Strikeouts down, contact up, Olson surging

April 25th, 2021

Disgusted by his .195 batting average last year, linked up with A’s hitting coach Darren Bush this offseason to find a fix to the flaws he identified in his approach at the plate.

Olson’s main issue that plagued him throughout the 2020 campaign was a tendency to leave his bat “too horizontal” during his setup, leading to a disruption of his timing that caused him to miss on what he felt were good pitches to hit.

Now that the approach has been refined, Olson is looking like a transformed hitter.

Manager Bob Melvin has not been shy about sharing his prediction that Olson will win an MVP Award one day. Based on his hot start to the 2021 season -- he entered Saturday's game vs. the Orioles with a .328 batting average, six homers, a .672 slugging percentage and 1.072 OPS through 17 games -- the 27-year-old first baseman might soon inject himself into that MVP conversation as a serious contender.

But while Olson is performing like the same power hitter he’s always profiled to be, there’s something drastically different about his offensive numbers this year: He’s cutting down on the strikeouts.

Like most sluggers, Olson has never been overly concerned with his punchout numbers. That’s something that just comes with the territory when your main role is to hit bombs and drive in runs. A quick look at his plate discipline numbers entering Saturday, however, will show that he’s now able to maintain his power output while also making more contact than ever before.

Source: Statcast

Largest decrease in whiff (swing-and-miss) rate from 2020 to ‘21

Out of 196 qualifying hitters

  1. Stephen Piscotty (OAK): -14.1% (33.4% to 19.3%)
  2. Matt Olson (OAK): -13.1% (34.8% to 21.7%)
  3. Omar Narváez (MIL): -13.0% (29.5% to 16.5%)
  4. Ronald Acuña Jr. (ATL): -12.5% (29.9% to 17.4%)
  5. Evan White (SEA): -11.3% (38.0% to 26.7%)

Olson's whiff rate has never been lower than 27.5 over a full season in the Majors.

Largest decrease in strikeout rate from 2020 to ‘21

Out of 196 qualifying hitters

  1. Omar Narváez (MIL): -18.3% (31.0% to 12.7%)
  2. Ronald Acuña Jr. (ATL): -16.5% (29.7% to 13.2%)
  3. Matt Olson (OAK): -15.7% (31.4% to 15.7%)
  4. Gary Sánchez (NYY): -13.2% (36.0% to 22.8%)
  5. Evan White (SEA): -13.0% (41.6% to 28.6%)

Olson's strikeout rate has never been lower than 24.7% over a full season.

“I’m aware of the fact I’m making more contact,” Olson said before Saturday’s game against the Orioles. “Felt like I addressed a couple of things with the mechanical adjustments in the offseason. But when you’re feeling good about your swing and everything feels sound, it’s easier to get in the box and truly trust the approach. Slow the game down with your eyes and just react. See the ball and hit the ball.

“I’m in a spot where I feel like I’m swinging at good pitches overall and my swing is in a good place. Where in the past I might swing through pitches that I feel like I’m on, my swing is in a good spot to where I’m connecting on those.”

Olson has shown no signs of slowing down any time soon. A 2-for-4 effort in Friday night’s win over Baltimore extended his hitting streak to eight games. During that stretch, he’s 13-for-30 (.433) with five homers, two doubles and nine RBIs. Perhaps the most impressive stat of that eight-game stretch -- he’s only struck out twice.

"I think it’s just a sign of where I’m at right now and how I’m feeling,” Olson said of his low strikeout total. “I don’t know if I’ve ever done that in an eight-game stretch in my career. Normally, I’m mixing in a few strikeouts here and there. I’m happy with that. I’m sure that’s part of the reason I’ve seen success in the past week.”

Olson credited teammate Jed Lowrie for helping him to better recognize pitches. He cited the veteran second baseman’s ability to maintain the same swing -- regardless of pitch location -- and make contact instead of trying to do too much.

“Hitting is such a slippery slope in a way,” Olson said. “When you’re struggling, you get a pitch you know you should be hitting and say you swing under it or foul it off. Sometimes in baseball, less is more.

“Like with Jed, hit it where it’s pitched. Don’t try to do too much with it. The things will happen as far as home runs and driving the ball when you see the pitch really well and connect and extend through it well. Sometimes more effort will hurt you in the box.”