The 2018 Athletics rattled off probably the quietest 97 win season in baseball history. With an absurd bullpen, MVP candidate Matt Chapman, the unbridled power of Khris Davis, and a host of other talents across the diamond, it was the typical motley crew that Billy Beane has assembled throughout the years, and they turned into winners.
Their first baseman Matt Olson was as central to the A’s success as anyone, though you wouldn’t be wrong to say he was a bit disappointing after posting a 163 wRC+ and earning 2.1 fWAR in just 53 games in his 2017 debut. The young slugger—he turns just 25 this March—had to deal with adjustments by the league and, comparatively at least, struggled. A new season looms, and it may be time to know the name Matt Olson.
Saying he struggled is a bit of a misnomer, since he merely didn’t look like a young Paul Goldschmidt as he did in his first full season. He still posted a 116 wRC+ and earned 3.4 fWAR—6th at his position—while playing every game, and was top-ten among first basemen in home runs (5th with 29) Isolated Slugging (.207, 6th) and walk rate (10th at 10.6 percent). The touchstones that make a great first baseman—power and on-base ability—are already there for Olson, and he’s still got plenty of room to grow. He may have already papered over a big hole in his offensive game too.
The true doom of a great minor league hitter like Olson was—a career .843 OPS in 665 games and topped .935 with 23 home runs in 79 games with Triple-A Nashville before being called up—is the major league breaking ball. It’s what separates Quad-A from major leaguer, whether being able to hit it or work around it enough to get that fastball. As the season wore on, Olson saw more and more of breaking balls:
It’s apparent that pitchers saw something in him, and adjusted accordingly. Particularly with classic slower curveballs, he did struggle, overall posting an 86 wRC+ against them in 2018. But it wasn’t something he just suffered with in silence. As the season wound to a close, there are suggestions that Olson figured something out:
When he saw more curves early in the season and even midway through, Olson’s offensive impact suffered. But in his last 25 games or so, something clicked for him, and he started crushing curves. This could be because he cracked some kind of curve code, or figured out what pitchers were doing to him.
Heck, it could also be because there are simply more pitchers in September with call-ups, and he got a little lucky with facing some bad curveballs and hammered them. Not likely; young guys usually don’t feature a traditional bender like that, but seeing that many, especially late in the season, and doing what he did, is a great sign of what’s to come.
The curve has come back in vogue in a big way the last couple years. This year pitchers across baseball threw it 10.6 percent of the time, the second highest rate since 2003. The highest was 2017. It’s a thing again, after so many years of fastball/slider/change being all you saw.
Olson’s ability to recognize and adjust to curves is a vital step in his growth as a hitter. How it translates to 2019, and how pitchers adjust back to his adjustments for that matter, are the next step in his growth. Yet this is encouraging, and gives the A’s the potential for a major jolt in the arm.
With Olson flourishing, Chapman back at full strength, and of course Davis, they have a trio that’s up there with the best of them. The A’s always find a way to build a contender. In 2019, Olson should prove to be another key piece of that ever-evolving Beane puzzle.
Merritt Rohlfing writes a lot of baseball stuff for Let’s Go Tribe and Beyond the Box Score, and loves to hear what you think, as long as it’s positive or money-based. Check him on Twitter @MerrillLunch, or email at firstname.lastname@example.org