Name: Matt Olson
Height/Weight: 6’5’’, 235
How Acquired: Selected by the A’s in the supplemental first round of the 2012 draft
In 2011, the Oakland A’s top prospect was a tall first baseman with plus power. That prospect took a little time to mature as a major-league player, but Chris Carter has now hit 82 homeruns over the past two-and-a-half major league seasons. With the off-season trade of shortstop Daniel Robertson, the A’s once again have a tall, power-hitting first baseman at the top of their prospect list. Matt Olson shares a number of characteristics with Carter, but there are a few signs that Olson could be an even more valuable big league player when all is said and done.
Olson was the A’s third overall pick in the 2012 draft. That season, the A’s had three first-round draft selections and they used all three on high school players. The first two players picked were shortstops Addison Russell and Daniel Robertson. Olson went in the Compensation A round, and the A’s received that pick for their ‘failure’ to sign free agent David DeJesus. All three of the A’s 2012 first-round picks are currently in Scout.com’s top-100 MLB prospects list, although only Olson remains in the A’s organization.
The A’s signed Olson to a bonus worth a little more than $1 million. Olson turned down an opportunity to play at Vanderbilt to turn pro with the A’s. The Georgia native spent most of his professional debut season with the Arizona Rookie League A’s. Olson showed impressive power during the AZL, hitting eight homeruns and slugging .520. However, he struck-out 46 times in 46 games and walked only 16 times. Olson earned a promotion to short-season Vermont for the final week of the regular season and he reached base six times in 11 games and homered once.
The A’s felt that Olson’s poor strikeout-to-walk ratio during his pro debut was more of a function of him pressing to show what he could do after being selected so high in the draft rather than a sign that he had poor pitch recognition or approach. A’s coaches liked Olson’s swing coming out of high school and they spent the fall Instructional League working with him on being able to use the whole field and on understanding how different pitchers were attacking him.
After a productive Instructs and a solid spring, Olson was assigned to Low-A Beloit. Only 19 for most of the season, Olson held his own in a league that can be tough on hitters. He hit his stride in August, when Olson clubbed 10 of his 23 homers. He finished the year with a .225/.326/.435 line with those 23 homers and 93 RBI.
"Matt Olson fits that mold of a Kent Hrbek who can do a lot of different things." - Billy Owens, A's Director of Player Personnel
Although Olson had solid numbers for a teenager in the Midwest League, there was a sense that he was capable of much more. Olson worked during that fall’s Instructional League and the subsequent spring training on his plate coverage and going with the outside pitch instead of rolling over on it. After a bit of a slow start to his 2014 season with High-A Stockton, Olson’s hard work began to pay off.
In April, Olson hit .214/.342/.408. He wouldn’t have another full month with an OBP lower than .388 or a slugging percentage lower than .519 the rest of the 2014 season. Olson also posted batting averages of .250 or higher in every subsequent month but one. Olson would finish the California League season with a slashline of .262/.404/.543. He led the league in games played (138), runs scored (111), homeruns (37), total bases (278) and walks (117). He was third in the minor leagues in homeruns and he led all minor leaguers in walks.
Olson was one of the A’s Arizona Fall League representatives, and he had an excellent AFL season before injuring his right shoulder during a collision at first base. In 35 at-bats, Olson homered four times and added a double and a triple. He also walked 10 times and posted a .257/.447/.686 line.
Former A’s minor league hitting coordinator and current assistant hitting coach Marcus Jensen believes Olson is just starting to get a full sense of what kind of hitter he can be as a professional.
“Matt has big potential. He’s a big guy [Olson is 6'5'', 235 pounds] and this year was kind of indicative of the power potential that he has,” Jensen said. “He showcased that last year and he just continued with that this year. Just learning who he is, especially for a young player transitioning into pro ball, it takes a few years to get an understanding and a feel for who you are. He will still be learning and trying to gain an understanding, but Matt has kept learning and kept getting better. This year was just a stepping-stone for him from last year. He continued to improve and had the great season that he did.”
Jensen, who is 6’4’’ himself, worked closely with Olson over the past three years on his using his leverage to generate power. Jensen says that despite Olson’s length, his natural swing is short.
“Everyone is different in the sense that tall hitters have more length,” Jensen said. “People see size and they see body type and they immediately equate that to power and to leverage, which is true, but how you are able to get to that leverage is the most challenging part with tall hitters.
“He came in with a short swing that transferred over into pro ball pretty well. It was just a matter of having him understand his length and, I guess more importantly, was understanding the strike-zone and what balls he could handle and controlling the strike-zone. We did talk a little bit about the physicalities of being a taller hitter and creating leverage that way, but he already came in with some intangibles and awareness when it came to his length.”
Although Olson’s swing isn’t particularly long, he will still likely be vulnerable to strike-outs throughout his career, especially against pitchers who can tie him up inside. He struck-out 137 times last season. Olson is a patient hitter who works deep into counts and isn't afraid to hit with two-strikes, a trait that will naturally lead to striking out a fair amount, as well as drawing a lot of walks. He is the type of hitter who rarely misses a mistake, and his ability to work deep into counts allows him more opportunities to get a mistake pitch. Olson has the kind of power that allows him to reach the seats to any part of the field. Although still predominantly a pull-power hitter, Olson did leave the park to the opposite field six times last year. He also went straight up the middle on a regular basis last season.
Olson’s high homer-high walk-high strikeout statline might bring back memories of former A’s players Jack Cust and Carter. Unlike both of those prospects, Olson has ability to offer with the glove, as well as the bat. He is an above-average defender at first base and should be an asset at the position in the major leagues. Olson doesn’t have much foot speed, but he is a deceptively good athlete. He also has excellent instincts in the field. Olson was a two-way player in high school and he has a strong throwing arm. The A’s gave him a few opportunities in the outfield last season, and he will likely continue to get reps in the corner spots this season. Being able to play in right or left, in addition to first base, will make Olson’s path to the big leagues much easier.
The A’s rave about Olson’s work ethic. The injury Olson sustained during the Arizona Fall League could have continued to sideline him through the early weeks of spring training. Olson worked diligently to rehab the shoulder to get to full strength before the start of camp. The A’s rewarded Olson’s rehab efforts (and his outstanding 2014 season) with his first invitation to big league spring training.
Oakland A’s Director of Player Personnel Billy Owens compares Olson to former Minnesota Twins star Kent Hrbek, who had a 14-year career in the big leagues and a .282/.367/.481 line. Hrbek was also an excellent defensive first baseman.
“[Olson] eats, drinks and sleeps baseball,” Owens said. “He is a smart kid. His father played college baseball. His brother played in the Ivy League [pitcher at Harvard]. Matt was signed to Vanderbilt. Matt has baseball in his genes.
“Matt Olson fits that mold of a Kent Hrbek who can do a lot of different things. At first base, he is as good a defensive first baseman as there is in minor league baseball. This guy can do something spectacular at first base every night, whether it is a 3-6-3 slick double-play, or ranging on a pop-up that you don’t believe most first basemen can make. The agility at first base is spectacular. And he’s a good enough athlete that he has played a couple of games in right field and left field.”
Any power-hitting first base prospect in the A’s system will be compared to Carter, who was the A’s best power prospect over the past 10 years. Carter played for High-A Stockton at age 21, one year older than Olson was with the Ports last year. Like Carter, Olson had fairly even platoon splits in the California League. Carter hit two more homeruns than Olson with the Ports, but he walked only 77 times (versus 117 for Olson) and struck-out 156 times (against 137 for Olson). Carter put together his best season as a pro the next year with Double-A Midland, when he hit .337/.445/.576 for the RockHounds and earned the Texas League MVP as a 22-year-old.
It remains to be seen whether Olson can come anywhere close to that kind of season with Midland, but there is reason to believe that Olson will ultimately be a better overall player than Carter at the big-league level. Carter never put much work into his defense, and his lack of ability with the glove kept him from grabbing hold of a big league opportunity sooner than he did. Olson will face a significant test in 2015 in the Texas League. Many A’s power prospects have struggled to put up good numbers with Midland, with the notable exception being Carter in 2009. It wouldn’t be surprising to see Olson’s homerun totals go down in 2015, but if he continues to be selective at the plate and to work on going the other way on outside pitches, he should still put up solid overall numbers. Olson will turn 21 during the final weekend of March. He is on pace to be knocking on the door of the big leagues before his 23rd birthday.