Andrew Oliver knows about adversity. In 2009, the NCAA ruled him ineligible at Oklahoma State because he had hired an agent to gauge his professional opportunities. Oliver sued the NCAA and won. He later was drafted for the second time when the Tigers took him in the second round in the 2009 draft. The Tigers liked the power lefty so much that they gave him a $1.495 million signing bonus, which was more than twice the amount the commissioner's office had slotted for that spot.
Now in his third professional season, he has been on the cusp of making an impact with the Tigers, but the inability to control the location of his pitches is becoming a bigger and bigger issue. His BB/9 has increased with each promotion up and year. Last year in Toledo, he walked 80 batters in 147 innings. In seven Major League games over 2010 and 2011, he walked 21 batters in 31 2/3 innings.
It all starts with the fastball. According to Brooks Baseball, Oliver threw 114 four-seam fastballs in two starts for the Tigers last season. Just 51 of them (45 percent) were strikes. The slider was better, with 77 percent being thrown for strikes, but when you can't locate your fastball, you're going to be in a lot of trouble, as Oliver often was.
Midway through Spring Training last month, Oliver was in the thick of the battle for the Tigers' fifth starter spot and seemed to have figured things out. He didn't give up a run over his first nine innings — including four innings of one-hit ball against the Mets on March 12. After Jacob Turner was shelved with arm issues, it appeared Oliver could be in the driver's seat.
But then he walked five batters in 3 2/3 innings against the Twins and the command was lost again. He gave up six earned runs against the Astros on March 27 and was optioned to Toledo a few days later.
Over the first few weeks of the Mud Hens season, things haven't gotten any better for Oliver, who has walked 16 batters in 14 1/3 innings and has posted a 6.28 ERA. The worst performance came Wednesday night, as Oliver walked seven batters and gave up seven earned runs in 4 2/3 innings.
What has made the struggles more worrisome for the Tigers is that things have continually gotten worse. As mentioned above, his BB/9 in Erie in 2010 was 2.9. He was moved up to Toledo later that year, and the BB/9 went up to 4.2. It was at 4.9 in Toledo last year and is up to 10.0 through three starts this season.
For a player who has been one of the organization's top prospects, Oliver is reaching the point where there are questions as to whether or not he will ever consistently find his control again. The Tigers can be patient, but with a farm system well-stocked with pitching prospects that are going to need innings in the upper levels, Oliver is starting to get passed in the pecking order. The decision to promote Adam Wilk to fill injured Doug Fister's role last week was just the latest example, but it's unlikely it will be the last, unless he can harness his fastball.