August and September should have been a rather dull time in Oakland as the A's played out their third consecutive last-place finish in the American League West. But that happened to be when Matt Olson came out of nowhere to become baseball's hottest hitter, and now one of the more
August and September should have been a rather dull time in Oakland as the A's played out their third consecutive last-place finish in the American League West. But that happened to be when Matt Olson came out of nowhere to become baseball's hottest hitter, and now one of the more intriguing questions by the Bay is: Can he keep it up?
Olson's 13 home runs last September would have set a rookie record, had Aaron Judge not also hit 15 in the same span. Olson's 24 total homers also tied Wally Berger, Mark McGwire and Gary Sanchez for the third most hit by any player in history in his first 65 games. The most exciting numbers, however, may lie in Olson's Statcast™ metrics. In an admittedly small sample, they showed a player who not only made solid contact, but also knew exactly what to do with it.
A batter's first aim is to hit the ball hard, and Olson did that about as well as anyone. Statcast™ places its floor for "hard-hit" contact at an exit velocity of 95 mph, and out of 387 big leaguers who put at least 100 balls in play last year, only seven reached that hard-contact baseline more often than Oakland's rookie first baseman.
But the more we learn about contact metrics, the more we recognize that not all hard-hit balls are created equal. Major Leaguers slugged 1.717 on hard-hit line drives and fly balls last season, as opposed to just .505 on hard-hit grounders. Hitting the ball hard is good, but the real damage comes when a batter can lift his scorcher into the air. That's where Olson appears to have real skill. Out of 313 hitters who put at least 50 hard-hit balls into play, look who led the MLB leaderboard in weighted on-base average (wOBA, a similar statistic to OBP that gives added credit for how a player reaches base, increasingly so for extra-base hits):
Highest wOBA produced on hard-hit contact, 2017 (min. 50)
- Olson: 1.046
- J.D. Martinez: .982
- Giancarlo Stanton: .976
- Eric Thames: .966
- Michael Conforto: .961
Stanton captured his first MVP award after an incredible 59-homer season, while Martinez packed more dingers into 119 games than any player in history. But it's Olson who did more damage on hard contact than either of them. Indeed, Olson homered on 23 of the 61 hard-hit balls he put in play, for a 37.7 percent rate that also topped MLB by a good margin.
Olson averaged a 19-degree launch angle on his hard-hit contact -- firmly within the Statcast™ line-drive zone (10-25 degrees) that yields a ton of damage -- and lifted 40 of his 61 hard-hit balls for either a liner or a fly ball. That comes out to a 65.6 percent "air-ball" rate that was slightly higher than air-ball aficionado Justin Turner and the mighty Judge. More than one-third of Olson's hard contact flew within what Statcast™ considers the fly-ball zone (launch angles between 25-49 degrees), which put the young slugger inside the top 10 percent of hitters. Those fly balls explain all the home runs, and Olson's average distance of 262 feet on hard contact ranked among baseball's 20 highest marks.
So, Olson hit the ball hard consistently, and he hit those scorchers in the air. The last piece of the puzzle was that he directed most of that optimal contact to his pull side. Check out just how heavily Olson's hard contact skewed to the right:
Put that exit velocity, launch angle and direction together and the results could be grandiose. Just take a second to admire Oakland's longest home run last year, a 483-foot jack Olson hit in Philadelphia during his September binge.
Lingering questions do remain. Olson certainly wasn't on a lot of radars after slashing .235/.335/.422 in a full year of Triple-A in 2016, which included a .167 average and .250 slugging mark against lefty pitchers. One also wonders if Olson's high strikeout rate (28.7 percent) could be exploited as big league pitchers adjust. But the lefty actually struck out less against southpaws than he did against righties last summer for Oakland, and a player who swings as hard as Olson is bound to sacrifice some contact. The good news is that Olson's overall 70.5 percent contact rate (defined here as fouls and balls put in play per swing) beginning Aug. 11 -- the day he took over Oakland's first base job for good -- was on par with what mashers like Martinez (68.8 percent) and Stanton (68.2 percent) put up over the entire season.
The A's jettisoned two other slugging first basemen who broke out in 2017 (Yonder Alonso and Ryon Healy) after what they saw from Olson. If the sophomore can repeat even most of what he did last summer, Oakland could have a budding star on its hands.
Matt Kelly is a reporter for MLB.com based in New York. Follow him on Twitter at @mattkellyMLB.