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Matt Olson leads AL first basemen in homers despite missing a month

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His 450-foot moonshot on Tuesday gave him the undisputed HR lead at the position.

D. Ross Cameron-USA TODAY Sports

On Tuesday night, Matt Olson absolutely destroyed a baseball. Royals starter Jorge Lopez had surprisingly carried a shutout into the 7th inning, but leading off that frame he grooved a 2-1 fastball down the pipe to Olson. The Oakland A’s first baseman capitalized on the mistake, blasting it to center field.

The ball didn’t just clear the fence. It cleared the suites, into what constitutes the second deck in straightaway center field. (There isn’t actually a first deck in that spot, but the Treehouse Plaza is effectively the second deck, as it’s physically in line with the rest of the second deck and the section numbers begin with a two.) This is what we call a moonshot.

Sometimes the players themselves will tell you when something you just saw was especially amazing, and that happened with Olson’s dinger. Sean Manaea’s reaction in the dugout says it all.

Surprisingly, this was not the longest homer hit by the A’s this year. At 450 feet, it falls just three feet short of one hit by Matt Chapman in August, in the Coliseum against Aaron Sanchez of the Astros. (Click here to see Chapman’s 453-footer.) It’s also not the A’s hardest homer of the season, clocking in at 110.2 mph — that’s good for eighth place, with Chapman also holding that lead at 113.7 on a liner against Ross Detwiler of the White Sox. (The hardest-hit ball of the A’s season is a 114.4-mph double by Chapman off Zack Littell of the Indians.)

This particular tater by Olson didn’t break any records, despite its sheer majesty as it sailed into a part of the Coliseum where we rarely see balls land. But it did help remove any doubt about a particular league-wide distinction: Olson now leads all American League first basemen in homers. Despite missing all of April.

Olson now has 35 long balls on the season. Among AL players generally listed as first basemen on FanGraphs, there are three at 34 — Carlos Santana, Edwin Encarnacion, and Trey Mancini. But even among that group, Mancini has spent the majority of his time in the outfield, and Encarnacion has spent half his time DH’ing (side note: EE has only played 109 games himself due to injury). Santana has mostly been a 1B, but he’s also DH’d a couple dozen times.

Switch to just homers hit while playing first base, and Olson’s lead grows substantially. All 35 of his came at 1B, since you would never put the Gold Glover anywhere else on defense nor hide him in the DH spot, and next on that list is Jose Abreu of the White Sox with 30, followed by Santana at 26. (Abreu has 33 overall, including time at DH.)

The National League does offer a bit of competition, but not much. Pete Alonso of the Mets is the outright leader at 48 (of which 47 came at 1B), and he has a chance to break Aaron Judge’s overall rookie record at any position (52). Freddie Freeman of the Braves has 38, all at 1B. And Josh Bell of the Pirates has 37, of which 33 came at 1B.

And once again for anyone who forgot: Olson missed 34 games to injury at the beginning of the season. He broke the hamate bone in his hand/wrist during the opening series in Japan, and didn’t return to the lineup until May 7. There’s an argument to be made that 1B is simply a weak position in the AL right now, but even with that context in mind, Olson spotted the league a full month and still holds the lead at the classic power position. Even if you remove all the league and position qualifiers, he’s still tied for 17th among all MLB hitters, in just 118 games.

Olson is showing no signs of slowing down, either. He’s already hit eight homers in September, in 16 games and 68 plate appearances, giving him an 1.155 OPS for the month entering Wednesday. Take it back to the final day of August and it’s nine homers in 17 games, including series against both the teams the A’s might see in a potential ALDS (two of them came against the Yankees, and three against the Astros).

This is the version of Olson that A’s fans were hoping would come out this year. As a rookie in 2017 he burst onto the scene with 24 HR in 59 games, but then last year he only managed 29 over a full season. Even after accounting for this year’s juiced ball, he’s clearly taken a step forward this summer.

“I just feel like I’m becoming more aware of my swing,” Olson said earlier in September. “When something feels off, I feel like I’m addressing it sooner than I have in the past and getting back on track.”

Indeed, a quick look under the hood of Statcast doesn’t reveal any obvious changes in his game. He didn’t suddenly learn to hit a pitch type that he’d previously struggled against (though he did improve against each of fastballs, offspeed, and breaking pitches), nor did he suddenly get more patient or selective at the plate (if anything, he’s been slightly more aggressive). He’s just matured as a hitter overall, and when he does swing and make contact he’s getting the most out of it. As for his consistency, his OPS is at least .844 in each month, and only seven times all year has he gone multiple games in a row without a hit (once four games, once three games, other times just two games).

Olson has been a joy to watch this year, and he’s just about reached the ceiling of what Athletics Nation hoped he could be. He’s already the undisputed best defensive 1B in the majors, and now he’s among the best hitters at the position too, with a 139 wRC+ that also leads all AL first basemen and ranks third among all 1Bs. The only reason he hasn’t been an All-Star yet is that the time he missed this year came in the first half of the season, but he’ll surely get that nod many times in years to come.

Say it with me: Oly Toledo!

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