Matt Olson epitomizes power and patience. The 20-year-old Oakland Athletics prospect leads the California League in home runs (36) and walks (116). Playing first base for the Stockton Ports, he has a .260/.403/.540 slash line going into the final two days of the minor league season.
Olson has fanned 136 times, but he projects as more than an all-or-nothing slugger. Drafted 47th overall in 2012 out of a Georgia high school, Olson has a smooth left-handed stroke and an advanced approach for someone yet to take his first legal drink. The former Parkview prep acknowledges his pop, but temperance is his M.O.
In the opinion of Stockton manager Ryan Christenson, Olson “is a very patient hitter” and “has done a better job of refining his strike zone and isn’t missing his pitch when he’s getting it, which is why his power numbers have spiked.” The young longball specialist isn’t letting his moon shots go to his head.
“I don’t look at myself as a power hitter, but I’m going to get that label because of the power numbers,” said Olson. “I have that capability, but I’m just trying to put up good ABs and if I get a pitch in my zone, I put a good swing on it. I’m not necessarily set on one specific pitch, but I’m also not up there whaling at everything.”
Christenson was Olson’s manager in low-A Beloit last year, where the youngster hit .225 and finished second in the Midwest League in home runs (23) and strikeouts (148). This season Christensen is seeing a player who is a year older and wiser, and doing a better job handling the inside fastball. According to scouts, Olson has struggled when busted inside.
“When he gets his hands buried behind him a little bit he can be susceptible to that pitch,” acknowledged Christenson. “When he goes into funks he does have some holes. But he’s done a good job of recognizing what pitchers are trying to do to him, and he’s made an adjustment to where he’s done some pretty good damage on that pitch this year.”
Olson feels he’s made great strides toward closing the hole.
“Last year I had a little issue getting into that inside fastball, but I worked on that during the offseason,” said the 6-foot-4 slugger. “Obviously, good pitches are going to beat me here and there, but I don’t think there’s one specific pitch that’s going to get me every single time.
“Being a tall guy, whenever you get any sort of length to your swing… I’ve got longer limbs, so it’s tougher to stay inside that ball. Keeping a consistent, short swing is probably what I struggle with the most. I’d like to think it’s gotten more compact and direct to the ball, but at times there’s length. I try to keep those times down as much as possible.”
Olson also wants to keep his punch-outs down, but that doesn’t mean he’s going to compromise his long game. He knows the A’s didn’t draft a 235-lb first baseman to play small ball.
“I think everyone cares about their strikeouts, but the subject hasn’t really come up as a red flag,” said Olson. “I’d like to cut down on them, but there’s only so much I can do. I’ve thought about, and worked with, changing my swing on two strikes, but sometimes it feels less accurate when you change your swing, if that makes sense. I have had some high strikeout numbers, so it’s still a process for me.”
Olson admits the California League has inflated his power numbers. He insists it hasn’t impacted his approach. He says he concentrates on staying within himself and if the ball leaves the yard, the ball leaves the yard. His opposite-field shots tend to be of the line-drive variety, while most of his home runs to the pull side are fly balls.
“When I fully get a ball with my natural swing arc, a home-run-type result is definitely something that happens often,” Olson said. “But I don’t get caught up in trying to hit them. If you watch my batting practice, you’ll see it’s nothing special. I’m trying to work the gaps and hit line drives. The home runs have kind of just happened the last couple of years.”
Those last couple of years have been spent alongside an equally-promising hitter, albeit one with a dissimilar skill set. Olson and right-handed-hitting shortstop Daniel Robertson spend a lot of time discussing their craft.
“We’ve come up together and are always sharing pieces with each other,” said Olson. “We have different hitting styles, but we can pick and choose things we like about each others’ swing. If there’s something we want to try out, we either like it or dump it. It’s good to have someone to pick minds with, because I don’t think I have my swing down perfectly, by any means.”
According to his manager, he already has his defense down. Christenson said he feels Olson “might be the best fielding first baseman in the big leagues.” As for his bat, Olson may not be ready just yet, but when you lead your league in home runs and walks, you have a good chance of getting there.
When he hits them, they go a long way. A dozen of Carter’s 33 blasts have traveled at least 400 feet. His longest was a 436-foot bomb off of David Robertson at Yankee Stadium 12 days ago. There haven’t been many cheapies. All but five have gone 350 feet or farther.
Since joining the Houston Astros prior to last season, Carter has lofted 62 long balls in 927 at bats. He’s also gone down on strikes 360 times over the past two seasons, including 148 times so far this year. His 32% K-rate this year is second worst, behind only Baltimore’s Chris Davis. But it’s actually improved. In 2013, Carter fanned in 36.2% of his plate appearances.
The right-handed hitter remains an incomplete hitter. His slash line is a free-swinging, power-heavy .229/.299/.513. His K-rate has gone down and so has his walk rate, from 12% to 8.2%.
Carter claims there is no added emphasis on aggression, but rather he’s putting balls in play that he used to foul off. His main focus this year is improved pitch recognition. He said he wants to “swing at fastballs up in the zone and not breaking balls in the dirt.” He attributes his increased power numbers to not missing his pitch as often.
The 27-year-old former Athletic – Carter came to Houston as part of the five-player deal that sent Jed Lowrie to Oakland – has also worked on shortening his swing. He said he’s “not real big on mechanics, but there is a little bit of tweaking.” As for his approach, he’s not looking for wholesale changes there, either. He’s simply hunting pitches up in the zone, and when he makes solid contact, he does damage. As teammate Carlos Corporan interjected from a nearby locker, “He hurts baseballs.”
Two summers ago, I interviewed Bo Porter, who at the time was the third base coach for the Washington Nationals. It ran here at FanGraphs under the title Bo Porter, Future Big League Manager. A few months later he was hired to manage the Houston Astros.
Porter seemed a good fit at the time, and for the most part he still is. The saber-savvy 42-year-old is highly competitive but also admirably patient – an essential quality for someone piloting a young, not-ready-for-prime-time team.
The paradox is undeniable. When I talked to Porter earlier this month, it struck me more than ever that he’s caught in between. He wants to win, but despite his team’s not-as-bad-as-expected record, the Astros are far from what their promise portends.
In 2012, Porter told me “When people ask what kind of manager I’ll be, I always tell them, ‘Give me a roster and then I’ll tell you how I’m going to manage that ball club.’ Two years into his tenure at the helm in Houston, I asked what kind of manager he is today.
“I’m a manager of a very young ball club where a majority of the players are trying to establish themselves,” responded Porter. “In this situation there needs to be some type of balance. I’m getting the necessary information for ‘Can this player perform at the major-league level?’ and at the same putting the team in the best position to win ballgames. I’m managing the baseball game itself and also managing players’ emotional and psychological welfare.”
Lineup construction is a challenge. Porter expects Jon Singleton to eventually become a reliable run producer in the middle of the order, but right now he’s “a highly-talented young man learning how to hit at the major-league level.” Jose Altuve has batted lead-off in 78 games, despite a low walk-rate and subsequently an OBP only marginally higher than his batting average. Porter explained his reasoning as, “He’s our best hitter, so if anybody is going to get an extra at bat, he’s the guy I want to have that extra at bat.”
Whether Porter and Astros GM Jeff Luhnow see eye-to-eye on the majority of on-field decisions is a matter of speculation. Recent rumors suggest a disconnect, but none were apparent in my recent conversation with the Houston skipper. He told me his relationship with the front office is what he expected coming in. In Porter’s words, “My staff and I take all the information from our baseball ops and use it to the best of our ability. Every last component of that is needed to be successful.”
In December – not long after he was hired by the Seattle Mariners – Lloyd McClendon told me the biggest thing he’s learned since managing the Pittsburgh Pirates from 2001-2005 is to stand back and let his players perform. Nine months after we spoke at the winter meetings McClendon is a candidate to capture American League Manager of the Year honors.
McClendon’s wild-card-contending club was in the process of sweeping a series at Fenway Park when I revisited the conversation last weekend. He largely echoed the sentiments he shared during the winter meetings.
“Your job is to get the players ready,” McClendon opined. “I’m a lot more comfortable in my skin doing that than I was nine years ago. Once the game starts, there’s not a lot you can do. We all know when to hit-and-run or when to put a bunt on.
“If you have any sense at all, your past should prepare you for your future. Having the opportunity to manage in Pittsburgh really prepared me for this opportunity. Everybody talks about numbers and sabermetrics, and I get all of that, but what you learn more than anything is how important it is to be a people person. You manage personalities. Every day, the job of a manager is to solve problems, not just run a baseball game.”
Just how good of an in-game manager he’s been this year is a matter of opinion. Many feel he’s doing a fine job, while others remain skeptical. During our conversation, McClendon intimated he’s aware of what’s been said.
“As one of your colleagues pointed out, maybe I should be educated,” McClendon told me. “My thoughts are that I’ve had 36 years of on-field education as far as numbers are concerned.”
McClendon received a great education working under Jim Leyland in Detroit. Along with what he learned in Pittsburgh, he credits his time as the Tigers hitting coach for much of his success in Seattle. When I asked him if there have been any surprises this year, his answer was an emphatic no.
“I had a conversation with Jim, probably three months ago, and told him it’s almost scary how prepared I am this time around” said McClendon. “I realize now that he was teaching me in those eight years. I want to take the opportunity to thank him for those lessons, because I’m so prepared the second time around.”
The biggest lesson he learned from Leyland?
“Jim told me that you put guys in position to succeed, then you leave them alone,” said McClendon. “That’s what I try to do.”
David Dahl is well-positioned to succeed. The 20-year-old outfielder is the top hitting prospect in the Colorado Rockies system. Drafted 10th overall two years ago out of a Birmingham, Alabama high school, he’s rebounded nicely from a lost 2013 season in which a suspension and a hamstring injury limited him to just 10 games.
This year Dahl is back to being Dahl. His left-handed stroke has produced a .296/.333/.493 slash line between low-A Asheville and high-A Modesto. Especially impressive are his extra-base numbers. Dahl has 41 doubles, 8 triples and 14 home runs.
Elaborate answers weren’t forthcoming when I asked him how he goes about his craft. Some players think a lot about hitting: Dahl just hits.
“I try to keep my hands inside and hit a line drive somewhere,” explained Dahl. “If the pitch is away, I try to stay through it and not roll over. Outside of that, it’s kind of hard to explain, because when I’m in the box I’m not really thinking about anything. I’m just seeing the ball and hitting it.
“It doesn’t really matter who’s on the mound. Earlier this year I faced Hunter Harvey, Luis Severino, Ian Clarkin –we faced some good arms [in the South Atlantic League] – and I was just trying to see the ball out of their hands and hit it.”
Missing almost all of last year did Dahl’s development no favors, but he’s clearly back on track. It was just a matter of getting his timing back.
“At the beginning of the year I wasn’t getting ready to hit early enough,” said Dahl. “I was getting my foot down late, which was causing everything to fly open. I was getting gassed, kind of swinging and missing at a lot of fastballs that I should have hit. I think some of that was being a little rusty, but right now I feel comfortable. It was really just April and May when I wasn’t myself.”
The Joe Beimel revival is in full swing. More specifically, the 37-year-old lefthander is flummoxing hitters with mid-80s sinkers in his first big-league action since 2011. Beimel, who had Tommy John surgery two years ago, has a 2.03 ERA in 47 games out of the Seattle Mariners bullpen.
When the tattooed-and-bearded Beimel looks in the mirror he sees a LOOGY version of Jamie Moyer. When I asked him why he’s still playing, his response was a direct-and-to-the-point “I want to.” He then elaborated in classic Beimel fashion.
“I plan on pitching until I’m at least 50,” said the shaggy southpaw. “What else am I going to do? I’ll be a former player a lot longer than I’ll be a player, and I don’t see any reason I can’t do what Jamie Moyer did. He was starting games at 49 years old and getting guys out with 80 mph. I’m not down that low yet and I figure if he could go six, seven innings, I could at least come in and get one or two guys out.”
Beimel readily admits he thinks like a lefty. That includes his approach to 0-2 counts. His theory is that it’s a perfect count in which to throw strikes, as “hitters’ batting averages are very low on 0-2 counts, so why would I want to waste a pitch when there’s a chance he’s going to get himself out if I throw a strike?”
Unlike most pitchers, Beimel went right after Barry Bonds – and got him out. Bonds was just 1 for 16 off Beimel, which is a source of pride for the native of St. Mary’s, Pennsylvania.
“I was a Pirates fan as a kid,” said Beimel. “Having grown up loving the guy, and watching him play, having success against him was a pretty awesome experience. I remember there was a series we had in San Francisco and I came into a night game and struck him out on three pitches. The next day I came in again and struck him out on three pitches.
“Everybody was kind of dancing around the strike zone with him and he would just wait for a pitch. I’d go after him from the first pitch. I figured if he was going to hit me, he was going to hit me. Obviously, when you’re facing a hitter that great, there’s a lot of luck that plays into it.”
Beimel was pitching for the Dodgers when he was winning his battles with Bonds. He was also with LA when he lost a battle with a bottle at the onset of the 2006 postseason. The Dodgers were set to face the Mets and the accident – which knocked him out of the NLDS – happened in a New York barroom.
“I went out the night before an off day and was a little over-served,” admitted Beimel. “I had a few too many beverages and ended up dropping a glass. I tried to catch it and it broke in my hand. It was really stupid. It was my first chance to play in the playoffs and I messed it up for not only myself, but also for my team.
“I take responsibility for my actions and haven’t put myself in that position since. The way I look at it, if you don’t learn from your mistakes, there’s no sense being here. In a way, I’m glad it happened, because it gave me a different direction and helped me appreciate things more.”
Beimel appreciates the value of his left arm, which is why it looks distinctly different from the one hanging from his opposite shoulder. Beimel’s right arm is a colorful sleeve of tattoos that includes a lion. His pitching arm is bare.
“I figure I put my left arm through enough abuse during the season that I don’t need to have needles stuck in it,” explained Beimel. “As for [the tattoos on his right arm], I could be here all day explaining some of them. The lion… I just love lions. That’s my favorite animal.”
What if his favorite animal was a goat?
“If I loved goats, there would be a goat on there. But you don’t want to be a goat.”
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