How should one feel going to spring training with the opportunity to interview players in the clubhouse? Grateful? Excited? Honored? I suppose you have to be an introvert to understand that pang of dread that instinctively follows me into the clubhouse each year, as I gear up to approach people who don’t know me and ask them to engage in a conversation as if they did.
When I introduce myself – "Hi, I’m Nico from Athletics Nation" – I can almost hear them replying, "Didn’t catch your name, don’t know where you said you’re from, but you seem to have a valid credential and I’m supposed to do interviews so yeah sure, let’s talk." Of course that’s all only in my dysfunctional head, and if you’re an extrovert who loves striking up conversations with random people then you probably have no idea what I’m saying.
Thing is, the A’s players are always incredibly nice and I leave the clubhouse wondering why I wasted so much energy feeling awkward and worried that no one will want to talk to me, concerned that perhaps my intrusion into their personal space at that precise moment will throw off their swing or injure their elbow. Yes, I actually made sure that Max Schrock was not so "in the groove" with the Sudoku he had just begun that our interview might rob him of any important momentum. "I think I can get it back," he reassured me. Phew.
All of which is to say that Matt Olson is a really nice guy for whom I will always root no matter what jersey he might be wearing. When I caught his eye and asked if I could introduce myself, he smiled broadly and gave an enthusiastic "Hi!" like he had been waiting all morning hoping I would introduce myself. Olson just has that easy-going, friendly, "make you comfortable" personality, and on that Saturday morning I could really use it.
Will Olson make it in the big leagues? His power, his defense, and his discerning eye all offer glowing references, and as a result the 22-year old Olson (turning 23 at the end of this month) has already gotten a taste of the big leagues and remains a legitimate prospect.
But there is still a lot of swing-and-miss in his game and his swing, while generating a lot of power, has also been criticized for being too long. So I opened by asking Olson how he was trying to balance tweaking his long swing with trusting the swing that had gotten him this far. "It’s something I’ve had to work on my entire career," Olson acknowledges. "It’s about finding what’s right for me in my swing and what clicks best for me, getting out and do some drills to work on it, see what translates."
For Olson, refining what he already does seems to resonate more than going back to the drawing board. "I’ve gotten here to this point with the swing I have and I know that," he reasons. "I’m not saying I don’t have stuff to work on but I’m not going to come up here and reinvent the wheel to try to break camp with the big league club."
At the same time, Olson seems well aware that baseball is a game that rewards adjustment and preys on the stubborn. (Remember how Bobby Crosby went down insisting, "My swing worked for me in high school and it will work for me now" – except that it didn’t, because high school and the major leagues are, well, quite different?) "That’s not to say I don’t have stuff to work on," Olson is quick to clarify. "I just have to stay on top of my drills and keep focused on what have with my swing, but at the same time I have to stick with what I’ve done my whole life."
Time, and the opposing pitchers, will tell whether what Olson needs in order to succeed is to refine what he has done for years or retool it for the demands of the big leagues. Enjoy the rest of our interview, which first transitioned into trying to figure out how a batter like Olson can lay off "chase pitches" that other batters cannot manage to recognize as balls. What is Olson seeing that others aren’t?
Olson: My eye has always been something I’ve had and it’s not necessarily that I’m watching pitches longer in order to see where they’re going to be, (that) I’m spitting on pitches because of seeing them deeper or anything like that. A lot of times when I’m taking those borderline pitches, I see something out of the hand that I think it’s going to be a ball. That’s just something I’ve had since I started playing; it’s not something that I think about.
Nico: I know it’s hard on tape to try to explain it, but when you say you see the pitch out of the hand, or you can tell it’s a ball, is there a way you can describe for the fan what that looks like? What is it that you’re picking up that other players might not be?
Olson: It is hard to explain because it’s something that’s such a quick decision. I’m probably taking the first 20 feet that the ball is in flight and making my call on whether it’s going to be a ball or strike in that short range or distance. It’s just something that I’ve had a knack for and –
Nico: I mean it’s really cool! The things I can think of are the release point, the seams, the arm angle. Do you actually pick up out of the pitcher’s hand sometimes what’s coming?
Olson: Yeah, yeah. There’s a lot of times you can see breaking pitches pop up; changeups a lot of the time you can kind see a guy roll his wrist or different spin on it, different seams a lot of the time on changeups. Just kind of subtle stuff like that you pick up on as the years go on.
Nico: I know it’s like 1/100th of a second. You can’t be doing it consciously.
Olson: Yeah, it’s involuntary almost!
Nico: So what about on defense, you’re seasoned at 1B, learning in RF more recently I guess. How would you compare them right now as to how they feel, and also where you think the A’s see you in the future.
Olson: As far as where I think they see me, I’ve always been the guy who said, "That’s out of my control." Whatever gets me in the lineup, whatever position, whatever opening there is it doesn’t matter too much to me. I definitely think that just through experience I’m smoother and a little more comfortable at 1B, but playing all these games in RF these past two years I feel fine out there, I feel comfortable. It kind of just took 50-100 games under my belt to where I could trust my reads off the bat and just attack the balls as opposed to drifting or worrying about making a bad read or messing up a play out there. But I’m feeling really comfortable at both positions – I’ve always been comfortable at 1B, that’s never been an issue for me. But whatever (the A’s) need, whatever spot –
Nico: I’m sure you’d play shortstop if they – (interrupted by Olson’s laughter). In RF now, what are you least satisfied with, where are you most working to improve at this point?
Olson: I think playing infield my entire life just the consistency of getting good throws, with good back spin, good carry. Sometimes my arm likes to drop down to that "side infield" slot. I’ve been doing that for 20, 21 years of my life, so I think that and just sticking with the right reads, good footwork out there, taking good angles. It’s just kind of stuff you have to stay on top of when you aren’t playing it your whole life and brought up doing that.
Nico: Last question: I just always try to get a little bit of a personal flavor for fans of who you are, because we see you all season and don’t get to talk to you every day. How would you describe, or how would people describe your personality – give us a sense of who you are in this mix.
Olson: I’m pretty laid back. My parents are always telling me that I don’t have a pulse. I don’t get too emotional, I kind of just stay even keel on stuff. But other than that, I enjoy hanging out with friends, playing some golf…probably play more video games than I should, but nothing too complicated with me; I’m kind of an easy going guy.
Nico: So what is it that gets your pulse going. Like is there a way to get your blood –
Olson: Oh yeah, there’s definitely – especially on the baseball field, any time I’m competing I definitely have a heightened sense (and) my competitive nature comes out, and I get that blood flowing. But off the field…well, I like to talk trash to the guys. Especially Pinder and Healy, my good buddies, on the card table. But when I’m at home I’m just kind of relaxed, laid back.
Since our interview, Olson has homered twice (I am only willing to take a very small amount of credit for this) and is currently 3 for 18 with a pair of walks, a pair of HRs, 5 Ks, and he has looked smooth as silk at 1B. In sum, Olson still has a chance to be a very good player, and he already is a very good guy.