OAKLAND -- Matt Olson came to the plate for a third time Wednesday and, like clockwork, Minnesota’s defense shifted accordingly. The A's first baseman already had a hit swallowed by the defensive alignment, but didn’t get mad by increased resistance on his pull side.
He simply squared up, and bunted against the shift. Olson has done that four times this year, willing to take an essentially free base in the right situations.
The Twins gladly took that over the alternative, which is Olson reaching the cheap seats. The first baseman is in a serious power surge, with 17 home runs since May 12. That’s MLB’s highest clip in that span. He’s also averaging a home run every 11.6 at-bats, which ranks ninth in the major leagues among those with at least 200 plate appearances.
None of those numbers come from a small sample size.
Olson’s on an extended tear, one that seems sustainable.
“I feel good at the plate right now,” Olson said in an interview with NBC Sports California. “I’m taking good at bats, and I want to keep it going as long as possible.”
The odd part about all that, this productive streak started shortly after his return from a surgery to repair a broken right hand. He suffered a hamate fracture in the season-opening series in Japan and had it removed back in the U.S., starting a six-week rehab that normally comes with a significant loss of power.
Olson feared the worst, but that side effect never showed up.
“I heard from everybody that power was going to be an issue coming back,” Olson said. “Recovering from an injury like that was something you can’t force. You just have to let it happen. And, honestly, when I started swinging, I never really felt weak.
“I felt like the power was there, almost from the start. I had my progression building up swings and I had to get stronger, but once I was 100 percent I felt like the ball was going just as far.”
Olson believes his swing and style have helped him drive the ball well upon recovery.
“I don’t know if that’s because I’m a guy who likes to be a little looser on the bat anyways as opposed to gripping and swinging as hard as I can,” Olson said. “I don’t know if that was the case, but, yeah. I was shocked at how quickly the power came back.”
Hand strength has helped the ball travel, but there’s something else that has sustained a .293 batting average and .369 OBP over the last 15 games, where he has hit safely in 11 games with six home runs and 12 RBI.
“It’s a product of the at-bats I’m having,” Olson said. “I’m swinging at good pitches, and I’m getting the barrel to the ball with more consistency than I have in the past. My swing is tailored to driving the ball, and when that’s the case and you’re having good at bats and swinging at good pitches, the extra base hits are going to happen.”
Olson's right. According to Statcast, Olson is barreling 17.4 percent of his batted balls, which ranks in MLB's top-two percent. A total of 53.2 percent of his batted balls are considered hard hit, an elite figure in the 100th percentile.
That means he's following the A's credo. Hitting coach Darren Bush wants his guys focused on hitting the ball hard, not far. That Olson is doing both is no shock. Bush and Olson don't want to overanalyze this hot streak, but they work to keep his swing compact from start to contact.
The other part is staying mentally locked in.
“You have a checklist, and you make sure he’s thinking the right way,” Bush said. “The mechanics of his swing will clean up when he’s thinking right. There are little things to check and make sure he’s seeing and feeling and anticipating certain things, but at this point, we’ve been working together a long time. It’s pretty easy to fix things when he’s not feeling something.”
Olson’s feeling good now and was even after the longest rehab of his career, leaving him on pace for a career-high home run count despite missing so many games. Olson’s goal now is maintenance, avoiding slumps and working the details required to stay locked in.
“You have to do what you can to keep the good feeling,” Olson said. “Taking the time to realize what you’re doing well is crucial, especially to compare it to when things aren’t. You try to focus on the positive things you’re going and keep it going as long as humanly possible.”