Longer season a trying time for Chris Oliver

There was a look in Chris Oliver’s face of a player who was frustrated and exhausted as he walked off Bowman Field on Friday afternoon following pitchers conditioning drills.

But it wasn’t just having to run the length of the outfield warning track a half-dozen times that had the Williamsport Crosscutters’ pitcher looking tired. It’s been a long season. And in his first summer as a professional baseball player, it’s been a tough season for the Philadelphia Phillies’ fourth-round pick out of the University of Arkansas.

He’s thrown more innings this year than he’s ever thrown after a spring as the Razorbacks’ Sunday starter. And on top of those innings, Oliver has struggled with his command like he never has before. It’s been a long, draining summer for Oliver.

“It’s a combination of getting accustomed to new stuff, the Phillie way. And physical exhaustion is a little bit of it,” Oliver said. “I’m just going to keep grinding it out for the next month and keep progressing.”

It’s been a grind for Oliver since he arrived in Williamsport about a month ago. His two-inning outing during the opener of the Cutters’ doubleheader against Connecticut was maybe the best of his four outings this year with Williamsport. It was an outing Oliver described as, “Not my best, not my worst.”

But it was definitely a step forward for a pitcher who has averaged 10.1 walks per nine innings since signing with the Phillies in June for a reported $550,000 signing bonus. Command has been the issue for the hard-throwing Oliver since he signed. He’s had only one walk or fewer in his six appearances as a professional between the Gulf Coast League Phillies and the Crosscutters.

Oliver was described by Baseball America as a potential second-round pick prior to the draft because his stuff was so good. And he was considered a steal when the Phillies were able to draft him in the fourth round.

But that great stuff has been both a blessing and a curse since he signed. He’s struggled with the release point of his fastball leading to many of his command issues. It’s something he and Cutters pitching coach Aaron Fultz have had many discussions about since coming to Williamsport. But because his stuff is so good, when his release point is off he either gets more run on his two-seam fastball or more cut into left-handed hitters.

“That’s what happened (Thursday),” Oliver said. “When I’m throwing to lefties, I usually throw a two-seamer that runs away. (Thursday) I threw that two-seamer to lefties and missed the outside corner quite a bit. Right now I’m cutting it and pulling off of it and it’s got a tail on it, which isn’t a bad thing. Usually I just throw a four-seam fastball at 94, 95 miles an hour. Right now, I just don’t have it in me. Your arm wears down after a while.”

Oliver sat 90-92 during his outing Thursday night, topping out at 94, which he said is fine, but it takes making some adjustments to pitch with a new velocity.

“It’s still firm, and I’ll be working with it for the next month,” Oliver said. “I just got to keep grinding every day.”

But Oliver admitted that while he feels strong and his arm feels fine, he’s probably dealing with some fatigue which may be playing a part in his troubles. He began to experience some of the command issues late in the season at Arkansas.

He threw 93 1/3 innings for the Razorbacks in his first year as a starting pitcher. That came a year after throwing a combined 34 innings as a closer and late-inning pitcher between his season at Arkansas and in the Cape Cod League. As a freshman, he threw only 16 1/3 innings out of the bullpen at college. With his 13 1/3 innings as a professional, Oliver has already thrown 106 2/3 innings this year.

His walk rate has never been as bad as it is right now, leading to some of his frustration. Prior to Thursday’s outing, Oliver had walked five in a three-inning outing against Staten Island, and three against both Auburn and Vermont in 4 2/3 innings.

“I’m just having trouble finding the zone right now,” Oliver said. “I don’t know if it’s from the amount of innings or what it is. I feel fine. My body’s alright, my arm feels good.”

He reiterated that his stuff has been good. He’s not planning on changing any of his three pitches – fastball, curveball, change-up – and instead he’s going to refine what he has. And that’s all going to start with his fastball command.

“What I’m working on is just backspinning the ball through the zone,” Oliver said. “I’m not worried about the off-speed stuff. The fastball is what I have to stay consistent with, and that’s what I have to find.”