Big things were expected this season out of Oakland A's first-base prospect Matt Olson after an outstanding 2014 campaign at High-A Stockton. With the Ports, Olson hit 37 homers and drove in 97 runs and he had a 947 OPS.
The momentum continued into this spring, as Olson’s first taste of Double-A ball was about as good as he could have hoped for. He got off to a great start in Midland by slashing .273/.430/.606 with six homers and 16 RBIs during the month of April.
“A lot of these places in this league, the ball doesn’t carry too well to right so I’ve gotten pounded hard-in a lot this year. Then they’ll go soft away and when they go hard away, they’re trying to get me to chase and roll over one out there. It’s pretty uniform in the way they’re pitching against me.” - Matt Olson
But the 2012 compensation-round pick soon found himself in a two-month slump that would plague him through the mid-point of the season. This summer has served as a learning process for Olson, who has battled through adverse hitting conditions at his home ballpark.
“You’ve kind of got to pick and choose [what you want to accomplish],” said Olson, who is batting .240/.376/.415 through 118 games. “You don’t want to change your approach, but at the same time it’s a good time to work on other stuff. I have a naturally high trajectory, as far as my swing hitting fly balls. I’m getting to know myself better as a player and that’s the main focus.
“I’m picking and choosing – sometimes I go for low line drives or whatever it may be because they play better in this league. At the same time, if I hit one up in the wind and it gets caught, I can’t beat myself up about it. I’ve got to take it, mark it in my head that it may have been a double or home run if it were in another park. Midland plays pretty tough with the wind, so you’ve got to take it for what it is.”
Since he approached 40 homers in his second full professional season at Stockton, Olson has seen his power numbers dip significantly with the RockHounds. He enters play Friday with just 14 homers and 66 RBIs, while his OPS has trended downward from 947 a year ago to 791 in 2015. Olson's doubles rate is up, however, as he has already matched his 2014 season total (31) in 20 fewer games.
One thing that hasn’t left Olson’s game is plate discipline. He is still drawing walks at a high rate and hasn’t abandoned his patient approach in search of more home runs. However, on the other hand, his strikeout totals have slightly ticked upward as he has 128 through 118 games.
“T[he strikeouts] are still pretty high, but I’m getting to know myself better as far as what I can and can’t do,” Olson said. “I’m getting better as a hitter by understanding myself and what the pitchers are trying to do to me.
“A lot of these places in this league, the ball doesn’t carry too well to right so I’ve gotten pounded hard-in a lot this year. Then they’ll go soft away and when they go hard away, they’re trying to get me to chase and roll over one out there. It’s pretty uniform in the way they’re pitching against me.”
Pitchers clearly got the better of Olson after that solid first month, as he posted batting averages of .200 and .208 in May and June, respectively, and combined for just a pair of homers and 21 RBIs. He rebounded with four homers in July, but Olson still wasn’t where he wanted to be.
“I hit the reset button at the start of August,” he said. “I wanted to treat this last month and a half as a new season. I wasn’t having a spectacular year up until then and wanted to drop the rest of it, finish up strong and kind of sat back and relaxed. I’ve been putting together some better games.”
What happens in the batter’s box hasn’t been the only thing weighing on Olson. For the first time in his professional career, he has moved off of first base and played outfield for a good share of Midland’s games. Manager Ryan Christensen sought out upper management’s blessing to give Olson time in the outfield. The move was designed to add some versatility to Olson’s game and also to give corner infielders Renato Nunez and Ryon Healy places to play every day.
“I’ve probably played half of my games this year in the outfield,” Olson said. “It started when a couple guys were hurt and they needed someone to fill in out there. I did it for about nine or 10 games last year in a similar situation. Ryan has always said that he thought I could play out there, but never really got the green light from the people in the front office. They finally gave him the green light and I’ve felt comfortable out there.”
Even with Olson’s struggles this summer, Midland has gone on a remarkable second-half run and is in first place in the Texas League’s South Division at 36-17. Once Nunez (hamstring) returns to the lineup (likely next week), Olson will probably shift back to the outfield, giving the RockHounds a more formidable offense.
Olson has been a part of consecutive playoff runs with Stockton in 2014 and Beloit in 2013, so making another run in September has fueled him to improve personally.
“I haven’t been part of a team that’s won it all yet, and this is one of the most talented teams that I’ve been a part of,” he said. “The pitching staff has been great and I look at our lineup and don’t see anybody that’s in there that the pitcher can relax with. Hopefully we’re prepped to make a big run.”