Since 2004, just four minor league players have hit at least 35 home runs while finishing the season at or under the age of 20. The first one to do so was Giancarlo Stanton a three time all star and the current NL home run leader. Next were Baseball America top 10 prospect Joey Gallo and Javier Baez. The former put his precocious power on the national stage with his batting practice and MVP performance at the 2014 MLB Futures game and the latter made his first major league hit a 12th inning, walk off home run, before proceeding to leave yard four more times in his first 14 major league games.
And then there’s Matt Olson, a 20 year old first baseman in the Athletics’ system who joined the 35 homer club with an August 14th solo shot for High-A Stockton. Olson has never appeared on a major top 100 prospect ranking, and didn’t even make BA’s Athletics top 10 list entering the season; yet his number speak for themselves.
Through 588 plate appearances for Stockton, the Georgia native has hit 36 home runs, tied for third most in the minors this year, and 26 doubles, while getting on base at a .398 clip and slugging .538. His .253 average has been ameliorated by the 110 walks he’s drawn, the most in all of professional baseball this season and the most by a player this young since Nick Johnson drew 123 in 1999.
That year, Johnson posted an on base percentage reminiscent of Ted Williams – .525 – and became one of the most highly touted prospects in baseball. He could have been a star, too, had injuries not cut him short. As it was, he still managed a 5.0 WAR season for Washington in 2006.
Oakland GM Billy Beane always coveted Johnson, who’s superior plate discipline and moderate power fit perfectly into the classic Moneyball mold. The 20 year old Olson fits similarly, although his power is leaps and bounds ahead of where Johnson’s ever was. That should him make him all the more valuable in the spacious Oakland Coliseum, where the Athletics appear to be staying for the foreseeable future.
He also fits into Beane’s new philosophy, which in addition to the long-standing reverence of patience and power, puts a premium on defense. Tree trunk legs and a near complete lack of footspeed will relegate Olson to first base, but he has the plus hands and reaction time to be an elite defender there, according to scouting reports Baseball America and MLB.com. Scouted as a pitcher out of high school, his arm is an asset as well.
Not that young slugger doesn’t still have work to do. Olson was taken in the supplemental round of the 2012 draft, just eight spots after the Rangers selected Joey Gallo, and like his Texan peer, Olson is prone to striking out. He has whiffed 129 times this season, which cuts right into his ability to hit for average and has led to his .253 mark this season. Still, that’s only a 21.6% strikeout rate, terrible for a power hitter and far superior to the 33.7% rate Gallo has posted this season.
While not fully enamored, MLB.com’s Jonathan Mayo has taken note of Olson’s strong play, ranking him as the A’s second best prospect in his mid-season update, but still clipping him off of the overall top 100. Part of the problem is the high bar that looms over all first base prospects. Because they play the position that offers the least defensive value, their success hinges on their bat fully developing. A simple thing as too many strikeouts, a small drop-off power, a Susceptability to breaking balls, can prevent that. Only one first base prospect – the Mets’ Dominic Smith – ranked among Mayo’s top 100.
Reach back to 1980, and the list of age 20 and under players to hit 35 home runs in a season expands. Its still only a small handful of names and includes a couple busts in Mike Simms and Ron Wright, but also has such members as All Star Braves catcher Marcus Giles, 30 home run hitter Russell Branyan and even one former Oakland A: Jose Canceco.