The Oakland Athletics’ Rhys Hoskins
Comparisons often exist purely to be peppered with qualifiers. The title of this column is an apt example of this exact situation. Rhys Hoskins of the Philadelphia Phillies and Matt Olson of the Oakland Athletics have little in common outside of longball hype.
Hoskins made his major league debut on the 10th of August, after hitting 67 home runs in two seasons through the Phillies’ minor league pipeline. Anybody who followed baseball during the month of August knew of his story and the etching of his name into history books. Prospect lists were wildly lukewarm in relation to his actual production in the minor leagues. Back in May, Baseball America ranked Hoskins 88th overall – likely due to his baserunning and fielding perpetually tagged with average to below-average grades. What they may have underestimated was how effectively his bat speed and ability to take a walk would play up upon promotion.
Olson didn’t muster had one-fifth of Hoskins’ hype. Eric Longenhagen of Fangraphs had the first baseman 19th of 24 in the Athletics’ system, with a nod to his power, but caution flags on his inability to hit left-handed pitching. Dismissed, forgotten, shrugged-off; all reactions that Olson has run into on his path to capturing baseball minds in the month of September.
Placing Hoskins’ August and Olson’s September side-by-side shows the similarities in results these two have produced during their periods of being absolute focus.
Hoskins is the better overall hitter, but in terms of raw power, the debate for Olson gaining the edge is sound. This torrid stretch of games for Athletics’ September version of Yonder Alonso backs that claim. The lack of media buzz around Olson presses – pun intended – on a variety of issues. The most obvious? His team’s location, while a second stems from the lack of prospect hype I broke out above. If Franklin Barreto – a prospect ranked above Hoskins on many lists – was near this level of production, we’d be hearing a lot more chatter.
Ben Lindbergh and Jeff Sullivan do a fantastic job covering baseball on their podcast “Effectively Wild,” and having reminisced on the lack of “unique” stances across baseball, Olson is a fresh-faced poster boy for a new generation of Gary Sheffields and Jeff Bagwells. One of the beautiful things about baseball is that all hitters look nearly identical in the seconds before contact. It’s how you get to the hitting position, and one’s approach to the ball that consumes years of an aspiring player’s life.
This is a 2-2 breaking ball Olson reads the movement of beautifully and lines into the right-field seats. Distinct are Olson’s hands; although a better aesthetic comparison likely exists, I immediately thought of Eric Hosmer, with a refined Allen Craig (went deep into the well for that one). My Hosmer homage disintegrates the second you get to each player’s bat path, as Olson has maintained a fly ball rate above 40% for the entirety of his career, through any level. On the other hand, Hosmer has a severe groundball problem; making him a prototypical option for the infield shift. Rarely, however, do you see arms nearly parallel to the ground prior to a player’s load. This is where my link to Cardinals old runners-in-scoring-position machine, Allen Craig, emerges. possessed – through the majority of his success – a rhythmic dropping of his hands as the pitch came in. At the “peak” of that drop, Craig’s hands look similar to where Olson’s hands start.
Olson’s swing as a whole remains very long. This provides some evidence for the 25%+ strikeout rate he has carried through 2017. His swing-and-miss is highlighted by pitcher’s tendency to throw him hard and inside, to prevent leverage of his 6-foot-5, 230lb frame. If you watch Olson’s arms alone his swing – unlike the majority of players – seem almost rigid, frozen in their movement of the bat up, and through the zone. Even more interesting is his arm’s limited movement might be one of the factors in his success. As we move to his swing from a year ago, even somebody who doesn’t watch baseball can notice the staunch difference.
Olson trashed this approach. Simple motion with a tame bat? Gone. The slight pulsation of his hands just prior to his load? Gone. What remained was his toe-tap and a want to utilize his pull-side power. Smoothing out all the tendencies Olson had in his upper body is impressive for a 23-year-old. As I detailed a while back with Brewers’ shortstop Orlando Arcia, I’ll always be a fan of receptiveness to change at a young age.
I find it fascinating Olson seemed to lengthen his swing, push his hands further from the hitting position, and – as the old adage goes – began to “figure it out” shortly after.
Now for the bucket of cold water.
Mike Podhorzer of Rotographs gets the credit for normalizing Olson’s insane 35%+ home-run-to-fly-ball rate (2017’s median is around 15.5%). The good news is “normal” for the slugger still means above average. Olson puts the ball in the air at a fantastic rate, and with his tendency to stay near either foul line in terms of batted balls, he should benefit in the home run department (foul lines = shorter distance needed for homers). Olson’s hole on inside pitches and his inability to hit left-handed pitching are the issues. Most heatmaps display red bands of ample swing-and-miss at the top of the zone for Olson, yet the spot more pitchers are turning to is low-and-in, just off the plate. I used to be deceived by the heat maps on some sites when I saw bright red, only to realize the small sample of pitches that went into making that a “cold” zone for a player. Olson is a good example of digging a little bit deeper to find where he actually struggles with pitches.
The problem I see with Olson is that his success with this modified approach – I’ll call it the development of his “long swing” – doesn’t leave much room to counteract either of those issues. I’m tempted to suggest Olson go back to his stance from last season. It’s blasphemy, but Olson might retain his ability to drive the ball to his pull side from the introspection conducted in the formation of his long-swing approach. This could result in a better approach for Olson getting to anything low, and on the inside of the plate. While the result of my theory doesn’t help the perception element of “seeing” left-handed pitchers better, at least my contrarian theory covers 50% of the high-level issues currently stuck in Olson’s game.
Rhys Hoskins. Matt Olson. Two players with historic runs, but unfortunately for Olson, even more adjustment is needed before he can earn the three, or even two-fifths of hype Hoskins garnered from a surprisingly comparable level of production.
Photo via the Flickr Creative Commons, thanks to Keith Allison for the shot of Matt Olson.
Statistics all from Fangraphs, BaseballSavant, and BrooksBaseball, unless otherwise noted.
GIFs cropped from MLB.com footage. Olson’s HR can be seen here, Olson’s first MLB hit can be seen here.