With Rick Porcello demoted to Triple-A, the Tigers are turning to another young arm to fill his spot this week, 2009 second round pick Andy Oliver. You may or may not know about Oliver’s plight with the NCAA, which essentially disqualified him from playing at Oklahoma State after he used an agent to negotiate a contract with the Twins when they drafted him out of high school in 2006. All of that is behind him now, and just 14 starts into his professional career, he’s a big leaguer.
Aggressive promotions and the Tigers are nothing new. Aside from Porcello, remember that Justin Verlander make a pair of July starts in 2005, barely more than a year after they made him the second overall pick in the 2004 draft. He then joined the rotation full-time in 2006. Clearly, the team will not hesitate pushing a young player if they believe he’s the best option.
Baseball America rated Oliver as the team’s fourth best prospect coming into the season, noting that he pitches “at 92-94 mph and occasionally reaching the upper 90s,” but his array of secondary pitches (two-seamer, slider/cutter, curveball) all need work. Power lefties are a rare breed, hence the high draft selection and $1.495M signing bonus.
Assigned to Double-A to begin 2010, Oliver has has performed admirably in his young pro career, holding opponents to a .253 AVG against (lefties .242), striking out 8.1 men per nine and limiting the walks to just 2.9 per. MinorLeagueSplits.com has him at 39.3% ground balls, 16.3% line drives, 38.5% fly balls, and what strikes me as an absurdly high percentage of infield flies at 19.1%. Nothing too out of the ordinary there, a rock solid performance. If you want to nitpick, Oliver is perhaps giving up a few more homers (0.81 HR/9) than you’d like to see from a pitcher with his stuff and pedigree, but that’s not an awful rate.
The Tigers are marching him out there against the lefty heavy Braves on Friday, though they are a good fastball hitting team (0.59 wFB/C, fourth best in baseball). Chances are this is just a one or two start cameo, similar to Verlander half a decade ago, but I like the matchup this week. Granted, Atlanta looks as if they’ll never lose again, but they’ve never seen Oliver before and his stuff is good enough that smoke and mirrors won’t be needed. It’s a risky play, but the good news is that you have three more days to see what kind of shape your pitching is in before deciding whether to go for it or not. If you can risk some ERA and WHIP in favor of strikeouts and a possible win, then I see be bold and go for it.