Written by: Steve Carter
Light tower power: it can change a game and it can change your fantasy lineup. Much like the hottest toy every Christmas season, everybody wants it, few get it, and God help you if you have to wrestle with an angry mother in a Toys R’ Us aisle.
The thing about huge power for a hitter is that it tends to come at a cost. Be it consistent hard contact, consistent at bats, not striking out; generally speaking with power comes a loss in another area. Few hitters are able to provide consistent power while still being a threat when buried in the count. Those that do are what you can call ‘special’.
The question when discussing large amounts of raw power will always be: is it applicable. Matt Olson, a slugging first baseman prospect of the Oakland A’s will have these questions surrounding him until he proves he can consistently use it at the Major League level. Hey, it comes with the territory.
Between Low-A Beloit and High-A Stockton in 2013 and 2014, Olson slugged an impressive sixty home runs while boasting a healthy 189/285 BB/K ratio. Stockton being in the Cal League, notorious for being a haven for strong bodied hitters with lift in their swing may or may not have had something to do with those numbers; but hey, he hit 60 bombs against professional pitching. Give the kid some credit.
Historically, I tend to be wary of hitters with great walk rates in the minor leagues, as it doesn’t automatically mean ‘Wow, he’s got great patience!’ First off, patience is overrated. Secondly, ‘patient’ hitters tend to be that way because they actually aren’t very good hitters. They have enough pitch recognition and an approach centered on only swinging at ‘their pitch’, and post great walk rates in the low levels of the minors, but as they move up the ladder and face pitchers who have control and command; the number of times you get ‘your pitch’ drops. Instead of once per at bat, it becomes once per game.
Once that number starts to drop, then the strikeout looking numbers begin to escalate, the number of Quality At Bats begins to drop and hitting becomes an exercise in futility. The image of ‘patience’ has been the downfall of many hitters before, and the bane of fantasy owners and prospect hounds alike who looked only at the numbers, but not how the numbers came about. For every Nick Johnson, there have been many….well I’m not going to throw a guy under the bus to prove a point. If you’re reading this I’m sure you’re no stranger to getting sucked into a Baseball-Reference vortex.
With Olson just having arrived to the Double-A Texas League (currently at Midland), more sample sizes are needed before making a qualified assessment of his patience and discipline and how they are intertwined. That will come as he moves up the ladder.
Instead, let’s focus on his swing.
Olson starts with his hands high but tips them out and away from his body for a rhythm, then loads from there. During the 2014 season, Olson would reach a much higher ‘torque point’ in his swing, where his barrel would go slightly behind his head. While this feels like a strong position and creates a leveraged position to work from, it also slows the hitter down as they work out from it and creates unnecessary length in the swing path. When you add in a hitter with the size and length of arms that Olson has, you start to see where the 21.6 K% in 2014 (and 22.7% in 2015) can come from. One way to think of a ‘torque point’ is it is the same as a choke point. It breaks up the flow and creates a new static position to restart from. I.E. it’s slower than desired. Large bodied hitters like Olson need everything they can to maintain change of direction quickness or their size (and strength) starts to work against them.
One adjustment he’s made in 2015 is to lower the hands in his load and basically continue loading all the way through his swing. This doesn’t increase the length of his swing, mind you, but keeps him dynamic and fluid throughout his swing and there are no ‘torque points’ to slow things down. Michael Morse of the Marlins made this same adjustment while with the Nationals and it changed his career. It’s not a coincidence that Olson and Morse are of similar builds and length and it’s working for them. The bigger and longer your levers are (heh), the more you need to focus on being dynamic in your actions.
A ‘load’ is not about moving to a new position. It’s about creating energy dynamically. This is athletics, not robotics. When you are, for lack of a better term, loading forever, your swing maintains its dynamics and has a more efficient energy transfer. No muscling up needed, just let the barrel find the ball.
What does this mean for Olson’s projections? I’m only worried about the application for now; but this adjustment for him definitely looks to be a good sign in his development. More time is needed to fully assess his approach against better pitching, but the current developments in his swing point in the right direction and point toward a hitter ‘figuring it out’.
Olson could certainly be more than a ‘Three True Outcome’ type, and become a well-rounded hitter that happens to hit 35+ home runs per year, even with half his games at spacious O.Co Stadium. How Olson maintains quickness with his hands and in his change of direction actions will determine his application and his approach will determine the frequency in which he can use it. Joey Gallo isn’t the only prospect with ridiculous power in the AL West; Matt Olson can certainly hold his own. It’s not outrageous to put a .265/.380/35 projection on him. If his approach turns out to be more patience than discipline and advance pitching sees right through that, then his projection drops quickly. A .240/.345/22 line still has some value, but that would be described as ‘below average’ even in this current run suppressed environment.
There’s plenty to like about Olson, but there’s also plenty of traps that have brought down many similar players over the years. Get excited, but tread lightly.
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