HOUSTON -- Just because the A’s are no longer in the running for a playoff spot does not mean they don’t still have something to play for.
In the case of Matt Olson, these final few days of the season provide an opportunity to put the finishing touches on a breakout campaign that has seen him emerge as one of the game’s elite all-around players.
Olson continued to put himself among some legendary company in Friday’s 8-6 victory over the Astros at Minute Maid Park by launching his 39th home run of the season. Coming off left-hander Framber Valdez in the sixth inning, the two-run blast was also his 22nd homer against a left-handed pitcher this year -- the most by any left-handed hitter over a single season in the expansion era (since 1961). That’s right: even more than Barry Bonds and Ken Griffey Jr., the two men with whom he had previously shared that record this season.
“It’s pretty cool,” Olson said of the achievement. “That’s something I’m going to be proud of. Coming up, I was a guy who wasn’t able to get in the lineup against lefties when I first came up.
“The lefty vs. righty stuff is something I don’t really put too much weight into. Everybody grew up hitting both sides.”
The most homers by any batter, lefty or righty, against left-handed pitching is a two-way tie between Cecil Fielder (1990) and Dick Allen (1966), both right-handed hitters, with 25.
“More home runs against left-handed pitching than any [left-hander] in history,” A’s manager Bob Melvin said. “To pass Bonds and Griffey in one season, [Olson] is a guy that was, at one time, getting platooned and not facing left-handed pitchers. That’s quite the feather in your hat. The two guys that he passed [are] legends.”
Shohei Ohtani and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. are still viewed far and away as the two frontrunners for the American League MVP Award. Based on Olson’s impressive numbers, though, the All-Star first baseman should have a solid case as a top-five vote-getter for the honor. He currently ranks fourth in OPS (.918), walks (88), RBIs (111), extra-base hits (74), and on-base percentage (.373), tied for fifth in home runs (39) and sixth in slugging percentage (.545) among AL hitters.
Between Olson’s standout offensive production and stellar defense that has him in strong contention for a third Gold Glove Award, this 27-year-old star is one of the main reasons for optimism about the A’s making a push towards a return to the postseason next season.
“I’m really happy with taking the offseason to address things I felt I needed to address,” Olson said. “I feel like I took another step as a player. I’m throwing away less at-bats. It’s led to better results.”
Another bright spot for next season should come in the rotation with Sean Manaea, who capped his own impressive campaign with a solid outing in his final start of 2021. The left-hander limited the Astros to two runs on seven hits with six strikeouts across 5 2/3 innings on Friday to pick up his 11th win.
For the season, Manaea finishes setting career highs in strikeouts (194) and innings pitched (179 1/3) to go with a 3.91 ERA.
“He had a terrific season. He really did,” Melvin said of Manaea. “There were a couple of starts that brought the ERA up. There was a period of time when he wasn’t at his best. But overall, to finish the year with less than a 4.00 ERA and the innings that he gave us, one of the better starters in the American League.”
Next up for Olson is to reach that prestigious 40-home run mark. It’s a feat that has only been accomplished twice by left-handed hitters in A’s history. Reggie Jackson crushed 47 in 1969 while Jason Giambi hit 43 in 2000.
Should Olson reach 40, he’d also be just the second A’s player in the last 20 years to do so. Khris Davis did it three straight seasons from 2016-18.
“Every day, you can count on him,” Manaea said of Olson. “Just incredible. I’ve been playing with him since 2015, so it’s just crazy watching that progression. He’s been unbelievable. I’m super happy for him.”