Back by popular demand, Jim Callis and I will spend the next few weeks making prognostications on which prospects will lead the Minor Leagues in a variety of statistical categories at year's end. We're kicking this series off with our picks for who will win the home run title in 2015.
Jim is obviously still gloating over nailing this Perspectives battle from 2014. He picked Kris Bryant, who did indeed top the Minors with 43 home runs last season. I had gone with Javier Baez, though I did throw in the caveat that the one thing that might keep him from competing for the crown would be too much time in the big leagues. And even with his big league struggles, Baez did hit a combined 32 homers.
Resting on his laurels, Jim has opted to go with the most obvious choice, perhaps in Pipeline Perspectives history. He's going with Joey Gallo, who was the home run champ in 2013 and finished one behind Bryant a year ago. I wanted to start out the new year with a little more thought than that, though I'm not straying too far off course. My choice? A's first-base prospect Matt Olson.
Olson, ranked No. 98 on our current Top 100 (new list coming out at the end of the month!), No. 2 on the A's Top 20, isn't exactly an outlier. His 37 home runs in 2014 put him third on the dinger list behind Bryant and Gallo. It represented a nice uptick of 14 homers from the 23 that Olson hit during his first full season of pro ball.
Critics of this choice may point to where Olson did his hitting last year. Yes, the California League is a very nice place to hit. But once you look past that and more closely at the numbers, you'll see that Olson is far more than a creation of his environment.
First is how Olson responded to a rough first half. He hit .214/.342/.408 in April, clearly struggling with the move up a level. Olson improved each of the next two months, especially in June, which saw him post a 1.185 OPS. He scuffled in July again, but bounced back once more with a big August that allowed him to finish with a second-half OPS that was nearly 200 points higher than his first-half effort. In fact, Olson's 1.037 second-half OPS was better than Bryant's .997 and Gallo's .814 (Yes, I'm aware both were adjusting to new levels).
There's more statistical evidence that Olson was more than a product of his environment. He led the Minors with 117 walks. That's 45 more than he collected in his first full season and why he upped his on-base percentage to .404. That kind of plate discipline allows Olson to get more pitches to drive and put his power to good use. Yes, he swings and misses a good amount. But so do Bryant and Gallo, both of whom struck out at a higher rate than Olson.
Regardless of level, you want to see improvement as a player moves up the system. Olson has that covered. His walk rate jumped from 12.9 to 18.5 percent. At the same time, his strikeout rate dropped, going from 26.5 to 21.6 percent. When those two indices move in opposite directions like that, it's very encouraging. No wonder Olson's numbers all improved in 2014; it wasn't simply because he was in the Cal League. He even put up good power numbers in the Arizona Fall League, though he was sent home early after an infield collision. Olson's .686 slugging percentage would have easily topped the AFL had he amassed enough at-bats to qualify.
All of this points to Olson continuing to make adjustments as he moves up to Double-A. The only thing that would bring me more comfort would be if his home park in Midland was a little more homer-friendly (Frisco's park, where Gallo could start the year, is indeed more conducive to powering up). Overall, though, the Texas League is a solid circuit for the long ball.
Even if Olson struggles at the outset, as he did last April, he has shown an ability to deal with adversity, make adjustments and produce at a high level. He'll be just 21 for all of the 2015 season, one that should see him bringing home the Joe Bauman Award given to the Minor League home run champion.