Blue Jays converting 6-foot-10 NCAA basketball champion to pitcher

Mar 17, 2016; St. Louis, MO, USA; General view of the NCAA basketball in a net during a practice day before the first round of the NCAA men
Mar 17, 2016; St. Louis, MO, USA; General view of the NCAA basketball in a net during a practice day before the first round of the NCAA men /

Hidden away in Dunedin, Florida participating in the Toronto Blue Jays extended spring training is a recent signing unlike any other.

Tyler Olander comes to the Blue Jays a decorated NCAA athlete, having won Division One national championships in both 2011 and 2014 with the University of Connecticut before playing professionally in Lithuania and Spain.

Standing 6-foot-10, Olander immediately becomes one of the tallest players in all of professional baseball. That size was his most imposing trait with the Huskies, where he appeared in 135 games including 59 starts.

For the basketball team.

Olander had recently come to the realization that his potential in professional basketball was limited, so he decided to contact Andy Baylock, the coach of UConn’s baseball team up until 2003 who just happened to be a family friend.

Baylock and Olander have worked to build his mechanics from the ground up, and Baylock, now 77, was immediately impressed with how quickly the tall left-hander adapted. “When I saw how much he wanted this, I said, ‘I’m going to be right there with you,'” he told Dom Amore of the Hartford Courant.

After building up to pitching full bullpen sessions after Olander fully overcame a foot fracture he suffered in Spain, Baylock convinced a former player from his UConn coaching days to come take a look at his new project.

Toronto Blue Jays pitching coach Pete Walker.

“I was cautiously optimistic,” Walker told the Courant. “Because I know Andy Baylock and have so much respect for his knowledge of pitching. And I knew Tyler had played for UConn, played for Jim Calhoun, the national championships, so I knew the work ethic would be there. I was curious.”

Olander has reportedly been throwing in the mid-80s with his fastball, a number that will climb as his body familiarizes itself with the motions of the sport, and is also working on a slider. Blue Jays assistant general manager Andrew Tinnish is pleased with the raw pieces Toronto has to work with, and Walker continues to be impressed by his early reports out of Dunedin.

“When you look at his size,” Tinnish told Amore, “his athleticism, his competitiveness, the work ethic, he has a fresh arm … it’s a baseball project we were interested in. It was a low-risk, no-brainer.”

Tinish is right, given the potential upside for such a minimal investment. These “raw athlete” signings are something more familiar to the National Football League, especially with great tight ends like Tony Gonzalez or Jimmy Graham, both of whom come from basketball backgrounds.

The Blue Jays have recently signed a football player of their own in former University of South Florida quarterback Bobby Eveld (formerly a 50th round pick of the New York Mets in 2010).

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As Major League organizations work to leave no stone unturned in their search for talent, these gifted athletes from other sports with baseball in their background, most likely at a high school level, could become a more common target. All it will take is for one to hit, and there won’t be a team in baseball that doesn’t try to follow.

Olander’s maturity and mental approach on the field will be critical as the organization looks move slowly with him. He found himself as the centre of attention for the wrong reasons twice at UConn, once for an arrest in Florida for trespassing while on spring break, the other for a DUI that was eventually dropped due to a lack of evidence.

In his new baseball career, Olander is starting from scratch, relatively speaking. If all goes according to plan, he could potentially see some innings in short-season ball later this summer.