Oakland Athletics: Matt Olson’s strange, bizarre, unusual season

OAKLAND, CA - SEPTEMBER 22: Matt Olson /

Oakland Athletics first baseman Matt Olson had an unusual season in which 24 of his 26 extra-base hits were home runs.

Matt Olson is an outfielder and first baseman for the Oakland Athletics. If you’re an A’s fan, you probably remember him from the just-completed 2017 season. He was one of the bright spots in the second half for a last-place team that went 75-87. If you’re a casual baseball fan who does not follow the Oakland A’s, you might not know who Matt Olson is.

After playing high school baseball at Parkview High School in Lilburn, Georgia, Olson was drafted by Oakland in the first round (47th pick overall) of the 2012 draft. Parkview High School is the alma mater of former super rookie Jeff Francoeur, who was dubbed “The Natural” on the cover of the August 29, 2005 issue of Sports Illustrated. Another former major league player, Jeff Keppinger, also went to Parkview High School.

After being drafted, Olson made his way through the A’s minor league system and showed good power at most every stop. He hit 23 homers as a 19-year-old in A ball, then blasted 37 dingers as a 20-year-old in High-A. That earned him a placement on the Baseball America Top-100 list, where he ranked 73rd.

In 2015, he only hit 17 homers but they came with 37 doubles and a .388 on-base percentage. He remained on the Baseball America Top-100, but dropped from 73rd to 100th. Olson’s 2016 season with the Triple-A Nashville Sounds featured a similar ratio of homers and doubles. He hit 17 round-trippers and 34 two-baggers. He also got a cup of coffee with the A’s toward the end of the season.

Olson played the first part of the 2017 season with Nashville and blasted 23 homers, 16 doubles and one triple. That earned him a promotion to the big leagues in June and that’s when the strange, bizarre, unusual season began. It started slowly. Through his first eight games, Olson was 2-for-17. One of those two hits was a double that he picked up against the Houston Astros on June 22.

On June 24, Olson hit two home runs. To be fair, one of them was off James Shields, who everyone hits home runs against. Olson hit another long ball on June 28 and a fourth on June 30. He hit four in five games from August 11 to August 15. That was a precursor to another great stretch when he hit seven big flies in eight games at the end of August and early September.

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After 44 games, Olson was hitting .252/.325/.583. More importantly, he had 15 home runs, no triples and just that one double. His last 15 extra-base hits were all dingers. Things were getting weird. Olson made it a little less weird when he hit his second double of the year on September 9, but that was just a token double. He got back on track quickly and his next nine extra-base hits cleared the wall.

A hamstring injury ended his season a week early, but Olson finished his 2017 season with a .259/.352/.651 batting line in 216 plate appearances. That’s really good, but not necessarily strange, bizarre or unusual. The strange, bizarre, unusual thing was that he had 24 home runs, two doubles and no triples. Who does that?! Olson had 26 extra-base hits and 92 percent of them were home runs. That’s the highest percentage ever of home runs to extra base hits for any player with 20 or more home runs in a season.

As you might expect of a guy with this kind of power, Olson is a big man. He’s listed at six-foot-five and 230 pounds. There are three other players in the history of baseball who hit 20 or more home runs in a season with at least 80 percent of their extra-base hits being homers. Two of them were big men also. Here’s the list:

216 PA, 24 HR, 26 XBH, 92% — Matt Olson, 2017 Oakland A’s

364 PA, 29 HR, 33 XBH, 88% — Mark McGwire, 2001 St. Louis Cardinals

271 PA, 21 HR, 26 XBH, 81% — Art Shamsky, 1966 Cincinnati Reds

682 PA, 49 HR, 61 XBH, 80% — Harmon Killebrew, 1964 Minnesota Twins

321 PA, 32 HR, 40 XBH, 80% — Mark McGwire, 2000 St. Louis Cardinals

Mark McGwire is on the list twice. These were the last two seasons of his career when he was grippin’ it and rippin’ it and launching long balls but not exactly legging out many doubles. McGwire is the poster boy for having a high percentage of extra-base hits going for home runs. In his career, 583 of his 841 extra-base hits went over the wall (69 percent). That’s the highest percentage in history for players with 300 or more career home runs.

It wasn’t just the lack of doubles and triples that made Olson’s season strange, bizarre and unusual. He also hit more home runs than singles. That’s unusual enough, but especially so for players who hit 20 or more home runs in a season. Olson is only the fifth player since 1901 to do this. McGwire shows up again multiple times. Here’s the list:

2001 Barry Bonds, 49 singles, 73 homers (-24)

1998 Mark McGwire, 61 singles, 70 homers (-9)

2017 Joey Gallo, 32 singles, 41 homers (-9)

1999 Mark McGwire, 58 singles, 65 homers (-7)

2001 Mark McGwire, 23 singles, 29 homers (-6)

1995 Mark McGwire, 35 singles, 39 homers (-4)

2016 Ryan Schimpf, 18 singles, 20 homers (-2)

2017 Matt Olson, 23 singles, 24 homers (-1)

Joey Gallo also hit more homers than singles this year and his ratio of four-baggers to one-baggers was greater than Olson’s. Ryan Schimpf has had more home runs than singles in each of his two big league seasons, but he didn’t hit 20 homers this year, so he didn’t make the cut for the list above (10 singles, 14 homers).

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Of course, Oakland fans don’t want Olson to follow in Schimpf’s footsteps. He spent more time in Triple-A than the major leagues this year. If Olson can be even remotely like Bonds or McGwire, that would be just fine.