When Lester Oliveros takes the mound there is a subtle change. He may not be the most physically imposing pitcher on the staff, he stands just a hair under six feet, but when he toes the rubber there's a shift in the game.
He has a daunting stare when reading the catchers signs. He then goes into his delivery. Once you see the ball fire from his fingers you start to feel the tide turning. With all the promotions and trades throughout the staff Oliveros is one of the lone members of the Flying Tigers that will light up the radar gun.
Oliveros has been one of the most consistent relievers for Lakeland this season. He has a 4-2 record and a 4.17 ERA. He has been racking up the strikeouts this season with 58 punch outs in 54 innings of work. He's had a few bad outings which skewed his ERA but if he can stay clear from the big inning he could be dominant.
When looking back at his last bad appearance, where he allowed five earned runs on July 23rd against Jupiter, Oliveros thought, "I got like a couple of games where I look back and just think about." He likes to use them as stepping stones how they can help. "Just keep working and think about my mistakes you know, and try to get better for the next day," he added.
In 2005 Oliveros signed with the Tigers organization out of Maracay Venezuela. After dominating the competition in his native VSL he came across the pond. "Oh yeah it's really different, it's a higher level," said Oliveros on the differences in competition in the two America's. Last season he pitched well in Oneonta and ok in his brief stint in Lakeland. Now that he has had a full season in the Florida State League he looks primed and ready to roll.
Even early in the season there were no doubts on Olivero's live arm. He routinely worked in the 92-94 mph range with both his four and two seam fastballs but can dial it up to 96 when he reaches back. However at the start of the season it didn't really seem like he had control.
In his first 30 innings this season he walked 12 batters and struck out 29. Since then he has walked just four batters in 24 innings while striking out 29. "We're very happy with his walk ratio," said Lakeland Pitching Coach Joe Coleman. There is on anomaly when Oliveros takes the mound.
Even though he has faced significantly more righties, he has walked more than twice as many left handers. Coleman notes "his two seamer, he has to learn where to start it because that pitch every once in a while against left hander's it will run off the plate," controlling the run will be the biggest factor.
If he can get the reigns brought in on his two seam fastball he will be a terror regardless of the batters stance. "Once he gets to the point on where to start it he's going to be hard to hit" gushed Coleman on the possibilities.
Judging the break on his two seamer isn't the only progress Oliveros has made this season. At the start of the season you knew a fastball was coming, his curve was used so rarely it was hardly a worry. Even when he would throw his curve he couldn't find the zone so it was an easy pitch to take. "It is getting better, I [have] more trust with my breaking pitch this year, [I'm} trying to keep it low," evaluated Oliveros on his curves progress.
His curve has always had decent depth but it would usually bounce before the batter would have a chance to swing. When it wouldn't have to be blocked it would be hit hard since it would be left up in the zone.
He now has another weapon to use to keep batters on their toes. Oliveros is starting to find the confidence in his curve that he didn't have before. "In most situations like one ball zero strike [I will throw it]" he said. Now that he has an off speed pitch he can throw for strikes he is that much more dominant.
His curve is what makes the difference in Coleman's eyes. "It's much better. He's getting to the point where he understands what he has to do to compete," said Coleman on utilizing his curve in the game. With his general control of his pitches improved, Oliveros can now focus on refining the little things.
The advice Oliveros would give the next crop of Tigers international free agents would be. "You have to keep working every day and throw a lot of strikes and down." He is trying to follow his own advice now since piitching down is the next step Oliveros has to take.
In the lower rungs of the minors and abroad you can pitch up with an outstanding fastball and get away with it. Once you matriculate into the higher ranks of baseball, pitching low in the zone becomes a necessity. When asked what the pitching instructors have been working on with him it was easy. "Working on keeping my fastball and my breaking pitch down." Like all pitchers, working low in the zone is going to be the key to his success.
Now with Scott Green on the disabled list, Brett Jacobson changing zip codes and the promotions of Robbie Weinhardt, Jared Gayhart and Brendan Wise, Oliveros is a man on an island. He is finally getting the high leverage innings where the game is on the line. Getting experience in tough outings is exactly what he needs for his progression.
"With Lester it's going to be a more of an experience thing," is what Coleman thinks will help Oliveros's improvement. Coleman added, "He has to keep going out there and pitching in different situations and just learn through experience," by succeeding in key spots will only expedite his progress, and now he finally has the opportunity.
TigsTown ranked Oliveros as the 23rd prospect in the system at the beginning of the season, clearly showing his prospect status in the organization. The question is will this season propel the 21-year old right-hander to the next challenge?
Coleman was hesitant to answer which level Oliveros might end up next season but said, "As an organization he is doing what we want him to do," which is the first task for prospects. However, Coleman continued, "if he has to start here he has to start here, but if he keeps going in the direction that he's going right now there's no reason why he couldn't end up there at some point."
If he can get his fastball down that point may come sooner than later.