Bucs getting big payoff from unheralded Olivares trade

April 20th, 2024

This story was excerpted from Alex Stumpf's Pirates Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

The Pirates didn’t have the busiest offseason when it came to adding bats, with the most notable moves being signing Rowdy Tellez and bringing back Andrew McCutchen. The plan was for the group of young hitters the club had built to carry most of the load, so most of the big offseason moves were focused on pitching.

But one of the less heralded transactions of the offseason has wound up being one of their most fruitful: Trading for outfielder Edward Olivares. The hope was that Olivares -- who was seemingly cast off from the Royals last offseason -- could build on what he did well in Kansas City while making a couple of changes to be a more complete hitter.

“He’s done that and more,” hitting coach Andy Haines said recently. “He’s obviously off to a great start for us.”

Like for just about every Pirates hitter, the last week wasn’t too kind to Olivares. In his case, a bit of a slowdown seemed inevitable after a scorching hot start, but his numbers are still very strong. In 50 trips to the plate, he’s slashed .261/.320/.478 with three home runs and eight RBIs.

His expected stats have been even better. His .385 expected batting average -- calculated by taking factors such as launch angle, exit velocity and sprint speed -- is the best among all qualified National League hitters. His expected wOBA and slugging, as well as his barrel rate and sweet spot rate, all rank in the 94th percentile of hitters or better.

In layman’s terms, even when Olivares makes an out, it’s usually very loud. There’s likely some small sample size wonkiness in play here, but Olivares is enjoying one of the best stretches he’s ever had at the plate.

It’s the type of production that teams rarely get in seemingly minor offseason trades. Olivares was available because the Royals needed to clear a roster spot in December. The Pirates had liked him for a while, seeing some very positive traits, like his ability to hit high spin pitches in the zone.

What he struggled at was hitting the fastball, but those good results against spin convinced them to take a chance.

“You can definitely build off of it,” said Derek Shelton. “The fastball stuff, you just have to make sure you’re on time. We have to make sure we get him on time.”

The Pirates had some ideas on how to help rectify that, and so far, it has worked. Olivares has seen his average exit velocity leap from 88.4 mph in 2023 to 93 mph this year, with better results (.436 slugging percentage compared to .462) and even more encouraging peripherals.

They didn’t start implementing those changes until partway through Spring Training. They wanted to get to know the player first and better understand his approach before they started to tinker.

“You always want the player to feel like he’s guiding it also,” Haines explained. “It was just about getting some space behind the baseball and making a move where he’s a little behind the ball so he has a little bit of space to get to the fastball. Once we did a deep dive on him, we saw the hardware and the physical capabilities, there’s no reason that he should not be able to perform on velocity and the fastball. All the ingredients are there for him to do it. It was really just space behind the fastball and quieting down some head movement in his move forward.”

Examining Olivares’ swing compared to last year shows that there are a couple of areas that help him create that space. The hands are perhaps the most important, putting them in line with his back foot, giving him a little more room to drop to his load and swing. He’s also moving forward more efficiently -- not lunging at the ball like he tended to do with the Royals. That starts with a more pronounced leg kick and stride forward, while keeping his head more still.

So far, those tweaks have been working, and Olivares has gotten opportunities against both right-handers and left-handers. If he continues to hit, he’ll continue to see his name in the lineup.

“He’s got the ability to put the barrel of the bat on the ball, he’s got the ability to control the zone and so far, even through Spring Training, we’ve seen that,” Shelton said.