This has been quite the year for young sluggers. Aaron Judge jumped out of the gate like a man possessed, Cody Bellinger was called to the bigs after a month in Triple-A and proceeded to help make the Dodgers a juggernaut (for most of the season at least), and Rhys Hoskins came up and now hits seemingly every ball he sees over the fence. These three have been talked about a lot, and rightly so. But another has joined their ranks; he plays for the Oakland Athletics, and his name is Matt Olson.
Through 184 plate appearances this season, Olson is slashing .267/.359/.634 with 19 home runs, a .408 wOBA, and a 159 wRC+. He’s always been one of those guys who has appeared on prospect lists, but hasn’t always been near the top like Judge or Bellinger. This past offseason, Olson was mentioned in both the Baseball Prospectus and FanGraphs A’s prospect lists, but not among Oakland’s Top 10 in either one. His huge production in the majors to this point has been a surprise.
Earlier this week, Dave Cameron of FanGraphs went into great detail about how hard Olson hits the ball in relation to his contact rate. I won’t rehash all of that info here, but he’s top-10 in average exit velocity measured by Statcast, and top-15 in hard-hit rate according to Baseball Info Solutions. Olson has similar plate discipline numbers to both Judge and Bellinger — all own above-league average whiff rates, between 12.5 and 13.5 percent — and like them, he makes up for swing-and-miss tendencies by crushing the ball when he does make contact.
Not only does Olson hit the ball hard, he hits it in the air. The phrase “elevate and celebrate” has become a bit of a cliché, but that’s exactly what Olson is doing. Take a look at this chart of average exit velocity compared to average launch angle among hitters who’ve seen at least 500 pitches this season. Olson isn’t a crazy outlier, but he is surrounded by exactly the company that you’d hope your power-hitting first baseman would keep.
He’s performed among the game’s elite power threats when it comes to batted ball quality, and Olson is second behind only wunderkind Rhys Hoskins in home-run-to-fly ball rate. It’s a number that’s due for regression, mostly because at under 200 plate appearances, Olson is still in small sample size territory compared to everyone else on the list. Still, even when this number comes down, it shouldn’t totally bottom out because of his quality of his contact. When Matt Olson hits the ball in the air, it goes a long way.
2017 MLB HR/FB Leaderboard (Min. 150 PA)
|1||Rhys Hoskins||150||.487||205||47.3 %||48.4 %||40.0 %|
|2||Matt Olson||184||.408||159||42.3 %||46.8 %||37.3 %|
|3||Giancarlo Stanton||625||.409||156||38.4 %||40.7 %||33.8 %|
|4||Aaron Judge||615||.414||160||44.6 %||42.2 %||33.6 %|
|5||J.D. Martinez||436||.425||164||47.6 %||44.0 %||32.5 %|
|6||Domingo Santana||554||.363||121||38.0 %||26.8 %||29.1 %|
|7||Joey Gallo||483||.365||124||45.7 %||55.4 %||28.9 %|
|8||Khris Davis||599||.355||123||42.5 %||41.6 %||27.7 %|
|9||Tommy Pham||467||.399||149||35.4 %||26.3 %||27.6 %|
|10||Miguel Sano||475||.365||126||45.3 %||41.3 %||27.5 %|
So how has Olson been able to be this successful? He got a cup of coffee in the big leagues last year, hit no home runs, and had a wRC+ of 52. He was up for just 11 games, not nearly enough of a sample to glean anything from. But while his batting line doesn’t tell us anything, his swing mechanics do. We can see a real change in his swing between that first stint in the big leagues and today. It hasn’t undergone a complete overhaul, but it is definitely different.
Back in May, OaklandClubhouse.com sat down with Nashville Sounds hitting coach Eric Martins and got some information on specifically what Olson had been working on.
“That was the idea was when Bushie (A’s hitting coach Darren Bush) worked with Ollie’s hands to bring them a little bit closer. He can still take his normal load but he still has a direct path to the ball. He’s got a little bit more coverage on the inner-half. He still has the good plate discipline, but he’s a little bit more aggressive.”
So his lower body has remained the same, but Olson’s hands have changed to allow him to better reach balls on the inner-half of the plate. That seems like something we could identify rather easily, so let’s take a closer look at how specifically Olson’s swing is different. Brace yourselves; this first image is jarring.
Yep, I’d say that there a pretty sizable difference there! Beyond the Box Score co-managing editor Ryan Romano discussed Olson’s unusual setup in the September 5th edition of our daily recap series, Launch Angles. The difference in how Olson holds the bat in his setup from this year compared to last is night and day. According to the man himself — as told to Alex Simon of MLB.com — the new setup is meant to improve his overall swing path.
"I'm getting to a better position and have a better bat path right now because of it," Olson said. "It's about getting to a point where I'm not cutting myself off to have a clear path to the ball. I'm holding my hands out a little further this year, and it's giving me more of a clear path to everything."
As the ball is being released, the bat position now stays over the plate. Olson’s lower half — as we heard from Martins — remains relatively unchanged.
Now we see some of the difference in action. While these specific frames don’t line up perfectly, Olson’s hands are clearly closer to his body in 2017 as his weight shifts. It might seem counterintuitive, but by initiating his swing with his hands extended, Olson has been better able to bring and keep them close to his body. Again from Alex Simon on MLB.com, on why this change was important:
Olson had been tucking his hands behind his body, forcing him to over-rotate his upper body to get to the ball. He said it was leaving him susceptible to pitches he thought he should be hitting.
Now Olson’s hands don’t have such a long way to travel AND he’s able to cover more of the plate.
These are just two individual swings, so it’s not exactly a scientific study, but there is a noticeable difference in Olson’s hands and bat path this season. His approach wasn’t completely revamped, but the implemented changes do seem to be paying dividends.
We’re still in small sample territory, and Olson isn’t going to continue to hit a home run once every 10.3 plate appearances forever. But both the quality of contact and the improvements to his swing are real. Judge, Bellinger, and Hoskins have rightfully gotten the rookie slugger headlines, but don’t forget about Olson in that discussion — he’s proven he belongs.
All statistics up to date through 8/15.
Chris Anders is a featured writer at Beyond the Box Score. You can find him on Twitter @MrChrisAnders.