By Brian Peloza, Special to the Register
Andy Oliver has been confident, emotional, and almost unhittable as a closer for the Triple-A Indianapolis Indians this season.
Nobody would have described him that way last year.
Oliver had good enough stuff to lead the International League in strikeouts last season, but command issues caused him to throw about 30 more walks than anyone else.
The former all-state pitcher at Vermilion High School was moved to the bullpen in the offseason and he took over the closer duties in June. Oliver has a 2.15 earned run average over 33 relief appearances, and has allowed just 24 hits in 46 innings.
In June, Oliver became the regular closer after being the most consistent reliever during the first two months of the season, Indianapolis pitching coach Tom Filer said. Oliver has struck out 58 batters and converted all but one of his 12 save opportunities.
The payoff for Oliver? A reinvented career that has earned him a spot on the International League’s team in Wednesday’s Triple-A All-Star game in Durham, N.C.
“I didn’t have any expectations of making the team,” Oliver said. “I didn’t know what was going on but when (the coaches) told me, I was excited and thankful. It’s exciting to be on that team.”
Oliver said he’s not sure why he’s pitching so much better as a reliever, because he did not make any significant changes to his mechanics or add any new pitches to his repertoire. The improvement may simply come from a new mentality, which has visibly shown through on occasion.
“He’s gotten pissed off a couple of times out there and been very noticeable,” Indianapolis manager Dean Treanor said. “And I like that side of him. As a starter you never really saw that from him. It’s one thing to keep your composure, but I like having an edge out there and he has an edge out there right now.”
Indianapolis catcher Tony Sanchez caught many of Oliver’s 24 starts last season and also notices a drastic change in his demeanor. Oliver second-guessed himself quite a bit last year and didn’t have full confidence he could throw his fastball for a strike, Sanchez said.
Oliver’s control problems eventually led the Detroit Tigers organization to trade him to Pittsburgh for minor league catcher Ramon Cabrera prior to the 2013 season, essentially giving up on the 2009 second-round pick. In 2012, Oliver allowed 88 walks in 118 innings with Triple-A Toledo, one year after allowing 80 walks in 147 innings during the 2011 season.
“Last year it was like, ‘Oh, well, there’s another walk,’” Sanchez said. “Or, ‘There’s another hit, well, I’ve given up plenty of those.’ Now, this year, it’s like he’s saying, ‘Nobody is touching me and nobody is supposed to be touching me because I do have lights out stuff.’”
But this season, Oliver is throwing 30 percent more strikeouts and allowing 30 percent less walks per inning pitched.Oliver’s fastball regularly reaches 95 to 96 miles per hour and Sanchez says it “explodes out of his hand,” and bears down on left-handed hitters.
“He’s a sneaky lefthander,” Indianapolis pitching coach Tom Filer said. “He’s kind of slow-moving and then, boom, the arm comes flashing through at the end.”
The difference in Oliver’s slider was immediately noticeable the first time Sanchez caught for him during spring training.
“It caught me off-guard because of how sharp it was and what I remembered it being last year,” Sanchez said. “I remember it just kind of rolling in there with maybe 3 to 4 inches of movement. This year it’s 6 to 12 inches, wipeout, swing-and-miss slider stuff.”
The resurgence is coming none too soon for Oliver. The Pirates took Oliver off its 40-man roster during the offseason. That means he will be a free agent at the end of the season if not added back onto the 40-man roster, but that could be a distinct possibility. .
“I think (management) needed to see some things from him this year and he’s shown them,” Treanor said. “He’s now shown them that he’s a valuable asset and I won’t be surprised at all if he goes back on the roster and goes to Pittsburgh. The way he’s throwing the ball, he can help them up there.”
The Pirates are currently 49-46 at the All-Star break, just 3 ½ games out of first place in the National League Central. However, Pittsburgh's bullpen has had its issues, with 15 blown saves and the fourth-most innings pitched. Should the Pirates look internally for bullpen relief, Oliver could be a candidate.
The organization was not ready to give up on the 26-year-old, otherwise they would have released him instead of just taking him off the 40-man roster, Treanor said.
“Sometimes you will say about someone that you know it’s in there but for some reason it doesn’t come out,” Treanor said. “But now he’s showing everybody that it’s still in there. He’s not that old and you can still talk about a ceiling with him and he’s pushing that ceiling higher.”