The A’s Found Another Building Block

Oakland’s Matt Olson is hitting the ball harder than almost everybody. (Photo: Keith Allison)

A month ago, I wrote about Matt Chapman, the A’s developing star third baseman. The emergence of Chapman as a decent bat/great glove combination has dramatically changed the team’s infield, and despite only being in the big leagues for a few months, he’s pretty clearly the team’s best player right now.

But while Chapman’s emergence is the most positive development in Oakland this year, the team has added another Matt to the infield in the last month, and Matt Olson is now doing his best to make himself part of Oakland’s infield future as well.

Olson joined the team in June after terrorizing PCL pitchers for the first few months of the year, but mostly served as a pinch hitter and occasional right fielder, since Yonder Alonso was holding down the fort at first base. He got shipped back to Triple-A at the end of July, since there just wasn’t enough playing time to justify keeping him in the Majors. But when the team traded Alonso in a waiver deal, Olson returned to the big leagues on August 8th, and he hasn’t stopped mashing since.

Matt Olson, Since August 8th Recall
Season Team PA BB% K% ISO BABIP AVG OBP SLG wRC+
2017 OAK 108 7% 22% 0.408 0.279 0.306 0.370 0.714 183

Only five hitters have been better than Olson over this stretch; four of them have made All-Star teams, and Rhys Hoskins, the one who hasn’t, looks like he very well may in the future. For the last month and change, Olson has performed at an elite level.

But anyone can hit well for a month, especially when 89% of their extra base hits go over the fence. Olson’s track record isn’t that great, as he was barely an average hitter in Triple-A a year ago, and as a bat-only guy, Olson is going to have to hit a lot in order to play. So why is this not just a notable hot streak from a fringe prospect — Olson ranked just 19th on Eric Longenhagen’s preseason A’s list — and instead another encouraging development of a potential core player for the A’s?

Well, let’s start with a leaderboard.

Average Exit Velocity of 92+
Player Average EV Average FB/LD EV Batted Balls 95+
Aaron Judge 94.5 99.8 53%
Joey Gallo 92.8 99.1 54%
Nelson Cruz 92.8 98.1 48%
Miguel Sano 92.8 98.5 48%
Khris Davis 92.5 99.3 52%
Giancarlo Stanton 91.9 99.6 46%
Matt Olson 91.9 98.2 51%
Paul Goldschmidt 91.5 96.7 47%
SOURCE: Baseball Savant
Minimum 100 batted balls

By average exit velocity, Olson ranks seventh, among a bunch of other elite power hitters. In airball exit velocity, he ranks sixth, among the same group of sluggers. In percentage of batted balls hit at 95 mph or harder, he ranks fifth. And those are just his overall numbers, which include his early stints as a pinch-hitter and part-timer while waiting for a job to open up. Since being put in the line-up everyday, his average EV is 92.7 mph (4th-best) and his airball EV is 98.9 mph (3rd-best).

So Matt Olson hits the ball hard. For a power prospect, that’s obviously important, but it’s encouraging that Olson’s home run binge is supported by consistent hard contact.

Almost without fail, guys who hit the ball this hard have to sacrifice contact in order to do this level of damage when they do put the bat on the ball. And with a 27% strikeout rate, Olson certainly fits the bill of a guy with some swing-and-miss in his game. Except once he was put in the line-up regularly, that’s actually gotten better, even as he’s hit the ball harder.

Early in the year, when being used sparingly, Olson whiffed at a rate that effectively negated his power. But in August, he got that contact rate up to 70%, which is good enough for elite power to play. And then, so far in September, he’s making contact on 80% of his swings, which is almost impossible to sustain while hitting the ball as hard as Olson is hitting the ball. Remember those guys he shared the EV leaderboards with? Here are those same hitters, with their 2017 contact rate listed for reference.

Contact Rate, Elite EV Hitters
Player Average EV Contact%
Paul Goldschmidt 91.5 75%
Matt Olson 91.9 72%
Giancarlo Stanton 91.9 71%
Nelson Cruz 92.8 70%
Aaron Judge 94.5 68%
Khris Davis 92.5 68%
Miguel Sano 92.8 63%
Joey Gallo 92.8 60%

Even including his early-season struggles when used as a part-time player and pinch-hitter, Olson’s making more than enough contact to fit right into this group; as an everyday player, he’s running a contact rate better than any of them. So as a big leaguer, he’s hit the ball hard, and he’s hit the ball often enough to play like an elite slugger for a little over a month. That’s a good combination.

As mentioned, his minor league track record isn’t spotless. He hit for a bunch of power in the Cal League back in 2014, but he’s run ISOs under .200 the last two years, and his offensive game was primarily built on drawing walks, which doesn’t translate to the big leagues that well. Eric noted that his approach was too passive, and that was certainly true right after he was called up back in June. But, probably not coincidentally, his strong run of late has included a significantly more aggressive approach.

Over the last month, Olson has swung at 68% of strikes he’s been thrown, ranking 48th out of 177 qualified batters.

So, yeah, the “overly-passive, not-enough-power” scouting report feels a little outdated right now. Olson is swinging at strikes and then hitting the crap out of them. His strikeout rate over the last month is right at the league average, and his contact rate is trending upwards of late. This is the foundation of a really good hitter.

Clearly, we’re still in small sample size territory. Pitchers haven’t had time to adjust to Olson yet, and they’ll figure out some flaws in his swing, forcing him to adapt. He’s not going to keep getting 90% of his extra base hits to go for home runs. As a pull-heavy left-hander, the shift is going to keep his BABIP down. As a guy who hits the ball in the air a lot, he’s probably going to hit his fair share of infield flies. There are some legitimate downsides to his skillset too, and as a bat-first guy, if pitchers exploit his flaws, he could still end up as a platoon-guy.

But after getting eaten alive by lefties in the minors last year — he hit just .167/.262/.250 against Triple-A LHPs in 2016 — he’s hitting .258/.343/.548 against them in the majors so far this year. Last year, he struck out in 40% of his at-bats against lefties, but he’s actually posting a lower K% against lefties in the Majors than he is against RHPs. Olson doesn’t have to be great against left-handers, but just being able to have competitive at-bats against them changes his outlook significantly.

The power looks real. The strikeout rate is fine and trending towards above-average, especially for a slugger. He didn’t embarrass himself during his trial run in the outfield, and has the arm for right field, so he’s not entirely a bat-only player. And now he’s holding his own against lefties.

He doesn’t have Chapman’s upside, and he might end up being just being a similar player to his teammate Khris Davis. Davis is a nice player, not a star, and it’s reasonable to suggest that becoming an average player would still be a very good outcome for Olson.

But given where he was a few months ago, that’s a significant leap, and it’s no longer absurd to think that Olson could become more than that still. If he can make contact around 75% of the time while hitting the ball as hard as he’s been hitting the ball, well, Paul Goldschmidt’s the only other guy doing that in the big leagues right now.

A few months ago, the A’s found their third baseman of the future. This last month, they might have found their first baseman too.

We hoped you liked reading The A’s Found Another Building Block by Dave Cameron!

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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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Towel
Member
Towel

Olson has really only had one down year, last year at Nashville, a park that has so far been the most power suppressing park in the PCL and death on LHH power, it’s actually been really hard for those of us who follow Nashville hitters to judge how good they are because its so extreme compared to the rest of PCL and wrc+ isn’t park adjusted there.

Midland (and the Texas league in general) has been a lot friendlier on pitchers over the last few years, so even though Olson only slashed 249/388/438 that year it still went for a 132 WRC+

And finally, Longenhagen gave Chapman a 55 glove 60 arm and 40 speed and it may be that he just didn’t see the Oakland prospects at the right time or for long enough, but I think it’s safe to say his Oakland rankings in general are a bit wonky because 19th was just ridiculous.

MrIncognito
Member
MrIncognito

Matt “fastest 3B in baseball” Chapman with 40 speed eh? A good study might be to look at speed in scouting reports and compare them to statcast foot speed data. Speed can be measured with a stopwatch, so you would think scouting a player would include timing them down the line. It would be interesting to rank the integrity of scouting reports based on comparison to empiric measures by statcast once players make the show.