Olson: From 'really bad year' to All-Star

July 12th, 2021

was deep into his offseason film study back home in Atlanta when he had finally seen enough. He was disgusted.

Coming off a career-worst season in which he hit .195 with 14 home runs, the A’s first baseman could not bear to watch another clip of his swing. Olson knew that wasn’t him in those clips. It was some other hitter whose busted approach was the result of an amalgamation of the many quick fixes that were attempted under the tight constraints of a shortened 60-game regular-season schedule.

“I had a really bad year, in my opinion,” Olson said. “I felt, in a way, it let the team down and we came up short of the World Series. You check yourself in the mirror after the season. I felt motivated to fix some stuff and wanted to come out strong.”

Olson grabbed his phone and reached out to A’s hitting coach Darren Bush. Together, they both identified the same issue. The path of his swing, one of the more unique-looking hacks in baseball, was off. Several little moving parts had to be fine-tuned, but one main correction was in his set-up at the plate, where he said he was “putting myself in a bad position” by leaving his bat head up too horizontal.

“There were definitely things wrong with the swing I was going out there with every day,” Olson said. “I got myself swinging around my body and rolling over stuff, not able to stay through the ball long enough. My timing had to be just perfect to hit one right.”

Through countless back-and-forth video messaging with Bush over the winter, Olson grinded daily to correct his flaws. The work he put in has shown in what remains on pace to be a career-best year on offense, which led to the 27-year-old first baseman’s first All-Star Game selection.

Olson has evolved into the hitter the A’s always knew he could be when they drafted him in 2012.

Scouting a star

The A’s quickly identified Olson as a player they had to have ahead of the 2012 MLB Draft. That became apparent after their group of scouts watched him blast a homer off future first-round pick and Braves ace Max Fried as part of an overall impressive showing in the 2012 National High School Invitational (NHSI) baseball tournament.

Later that season, A’s assistant general manager Billy Owens flew out to Georgia and witnessed Olson take another future first-round pick, Lucas Sims, deep in a game. In all, the A’s accumulated well over 75 at-bats on Olson that year, which, according to Owens, is an “inordinately high” number compared to other hitters the club usually scouts.

“Matt was a specimen,” Owens said. “6-foot-5 with soft hands, dexterity, mobility, agility and fabulous throwing arm. Obviously, the power was the featured attraction. He’s always hit massive tanks to every crevice of the yard. His swing showed pureness, quickness, loft and was aesthetically easy on the eyes.”

The A’s were sold. But there was just one issue.

Olson comes from a family where academics comes first. His mother, Lee, is a fifth-grade teacher in Lilburn, Ga. His older brother, Zachary, graduated from Harvard University. So when Matt signed a letter of intent to play at baseball powerhouse Vanderbilt University, it was widely assumed around baseball that he would be honoring that commitment.

But from the constant looks the A’s scouting department was able to get of Olson, Matt Ranson, their area scout at the time, learned that Olson was keen on entering professional baseball. Then, Olson was upfront with them. If a team drafted him in the top two rounds, he was signing.

When the Draft rolled around, the A’s knew they were in a good position, as they held three top-50 selections. They picked Addison Russell 11th overall. Then came Daniel Robertson at No. 34. With Olson still around at their next pick, No. 47, the A’s took the 18-year-old first baseman and eventually got him to sign for just over $1 million.

“Matt Ranson did a good job knowing that [Olson] wanted to create his own path,” Owens said. “We definitely were invested in Oly.”

The red machine

Olson’s strikeout rate has been cut down by nearly half from his 31.4% mark last season. The offseason adjustments are playing a role in this development. But there’s also a device, which A’s assistant hitting coach Eric Martins calls “the red machine,” that has helped Olson transform as a hitter.

The machine was first introduced by current Giants infielder Tommy La Stella, who brought one over from the Angels after he was traded to the A’s last August. After La Stella signed with San Francisco this offseason, Martins said Olson purchased his own and began to practice with it. The machine shoots out dimpled rubber balls at a low angle. Its purpose is to clean up a hitter’s bat path by the barrel on the baseball as his swing comes into the zone. For Olson, it helps kick bad habits for good ones.

Entering the break, Olson’s strikeout rate ranked in the 80th percentile among Major League hitters.

“Hitting off the red machine has gotten him more direct to the baseball,” Martins said. “Now he doesn’t feel like he has to cheat. He can touch everything. He’ll foul some pitches off to get to the next pitch. He’s had multiple eight- or nine-pitch at-bats this season, whereas, in the past, he’d be in a 1-2 count and chase a pitch out of the zone.

“Now, he’s so confident in his path that he can see the ball, he can track it, he can lay off some tough pitches or foul some pitches off until he gets a good pitch to hit. You can see the work he’s put in, and it’s come a long way.”

The final product

The A’s had visions of the two Matts -- Chapman and Olson -- one day carrying the franchise as pillars of the organization. All-Star selections are sort of an unofficial validation that a player has arrived to the elite level. After Chapman reached his first All-Star Game in 2019, Olson will now have a first of his own under his belt.

“There is definitely a sense of pride and fulfillment from our entire staff watching Oly every night in the green and gold,” Owens said.

Of course, none of this is surprising to Olson’s teammates. The .282/.371/.567 slash line. The 23 homers, 20 doubles and 59 RBIs. The superb defense at first that has already brought him two Gold Glove Awards. This all-around excellence on both sides of the ball has been evident to them since his arrival to the Majors in 2016.

“The dude is a monster,” A’s starter Sean Manaea said. “Every day, he just brings it. He’s been unbelievable since he got called up. It’s nice that people are starting to recognize that.”