This is MLB’s most underappreciated star

August 11th, 2020

If A’s first baseman isn’t the least appreciated and least known of all the elite players in Major League Baseball, he’s certainly on the short list.

“That’s kind of how I like it,” he told reporters recently.

This may be the one thing he fails at in 2020 with the A’s flying out of the gate with the American League's largest division lead at 4 1/2 games and the AL’s best record at 12-5.

Sometimes, things work out just the way they’re drawn up. Tuesday is the third anniversary of Oakland manager Bob Melvin putting his two foundational pieces on the field permanently. He’d started Matt Chapman at third base and Olson at first two days earlier. On Aug. 11, 2017, it became the A’s new look.

Oakland is 231-157 and coming off back-to-back 97-win seasons as the 27-year-old Chapman and 26-year-old Olson have established themselves as two of baseball’s best players.

Both were first-round picks, Olson in 2012 and Chapman in '14. Each is among MLB’s best defensive players, as well.

While Chapman -- who has two Platinum Glove Awards to Olson’s two Gold Gloves -- has arguably been MLB’s best overall defensive player and finished in the top 10 in AL Most Valuable Player Award voting in each of the last two years, Olson’s career has flown more under the radar.

Since 2017, Olson ranks 14th in the AL in OPS (.857), 11th in home runs (94) and ninth in slugging percentage (.514). He was 21st in AL MVP voting in '19 after a 36-home run, 26-double season.

Now, about this season. He's hitting .155, which is not what it seems.

First, here are his Statcast numbers, via Baseball Savant:

• 98th percentile in exit velocity
• 96th percentile in hard-hit percentage
• 87th percentile in xwOBA, which is a number arrived at by factoring in hard-hit percentage, launch angle, etc.
• 87th percentile in expected slugging

Point is, he’s hitting the ball very hard, and he still has a 123 OPS+ despite that batting average. Part of that is due to his 21.6 percent walk rate, which is also among MLB’s best.

His 2020 highlights have been explosive. On Opening Day, he cut down Shohei Ohtani at third base in the top of the 10th with a heads-up scoop and throw, and then hit a walk-off grand slam in the bottom of the frame. He homered twice in a game against the Rangers last week and then hit another the following day.

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In this weekend’s three-game sweep of the Astros, Olson’s three-run third-inning homer on Sunday broke open a close game.

All of this indicates that this could be one of those special seasons both for the A’s and for their Gold Glove first baseman.

He was the 47th overall pick in the 2012 Draft out of Parkview High School in Lilburn, Ga., and he made his debut four years later. But his first true opportunity came in '17, when he squeezed in 59 games between being shuttled back to the Minor Leagues six times, yet still managed to hit 24 homers.

Olson was sent back so frequently that he and Melvin may have had a hand signal to indicate when another move was coming. Olson took advantage of his opportunities, but the A’s had enough veteran players that some roster shuffling had to take place.

He missed six weeks last season after undergoing surgery on his right hand, but he still hit 36 home runs in 127 games. He led AL first basemen in WAR (5.4).

Did we mention the mustache? He grew one recently hoping to help jump-start his offense. When he hit the homers against the Rangers, his teammates saluted him by holding index fingers across their upper lip.

For his part, Olson doesn’t actually like the way the mustache looks, but as he told reporters, “I didn’t do it to look good. You know what they say: It’s never too early to hit the panic button.”

As for the A’s, they just had a nine-game winning streak snapped Monday in a back-and-forth 10-9 loss to the Angels.

“We’ve been playing really well,” Olson said. “We’re feeling really good about it.”