By BRETT BITTIGER
Few baseball pundits predicted that on August 16, the Oakland Athletics would be two games back in the AL West and in command of the second AL Wild Card spot.
There has been ample coverage of several of the team’s sources of insurgence: Matt Chapman’s highlight reel has led an improved team defense; Blake Treinen’s turbo sinker and vanishing slider have headlined a superb relief corps; and Khris Davis and Jed Lowrie have anchored a productive lineup.
But a main contribution has gone largely unnoticed—Matt Olson’s defense.
Corner-of-the-field defenders usually don’t earn the lion’s share of praise. Oakland is an exception, with their top three Defensive Runs Saved leaders all manning a corner spot: Chapman at third base (+24), Matt Olson at first base (+9), and Chad Pinder in left field (+7). Chapman’s feats have been obvious—Jeff Sullivan of FanGraphs recently analyzed them. Requiring a closer look, perhaps, is the fact that Olson is the team’s second most valuable defender.
On the surface, Olson ranks second among all first basemen on our Defensive Runs Saved leaderboard, topping the American League by a comfortable margin, and trailing only Brandon Belt overall.
Most of this value comes from Olson’s ability to handle ground balls, especially to his glove side. In terms of range and positioning, only Belt, Joey Votto, and Freddie Freeman score higher on our leaderboard. Olson also has been very efficient on starting double plays, converting 10 out of 12 opportunities on the season. Beyond this, Olson’s value can best be assessed in how he impacts his fellow infielders.
Consider Marcus Semien, who currently ranks 12th on our shortstop DRS leaderboard with five runs saved. Semien also ranks 26th by our Good Throw Rate metric among those who have made at least 100 throws to first base. Good Throw Rate factors in throwing errors as well as good plays by first basemen (like scoops and good tag plays) to assess an infielder’s throwing efficiency.
The numbers show that Semien’s above average DRS figure belies his subpar throwing ability. They also indicate that his success has been largely dependent on the ability of Matt Olson (the two recently combined for this nifty play). In fact, no other shortstop this season has been picked up by his first baseman more than Semien, who has received 17 such plays. If we look at last season, six of Semien’s seven throwing errors occurred without Olson manning first base.
Matt Chapman, the more capable left-side infielder in Oakland, ranks 11th on our Good Throw Rate among third basemen, but still has been picked up ten times by Olson this season, good for second most at his position.
It’s also important to note that, while Olson leads the league in handling difficult throws in order to record outs (his current total of 33 easily outstrips Justin Smoak’s second-best figure of 25), his assistance to his infielders likely goes even further.
Listed at 6’5”, Olson stands counter to NL standout Freddie Freeman as the tallest AL regular at first base. With a large wingspan even for his sizable frame, and deft footwork around the bag, Olson is often able to avoid the need to leave the bag or pick a throw out of the dirt when shorter first basemen would need to go above and beyond to record an out.
Ultimately, there were many potential scenarios that could have played out at the corner infield spots this season for the A’s. Olson spent at least half of his minor league campaigns in 2015 and 2016 in right field, and Oakland received significant contributions at first base last year from Ryon Healy and Yonder Alonso.
The A’s could have held onto Healy and paired him with Olson in a platoon. They could have extended Alonso and encouraged Olson to keep developing his outfield defense. Instead, they cleared their corner infield—realizing the obvious impact of Chapman and the subtler infield-wide buoying ability of Olson—and committed wholly to them both.
Though it’s still early in both of their careers, it is already clear that Oakland’s front office deserves significant credit for their conviction.