Name: Matt Olson
Height/Weight: 6’5’’, 230
How Acquired: Selected in the compensation A round in the 2012 MLB Draft
There is no question that the 2015 season was a learning year for Matt Olson. The A’s pre-season top prospect faced a daunting challenge as a left-handed power hitter playing his home games at Midland’s Citibank Field. While Olson had his struggles, he proved he was able to make in-season adjustments and save his season. Now he looks poised to push for a spot in the big leagues in his age-22 season.
Olson is the last man standing from the A’s first three picks in the 2012 draft class. Olson was the third of three high school players the A’s took to start that draft, and all three have lived up to expectations thus far. Addison Russell has already reached the big leagues, and both Daniel Robertson and Olson have a chance to join Russell in the majors in 2016. Of course, they will be playing for different organizations, as Russell and Robertson were both traded by Oakland in separate deals.
While Russell and Robertson both offer up-the-middle skills, it is Olson who – of the three – has the biggest potential to become a middle-of-the-order force in the big leagues. Olson is one of the top power-and-patience prospects in baseball. While he can’t play shortstop like Russell and Robertson, Olson does play an excellent first base and he added positional versatility in 2015 by logging significant time in right field. Olson will never hit for average like Russell and Robertson are likely to, but he is the kind of hitter the A’s have always valued – a smart hitter who works the count and can leave the yard at any moment. That he also brings with him defensive value separates him from past power-and-patience hitters such as Erubiel Durazo and Jack Cust.
Matt Olson Stats
Olson captured significant national attention in 2014 when he hit 37 homeruns and walked 117 times for the Stockton Ports. Olson wasn’t able to duplicate those numbers with the Double-A Midland RockHounds in 2015, but that wasn’t surprising. The Texas League can be notoriously difficult on left-handed hitters because of the winds, and Citibank Field is particularly hard on left-handed power hitters. Olson hit more doubles in 2015 than he did in 2014 (37 in 2015; 30 in 2014), but his homerun total fell from 37 to 17 and he walked 12 fewer times (105 in total).
Olson got off to a fast start with the RockHounds, homering six times in April and posting a 1036 OPS. As the weather changed and the league began to get a book on Olson, he struggled in May and June, hitting around .200 with just two homeruns and an OPS around 650. Pitchers were pounding Olson hard-in and going soft outside once they had seen him, and Olson struggled initially to adjust to that pitching pattern. He made some changes mid-season to account for how he was being pitched, and he hit .281/.394/.485 for the second half of the season. He was a little more aggressive at the plate, but still maintained a solid walk rate (16.04% down from 17.38% in the first half) while also cutting down on his strike-outs (23.11%, down from 24.06%) during the second half.
Ironically, Olson hit significantly better at home than he did on the road last season, but Midland hitting coach Eric Martins says that Olson’s road struggles were, in part, due to him trying to take advantage of playing in a more friendly hitter’s environment and getting away from his natural approach.
“If you look at Matt’s numbers this year and you put him in another ballpark in the Texas League, you’d see that Matt’s numbers were close to .270 with 35+ homers [when balls in play were charted to different park factors],” Martins said. “He absolutely demolished and crushed some balls in Midland that he didn’t get rewarded for. That’s going to take its toll on a number of players.
“[Midland teammate] Jaycob Brugman was actually able to take that and work with himself to go the other way. With Matt, we don’t want to tweak his swing at all because he is a pretty pure hitter. Being 21, the frustration set in. Then he would try to adjust his swing and we’d get on the road and it was a more favorable ballpark and then he’d try to do too much. He went through a period of about three weeks where it was rough for him just to try to get back.
“Towards the end, he had a couple of good runs. He was locked in and he stayed within his approach. He understood that when he drove his ball in Midland and it was a homerun anywhere else that that was a productive at-bat. You get caught up in the results and say ‘oh, I’m 0-for-2’ and he’s hit two balls that in any other park are homeruns or doubles, it’s hard to swallow at that age instead of understanding that ‘hey, all we want from you is solid contact and quality at-bats. I’m writing in the report this is a homerun anywhere else except for here.’ He ran with that at the end and he finished off strong. He put in a lot of work this year. I think he learned a lot about himself this year. It’s not an easy league, especially for a 21-year-old.”
Video of Matt Olson taking batting practice (video by Bill Seals)
In addition to facing the challenges of the Texas League, Olson had to focus on his defense and learning a new position. A first baseman almost exclusively until 2015, Olson appeared in 59 games in right field last season and even played two games at third base. Olson flashed a solid arm in right (in high school, he was also a well-regarded pitcher), racking up 11 assists. The 6’5’’ Olson will never be confused with Josh Reddick in terms of range and athleticism, but the general consensus among those in the A’s organization who saw him play out there was that he covered enough ground to make it work and wasn’t a liability.
Olson is a plus defender at first base, but having the ability to play in the outfield increases Olson’s chances of contributing for the A’s sooner because it doubles the opportunities that could open up for him to join the big league roster.
“Defensively, I have said it a number of times, but this guy plays first base as well as anyone in professional baseball. I will hold to that,” A’s Assistant General Manager Billy Owens said. “We saw a glimpse of that in major league spring training this year when he was absolutely spectacular at first base. He dabbled in major league spring training playing in the outfield; he got into a couple of games there. We thought he could handle the outfield and that held true.
“[H]e played the outfield like an outfielder. It’s not like you have a first baseman who sometimes goes out to the outfield and looks awkward. He looked very natural out there catching flyballs. Maybe he is not a sprinter, per se, down the line, but his range factor was solid all year and his throwing arm was average to above-average with plus accuracy. Now, to add another tool to his bag, he can play that outstanding first base, but he can also play the outfield well. So to add to his versatility this year, that was huge.”
Although Olson is nearing that “major-league ready” category, he still has some areas to work on before he reaches the big leagues. He has always struggled against left-handed pitching. Olson has been able to reach base at a decent clip versus lefties, but he has yet to hit for much power versus southpaws. If Olson is able to improve versus left-handed pitching, his power numbers could jump considerably.
Olson can also get a little too passive at times. He knows the strike-zone as well as anyone in the game, but he sometimes would be well served to expand his hitting zone on pitches out of the strike-zone that he can drive. Olson was doing that a little more towards the end of 2015. Whether he continues to incorporate that approach in 2016 will be something to keep an eye on. Strike-outs are always going to be a part of Olson’s game, but being a bit more aggressive on hittable pitches out of the strike-zone early in the count could cut down on the Ks some.
Overall, Olson is an advanced player for his age. His understanding of his swing and of how pitchers like to attack him has increased each year. He has a natural upper-cut that produces plenty of loft and he is quick to the ball, especially for a hitter his size. Olson also showed a lot of maturity in working through his mid-season struggles in the Texas League. While a lot was made of his struggles, Olson still managed to post an 826 OPS as a 21-year-old in an advanced league. That puts him well ahead of where past A’s prospects who have struggled in the Texas League were, such as Michael Choice and Grant Green.
Ever since Jason Giambi left via free agency, the A’s have been looking for a first baseman who can be that intimidating force in the middle of the line-up. While the A’s have had limited periods of success with different players at that position, they haven’t had a long-term answer there. In many ways, Olson takes all of the best attributes of former A’s first base prospects Daric Barton and Chris Carter without many of the negatives that those prospects carried with them (lack of power, run-producing ability with Barton; lack of defensive value, too much separation between strike-outs and walks with Carter).
Olson is in A’s camp as a non-roster invitee, but with Yonder Alonso and Mark Canha on the A’s projected 25-man roster, it will take one or two injuries for Olson to receive consideration for the Opening Day roster. He should start the year with Triple-A Nashville and should find the hitting conditions in the Pacific Coast League to be a lot more conducive to big numbers. It wouldn’t be surprising to see Olson push his way into the big leagues this season. Like many of the A’s top prospects, Olson will need to be added to the 40-man roster this off-season to protect him from the Rule 5 draft.