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Trend Tracking: Bet on Matt Olson’s Power

With over a quarter of the MLB season in the books, fantasy owners and MLB teams alike have started to get a sense of where they sit moving forward. As always, owners will be scrambling to find buy-low acquisitions and betting on various early-season performances. Today, we cover a pair of teammates — a young first baseman who seems on the verge of breaking out of an early-season rut and a veteran pitcher who has rediscovered health and his offspeed pitches and looks like a solid mid-rotation option moving forward.

Matt Olson, 1B, Oakland A’s

After he blasted 24 home runs in 59 games as a rookie in 2017, Olson was a hot commodity in fantasy drafts this spring. His early-season performance is doubtless disappointing to those who invested. Currently sporting a .239/.328/.421 line, Olson has been a roughly league-average hitter thus far, far from the star-level production at first base many expected they were getting.

There is no need to sell low, though. Olson’s indicators remain promising, and he should commence hitting for power in short order. Consider Olson’s average exit velocities from 2016-2018, respectively: 90.6 MPH, 90.8 MPH, 93.6 MPH. Olson’s exit velocity is up significantly over last year. Some players can inflate their average exit velocities by becoming more extreme, hitting a few balls at unprecedented peak levels but not becoming any more consistent at-bat to at-bat. This is not Olson, though. His hard-hit rate tells a similar story, up by 11 percentage points from 2017. He’s even popping up much less often than he was last season.

So what is it tamping down Olson’s power? Mostly poor luck, it seems. Here, the Statcast data are particularly illustrative. Last year, Olson had a 1.481 slugging percentage when he hit the ball in the air. Based on his average exit velocity and launch angle, his slugging percentage “should have” been a bit lower than that at 1.216. This season, Olson’s expected slugging percentage on balls in the air is 1.075, compared to an actual .853 mark. Unsurprisingly, Olson had some good luck last season, and he’s having some poor luck in the early going this year. When that evens out, his power production should ramp up, although expecting him to repeat last year’s performance was always a pipe dream.

If there is any cause for concern, it is that Olson’s contact rate has fallen a bit this year, leading to a slight uptick in strikeouts. Olson has never had strong bat-to-ball skills, and he’ll always be a low average hitter. However, the strikeout rate uptick figures not to be too crushing. His plate discipline has remained the same, and even last year, he had a ton of swing-and-miss in his game. Olson won’t ever win a batting title, but if he hits for enough power, his projected .230-.240 batting average would be tolerable. Given that his power numbers show no real signs of slowing down, Olson remains a formidable threat, and owners should not be jumping ship at this point. If others are, this is a good time to buy low.

Trevor Cahill, SP, Oakland A’s

Olson’s teammate, Cahill, could not feel any less like an exciting young breakout candidate. He’s been around forever, he hasn’t been a full-time rotation stalwart since 2013, and he’s coming off a season in which he posted an ERA and FIP north of 4.90. We should not sleep on what Cahill is doing so far in Oakland, though.

In 29 innings, he has a 22.3 percentage point gap in his strikeout and walk rates (28.6% strikeout rate and a 6.3% walk rate). That dominance of the strike zone has helped him post a stellar 2.79 ERA. Much more important than Cahill’s small sample numbers, though, is that his pure stuff seems to be peaking. Cahill seems to have rediscovered his knuckle-curve.

Remember, while Cahill’s abysmal finish to the 2017 season dampened his overall numbers, he was stellar at the beginning of the year. In April and May last year, Cahill posted a 3.27 ERA and held opposing hitters to a .214/.301/.305 line. That scorching start came to a halt when Cahill strained his shoulder in mid-May. When he returned, his curveball’s effectiveness had vanished. Upon his return, the breaking ball’s velocity had dropped half a tick, and its spin had fallen 50 RPM’s. Given that velocity and spin on the most important factors for a swing-and-miss curveball, it shouldn’t be surprising to see that Cahill’s whiff rates post-injury dropped precipitously.

The good news, though? Cahill’s curveball spin and depth are back to where they were at the beginning of last season. The velocity has come back somewhat, although not all the way. In his limited work with it, Cahill’s knuckle-curve has looked sharp, and the whiffs have returned as well. Additionally, Cahill’s changeup (long his most trusted offspeed pitch) has added some drop, as well, leading to increased whiffs on that pitch.

Cahill seems to have the makings of three legitimate offerings again, and he has some situational factors working for him as well. Despite having been around nearly a decade, he just turned 30 years old, so there’s some hope for sustainability of his improved stuff, at least in the short-term. His home park is generally pitcher-friendly, although that may be of diminished importance in Cahill’s case since he is a ground-ball specialist anyhow. Oakland also has a quietly strong offense (with likely more to come from their first baseman), which should give him a chance to pick up a few wins even if he doesn’t work deep into games consistently. Cahill will never be a true workhorse, but he’s got legitimate stuff and he’s available in most leagues. He’s a worthwhile add for owners in 10-team leagues or deeper.

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