Seeking fifth-starter job, Oliver's rhythm off
Lefty prospect's control issues continue as he walks five
LAKELAND, Fla. -- Andy Oliver is too young to be outrunning a reputation.
He's also trying to show he's not too young yet to hold down a rotation spot on a team that's expected to win.
That's the balance he's trying to strike in this camp as he tries to become the Tigers' fifth starter. In that, striking an even balance is ideal. In terms of balls and strikes, the even balance Oliver posted was not.
He has been open about his command issues from last year, the ones that led to 80 walks over 147 innings at Triple-A Toledo, and how he has tried to put them behind him. If he can pitch relaxed, and avoid trying to be too fine with his location, or overthrow looking for velocity, he can be better.
It didn't have to be brought up again Wednesday, after Oliver walked five over 3 2/3 innings in a 7-3 loss to the Twins. He knows what he has to prove, and he felt he had a grasp of what unfolded against him.
"I was just a little bit out of rhythm, a little bit too slow, trying to go through my mechanics. The rhythm was too slow trying to get everything to sync up. That was probably the biggest thing. ... My body was going a little too quick for my arm."
When asked what would cause that, Oliver pointed to almost too much effort, at least on the precision side.
"I think it's just trying to do a little too much, at some times trying to be too fine," Oliver said.
On Wednesday, at least, manager Jim Leyland was downplaying any disappointment. The Major League stuff, he suggested, is still there.
"I thought he threw the ball extremely well," manager Jim Leyland said. "His command wasn't as good as it has been."
He isn't going to judge a pitcher on one outing, not with two weeks of games left. He's making a point to watch every outing of each candidate. To that end, he'll spend his afternoon of the Tigers' lone off-day of the spring Thursday watching rising prospect Drew Smyly pitch in a Minor League game across the street at the Tigertown complex. And instead of watching Justin Verlander pitch in Lakeland on Sunday, he'll be with the other Tigers split-squad in Tampa to watch Duane Below face the Yankees.
"If Below's pitching, I've got to be there," Leyland said. "I'm going over [to Tigertown on Thursday] because Smyly's pitching, and I should be there. I'm seeing them all. It works out good. Nobody can say that the manager didn't see him or wasn't there when they pitched. It works out perfect that I'm getting to see them."
Even with an open mind, Leyland also isn't going to like a pitcher who can't throw strikes consistently. His point for judgment, which he has mentioned for years now, is to look at how a pitcher retires hitters when he has to throw pitches in the strike zone.
When Oliver did it in the right situations, he was effective, especially with his slider. Those situations didn't come often enough Wednesday.
Oliver needed just 11 pitches to retire the Twins in order in the first inning before Danny Valencia laced Oliver's first pitch of the second into right field for a single. Oliver missed the strike zone on his next six pitches, walking Ryan Doumit and getting a 2-0 count on Luke Hughes.
After pitching coach Jeff Jones told him to slow down, Oliver battled back to a full count with fastballs, two of which Hughes fouled back. On the payoff pitch, Oliver challenged Hughes with a slider, the big swing and miss pitch for him this spring, and paid for it with a three-run homer.
"It went to 3-2 and I threw him a slider, which I left a little bit too up," Oliver said.
Oliver settled in from there with strikes and quick outs. He erased a leadoff walk in the third with the double play from Valencia. He started off the fourth with an easy comebacker from Doumit, then had an 0-2 count from Hughes.
The young lefty threw his next eight pitches for balls -- sliders and fastballs alike. When he lost his rhythm, he struggled to find it, and slowing down didn't help.
Another walk to Alexi Casilla ended Oliver's afternoon. An unofficial count had him at 62 pitches on the day -- 31 strikes, 31 balls.
Even with three runs allowed over 3 2/3 innings, it didn't make a big dent in his numbers. His ERA for the spring still stands at a strong 2.13 thanks to Adam Wilk's escape of the bases-loaded jam Oliver left. But Oliver knows it's about more than that in winning a job, or simply pitching effectively.
"The biggest thing is just stop trying to be too fine with it, or I'm going to put guys on," he said.