With the Oakland Athletics focused on a new ballpark and a roster rebuild, not a lot has been written nationally about the on-field performance of the current A’s roster. While the team hasn’t played well this year, there have been a few bright spots, especially young position players. One is first baseman Matt Olson, who ranks third on the team in WAR (2.4) according to Baseball-Reference, despite playing in only 53 games so far this season.
On Monday, I realized that Olson was closing in on an interesting milestone – with three more home runs, he would reach the 20-homer plateau in both the major leagues and the minor leagues in the same season.
A few hours after I sent out that tweet, Oakland A’s PR stats wiz Mike Selleck took my thought one step further.
Olson added another home run on Wednesday, giving him 18 in just 50 games with the A’s this season and pulling him within two of the 20-20 milestone. He hit 23 in 79 games with Triple-A Nashville earlier in the year.
It appears that Olson won’t be alone in chasing this unusual “first.” Philadelphia Phillies phenom Rhys Hoskins is two home runs from reaching the 20-homer plateau in the big leagues after hitting 29 in 115 games in Triple-A. Hoskins’ season has been incredible, and he has rightfully received significant national attention. However, Olson’s season has been just as amazing.
To put what Olson is doing in context, Hoskins has 47 homers in 511 at-bats between Philadelphia and Lehigh Valley (11.1 AB/HR); Olson has 41 homers in 448 at-bats (10.9 AB/HR). Olson is a full year younger than Hoskins and has played above-average defense at first base. In the American League, only Aaron Judge has a higher OPS than Olson among rookies.
Olson’s remarkable power output is even more impressive because he spent so much of the first half of the season going back and forth between Triple-A and the big leagues. From April 21 until the A’s traded Opening Day starting first baseman Yonder Alonso on August 8, Olson took six trips between the big leagues and Triple-A. He played in only 18 games during those six early-season stints with the A’s. Since Alsono was traded, Olson has appeared in 31 games. He is batting .311/.383/.728 with 14 home runs in 103 at-bats in those 31 games.
Olson’s emergence this season comes on the heels of a disappointing 2016 season, when he hit .235/.335/.422 in 131 games with Triple-A Nashville as a 22-year-old. He then collected only three hits in 21 September at-bats with the A’s.
Beaten by fastballs during his big league stint, Olson worked with Oakland hitting coaches to make a change with his setup at the plate. The tweak was designed to get his bat to the ball quicker without giving up the power his swing generates. The adjustment, which involved lowering his hands, has made a significant difference for Olson this season.
“It gives him a cleaner and more direct path to the ball,” A’s Triple-A hitting coach Eric Martins said. “He’s got a longer swing by nature and when his hands were higher and a little bit more traditional, it would create more length and an inconsistent path to the ball. Moving his hands just simplified the path to the ball and he’s more direct.”
Martins said Olson’s adjustment also gave him a mental boost at the plate.
“He’s a lot more confident and doesn’t feel like he needs to cheat to catch up to good fastballs on the inner half,” Martins said. “He’s known for his power, but I think he can be good hitter as well. He uses the field extremely well and has power the other way, even though he’s been pulling a lot of his homers lately. Add his good plate discipline and good eye, I think he’s headed in the right direction.”
In 2016, Olson faced extreme pull shifts nightly in the Pacific Coast League. He hit only .218 with a .718 OPS before the PCL All-Star Game. During the second half, Olson focused on using the whole field and his numbers improved considerably (.263 BA/.820 OPS). In addition to the change in his setup, Olson carried that up-the-middle mindset into 2017.
During his Triple-A stint, Olson pulled the ball only 37.9 percent of the time he put a ball in play. As Martins indicated, Olson has been more likely to pull the ball since he returned to the big leagues. With the A’s, his pull percentage is 47.2 percent through Wednesday. While still relatively high, 47.2 would be the lowest pull percentage Olson has posted since 2014, when he hit 37 homers in the California League (his previous season-high). Not surprisingly, Olson is hitting for the highest average of his career, with a .272 mark in Triple-A and a .273 mark with the A’s thus far.
Whether Olson can sustain a respectable batting average remains to be seen, although it may not matter given his ability to post strong OBPs even when he hits for a low average. Olson is a fly ball hitter whose BABIP has cracked .300 in a full season just once. With the A’s this year, Olson’s fly ball tendencies aren’t hurting his batting average because so many of those fly balls are leaving the park. His HR/FB rate was 38.3 percent through Wednesday, which probably isn’t sustainable. Through Wednesday, Giancarlo Stanton led all qualified MLB hitters with a 33.8 percent HR/FB rate.
Olson’s big test will come next year when teams start focusing their pre-series scouting reports on him. However, with his minor league history of patience and power and his track record of making successful adjustments, he looks like a player the A’s can count on to be a force in the middle of their lineup for years to come.
By Melissa Lockard