Jared Oliva isn’t your ordinary prospect. Unlike most of his peers, he wasn’t the best player on his teams growing up. Nor was he the second-best, or even the third-best. As a matter of fact, he barely got off the bench. The 24-year-old outfielder — No. 9 on our Pittsburgh Pirates Top Prospects list — never started a game in high school.
Bloodlines certainly weren’t the problem; his father and uncle both played professionally. Work ethic and aptitude weren’t issues, either. Oliva was simply a late-bloomer who had the misfortune of playing at a prep powerhouse; his teammates at Valencia High School included Keston Hiura.
A certain amount of envy was inevitable.
“Seeing some of my friends committing to big-time Division-1 schools, I was questioning my [future],” admitted Oliva. “Maybe not questioning — I believed in myself — but you do get a little jealous when you see guys move forward in their baseball careers, and you’re sitting there thinking, ‘That’s what I want to do; how do I do it?’”
Oliva had played some travel ball, but again, he’d been a benchwarmer on his high school squad. It’s understandable that recruiters weren’t clamoring for his services. Recognizing that, Oliva proactively emailed a plethora of programs throughout the country. Only a handful responded, and the messages were uniformly a version of, “Thanks for reaching out, but we’re good with our recruiting class.”
There was one notable exception. Shaun Cole, an assistant coach at the University of Arizona, replied in hope-raising fashion. A phone conversation followed, as did an invitation to a camp. That led to an offer — “no guarantees” — to walk on to the team the following year.
“Somehow, some way, they gave me an opportunity,” said Oliva. “They were coming off winning a championship [in 2012], so they could have gotten pretty much anyone. Why would they want to bring in a high school backup?”
In the background, a scandal was unfolding. As Oliva was matriculating to Arizona, his high school coach was being accused of embezzlement. Jared Snyder would later plead guilty to stealing more than $14,000 from Valencia’s baseball program.
Oliva red-shirted his first year at Arizona. A business major — he went on to earn a marketing degree — Oliva hit the weight room hard after arriving on campus. The strength he gained paid dividends. When the following season rolled around, the Saugus, California native found himself in an unfamiliar spot.
“It was the first time I’d started in five years,” explained Oliva. “In high school, I wasn’t starting at all, and all of a sudden I’m in the lineup for a Pac-12 team. I’m playing left field on opening night and thinking, ‘Man, this is crazy.’”
Several of his Valencia teammates advanced to the collegiate level as well, and a few are now in the minor leagues. And while Hiura has outshone them all, it’s notable that none of the outfielders who started ahead of Oliva in high school have matched his accomplishments. None of the three went on to be drafted by an MLB team.
Oliva didn’t thrive as a Wildcat until his draft year. He didn’t play full-time as a freshman, and his sophomore season line was an uninspiring .239/.294/.380. A career-altering discovery came during his penultimate college campaign.
“In 2016, I was talking to our head coach, Jay Johnson, and to our hitting coach, Marc Wanaka,” Oliva explained. “I’d been taking fastballs right down the middle — not pulling the trigger — and also chasing some stuff in the dirt. They were like, ‘Hey, just out of curiosity, which is your dominant eye?’ I was like, ‘I don’t really know.’ So we did a test and found out.”
Oliva learned that he is right eye dominant, and being a right-handed hitter he “kind of had to turn [his] head around toward the pitcher to see the ball better.” As a result, he was turning his shoulders during his load, causing his head to move and his “vision to get cut off.” Opening up helped alleviate that problem. As the young outfielder put it, “It’s amazing what happens when you start seeing the ball better.”
Oliva went on to slash .321/.385/.498 as a junior. Enamored, the Pirates selected the former high school backup in the seventh round of the 2017 draft.
The 6-foot-3, 205-pound outfielder heard a variety of comps during his college days. The most common was Drew Stubbs. More recently, he’s heard Bryan Reynolds. And while he doesn’t like to compare himself to other players, he does acknowledge the similarities. Along with having much the same build, Oliva and Reynolds share flatter-plane, line-drive strokes, above-average speed (Oliva swiped 36 bases last year), and emerging power. The last of those three is what he described as his “next step in the baseball maturity.”
Oliva went yard six times with Double-A Altoona last summer, which evokes a numerical comparison to the Pirates’ current left fielder. Reynolds homered seven times with Altoona just two years ago, then emerged to hit 16 home runs in his rookie season in Pittsburgh. Thanks in part to minor mechanical adjustments, Oliva feels he’s on target to do the same.
“We’re watching a lot of video and from there trying to see how efficiently I can move my body,” said Oliva, who has added roughly 10 pounds of muscle to his frame. “We’re analyzing things from the ground up. A big thing has been making my gather, my leg kick, go into my body a little bit more. Previously, it was almost like my lower half and upper half were two different parts trying to work together. Now we have them a little more synced up.”
Even if the power doesn’t fully unfold, his overall package has him seemingly bound for the big leagues. As Eric Longenhagen wrote in Oliva’s prospect profile, “on-base ability and speed might enable him to be a center field regular.”
For someone who couldn’t crack his high school lineup, that would qualify as quite the accomplishment. Jared Oliva is indeed unique.
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.