The minor league baseball regular season is drawing to an end, which means that the start of Arizona Fall League is rapidly approaching. The prospect hotbed is a fun follow not only because we get to see some of the top minor leaguers from all levels compete one against each other (like Vladimir Guerrero Jr, Forrest Whitley, Luis Robert, and Keston Hiura) but also for the chance to get a first look at what some lesser-known players can do against the strong competition on the circuit. The Milwaukee Brewers are sending eight representatives to the Fall League in 2018, and one hurler that I’ll have my eye on is right-handed reliever Jon Olczak.
The Brewers selected Olczak out of NC State in the 21st round back in 2015, Ray Montgomery’s first year back with the organization and running the draft. He missed plenty of bats and prevented runs well during his junior season, posting a 2.55 ERA with 47 strikeouts in 23 appearances and 42.0 innings, but his struggles with command led to questions about how his game would translate to the professional ranks. He issued more than six walks per nine innings during his final collegiate season for the Wolfpack, but chose to put his fate in the hands of Milwaukee’s coaching staff rather than return for his senior season and try to improve his draft stock.
It didn’t take long for Olczak to start finding the strike zone more consistently once he started getting paid to pitch. The righty immediately slashed his walk rate during his first professional season in 2015, doling out only five of them across 27.7 innings split between Milwaukee’s two rookie-level affiliates. His command hasn’t been quite that good in the years since, but he’s been able to hover in that 3.0 BB/9 range in each of the past three seasons. That is certainly a palatable number for a reliever.
If it wasn’t for the walks, batters would hardly ever reach base against Olczak. He has allowed only 7.2 hits per nine innings in the minor leagues, a number that is inflated by the 11.5 hits per nine (and .397 Batting Average on Balls in Play [BABIP]) he posted in 2017 when a lat strain limited him to 22.0 innings and diminished his overall effectiveness. This past season for the Double-A Biloxi Shuckers, batters recorded only 36 hits in 56.3 innings for an average of .180. Olczak is a fly-ball pitcher who has shown to be adept at producing pop ups; he generated infield flies at a terrific 19.4 percent rate this season and was between 24-30 percent at the lower levels.
Olczak was a revelation in the bullpen for the playoff-bound Shuckers this season, joining the team after two early-season appearances for the Class-A Advanced Mudcats. As mentioned he tossed 56.3 innings for Biloxi across 42 appearances, and in that time he yielded only a minuscule 1.44 ERA. He struck out 60 batters while issuing only 19 free passes, and only one opposing batter took him deep all season. Jon’s walks and hits per innings pitched (WHIP) was stellar at 0.977; his True Average allowed of .205 is perhaps even more impressive. Olczak’s DRA- of 73 means that Deserved Run Average views his work as 27 percent better than his Southern League cohorts this season; outside of his injury hiccups in 2017, Olczak has posted far better-than-average Deserved Run Average totals at every level he’s pitched at.
The 24 year old (25 in November) isn’t just some experienced collegiate arm using his guile to outsmart inexperienced minor league hitters, either. Olczak’s raw stuff is pretty nasty, by all accounts. Olczak has an easy, fluid delivery and releases the ball from a fairly standard high three-quarters arm slot. He can crank his fastball up to 95 MPH, but more typically sits in the 91-93 MPH range along with a sharp-breaking curveball in the high-70s MPH that flashes plus at times. He’s been known to manipulate the shape of his breaking pitch, sometimes showing batters more of a slurvy action with it.
The Brewers will have a decision to make on Jon Olczak during the upcoming offseason, as the relief ace will be Rule-5 Draft eligible for the first time. The fact that he’s solely a bullpen arm could work against him in his quest for a 40-man roster spot with Milwaukee, although there could be a better chance for Olczak now given that the org shipped out several other guys with upcoming Rule-5 decisions during their July and August trades. The statistical and scouting profiles say that Jon Olczak should be getting guys out at the game’s highest level in the near future, perhaps even as soon as next season. A strong showing in the Arizona Fall League could go a long way towards convincing the powers that be that his destiny ought to lie with the Menomonee Valley Nine.