 percent of hitters, earning 2.5 WAR in only 135 innings.

Olson does the same thing when he pitches, alternating release points based on what might work and keeping hitters off balance:

That guile of the lefty is always useful. He doesn’t have quite the same stark divide as Hill, more throwing like he’s just out there screwing around playing catch. It almost seems less purposeful than Hill’s method. But it flies in the face of traditional schooling that would suggest repetition in the release point is vital for any pitcher for control purposes, especially a guy who can’t rely on velocity. That’s the path Josh Tomlin has taken and he’s had a decent enough career. Olson spits on that.

So they both throw a lot of curveballs, both throwing it 41.2 percent of the time in 2017. Only Lance McCullers threw more than Hill among starters, and Olson was fifth among relievers in its usage. That’s curious, neat I suppose, but not anything particularly amazing. What’s interesting is how similar their two pitches are:

Hill vs. Olson Curveball

Player Avg. Pitch Velo(mph Spin Rate(rpm) V-Break(in.) H-Break(in.)
Player Avg. Pitch Velo(mph Spin Rate(rpm) V-Break(in.) H-Break(in.)
Hill 74.0 2799 28.8 1.2
Olson 74.5 2741 22.8 2.2

They’re not identical — and the break numbers are a bit muddled since both throw from multiple angles but the Statcast system combines those into a less descriptive average of the pitch - but there’s some remarkable similarity. The Indians plainly saw something in Hill four years ago when they signed him, and must have identified the same quality in Olson. They’ve been on the forefront of the rise in curve usage the last several years. Only the Astros and Dodgers — two great and forward-thinking teams — threw it more since 2015 and the Tribe topped all teams in 2017 at 17.1 percent. It took Hill a bit to figure it out, but now he’s an excellent piece that allow the Dodgers versatility of a swingman/starter that nobody can get used to. Versatility the Indians could use today.

This isn’t to say Olson is going to be a younger version of what Hill is for the Dodgers. It was years and several teams before Hill figured out what he did, and it seems odd to expect a 28-year-old to have come to the same conclusions that took a man nine years his senior most of a career to figure out. It’s just interesting how similar their key pitch is. Maybe Olson needs more obvious difference in release points to make that Hill-ian leap. Or maybe Hill is just a unicorn and expecting that to happen again is the peak of foolishness. Like I said before, garbage throwing left-handers is a tradition as old as baseball itself. Olson probably won’t have as sterling numbers as he did in 2017 with a normal workload. He’ll probably still be real good though. Hitters like repetition. Olson simply isn’t that. But like hill, he simply muddles the hitter’s brain. Plus that curve sure is neat.