Matt Olson hit his 17th home run of the season on Sunday. He did so in his 168th plate appearance, which is just over a quarter-season worth of playing time. He also did so off a left-handed pitcher, for the third time this year in just his 35th matchup against a southpaw. Counting his stint with Triple-A Nashville before coming up, it was his 40th dinger of 2017.
It also went a long, long way.
Olson has only played 47 games with the A’s this year, and he didn’t join the everyday lineup until early August. That’s all the time it’s taken to put his name on the map. He still has a long way to go to fully prove himself, but the numbers he’s posting right now put him in the conversation with the best pure sluggers in the game.
Note: Spots 12-15 have some more big names, like Freeman, Harper, Goldschmidt, and Khrush.
There’s more to offense than just homers, but the rest of Olson’s profile is strong enough for him to rank 10th in wRC+ as well (min. 120 PAs). The list above him includes the kinds of top names you’d expect: Hoskins, Trout, Votto, Harper, Altuve, Freeman, Stanton, Martinez, and Judge. He’s up there with the best of the best.
Of course, the trick is keeping all this up for more than a couple hundred at-bats. We shouldn’t expect him to continue hitting 37.8% of his flyballs over the wall — for context, Khrush’s 27.9% ranks toward the top of that category league-wide. The full-season leaders (Stanton, Judge, Martinez) top out around 32-34%, which itself is the highest level we’ve seen in a decade. Even leaving aside those numbers, we all understand the greater point that Olson won’t keep homering in every single game.
On the bright side, all but three of his homers have come against teams that were still contending at the time. He hasn’t just been beating up on post-trade-deadline doormats like, well, the A’s, which reduces the chance that what we’re seeing is a late-season mirage accrued off shoddy competition.
No, what we’ve seen so far can’t have been a complete fluke. Olson’s power is for real to some extent, and now he just has to prove the degree to which this surge is sustainable — will he continue to pound the league, regress below average like Sophomore Healy did, or something in between? After all, not everybody can hit the box suites like this.
We’ve been waiting a long time for Olson. The A’s drafted him back in 2012, so long ago that we didn’t even know Josh Donaldson was good yet. Olson was an 18-year-old high school kid then, and as such his road to the bigs was not quick.
By the beginning of the 2015 season he was the No. 1 prospect in the entire A’s organization, but he was also only just entering the upper minors. When he got there, he found himself in a pair of brutal pitcher’s parks in Midland and Nashville, facing older pitchers in leagues where he was one of the small handful of youngest players. Under those adverse conditions his power numbers dropped in Double-A, and then his wRC+ went with it in Triple-A, and the world began to grow impatient before he’d even turned 23 years old.
But one thing that never wavered was Olson’s plate discipline. His walk rate neared 18% in Double-A, and stayed above 13% in Triple-A. It’s barely down in single-digits right now in Oakland, but that’s partly because so many of his at-bats are ending in dingers; once opponents stop throwing him strikes, there’s no question he’ll lay off and take more free passes. Even when he wasn’t hitting for much power in the minors, he always got on base. (Aside: A potential increase in walks would also offset the likely dip in his .268 batting average.)
Furthermore, his strikeout rate has never been as bad as his reputation would suggest. It sat at 24% throughout his entire upper-minors career, all three years, and even that level was partly attributable to the fact that he just works really long at-bats and thus sees more two-strike counts than most hitters. His swinging-strike rates during those seasons (2017 MLB avg = 10.4%): 9.9%, 10.8%, 11.9%, with the latter being the smallest sample. And he’s only at 12.3% in his brief MLB career. He’s got some swing-and-miss in his game, like just about any slugger will, but he’s not a pure whiffer on the level of Joey Gallo or even Brandon Moss (19.8% and 14.1% career rates, respectively).
And yet the prospect world mostly forgot about Olson entering the year, fatigued after such a long wait. Athletics Nation kept him as high as No. 7 on our Community Prospect List, but he fell off the preseason Top 10 lists of Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus and dropped down as low as 18th according to both MLB Pipeline and Keith Law. Those last sources had him below the likes of Heath Fillmyer, Norge Ruiz, and Skylar Szynski. He was being labeled a bust despite never having been below-average at the plate in any season.
That’s all in the past now. Even accounting for any small-sample embellishments, and allowing for the inevitable adjustments the league will make to him over time, he’s proven his point that his bat is to be taken seriously. He’s making consistent contact and hitting it a long way, which is exactly what his entire minor league career suggested he would do. His glove is top-notch too, but that’s more of a bonus rather than his carrying skill. He’s here to be a dinger monster, and that’s exactly how he’s started.
I’ll leave you with one last small sample, the smallest of all: The first home run allowed by All-Star closer Zach Britton in over a year, and the first by a lefty hitter in over four years.
Fly, you fools.