What’s Wrong With Miguel Olivo?
I started working on this post on Friday, and obviously, it would have been a lot more timely before Olivo went 2 for 3 with a walk, a double, and 3 RBIs. But, despite the nice afternoon (and yes, the numbers below include his performance from Sunday), it’s still a relevant topic, and something I hope you find interesting.
When the Mariners traded Freddy Garcia to Chicago last summer, they acquired three players, including Miguel Olivo, who was playing regularly at catcher for the White Sox at the time. In 141 at-bats for the Pale Hose, Olivo had managed a .270/.316/.496 line. The OBP is a bit low, but the power is valuable, and his .269 EqA, if sustained over the full season, would have ranked him as the 10th most valuable catcher with the bat in major league baseball. Despite a poor rookie season in 2003, his minor league totals backed up the hypothesis that Olivo really could hit. In 1595 at-bats before reaching the majors, he totaled a .285/.355/.462 line, including hitting .306/.381/.479 in Birmingham during his last stint in the minors.
Since the trade, Olivo has hit .195/.240/.356 in 205 at-bats. In his last 105 at-bats dating back to the start of last September, he’s hitting .133/.172/.200 with 5 walks and 37 strikeouts. Pitchers, as a whole, hit .143/.177/.184 last year. Since being acquired from the White Sox, Miguel Olivo’s offensive production has been equal to that of the average hitting pitcher.
Obviously, something is amiss, as this is no longer just a slump. This is so far below any reasonable expectation of his performance that there’s clearly a problem. But what is it? What’s wrong with Miguel Olivo?
While we obviously are big fans of statistical analysis, these are the kinds of “why?” questions that statistics don’t often provide a great answer for. The numbers confirm that, yes, this is a pretty nasty funk, but they don’t really provide any insights into what the problem is. He’s not walking enough. He’s striking out too much. He’s just making a lot of outs. Well, yea. But why?.
So, I called in a few favors from a couple of friends of mine who have been scouting baseball talent for a long time. Both of these guys saw Olivo in Chicago in 2003 and 2004 and have seen him in Seattle since the trade. They have a frame of reference for both Good Olivo and Abysmal Olivo, and they have the expertise necessary to correctly break down a major league player’s technique. Now, neither of these scouts work for the M’s, so its not in their organization’s best interest for Olivo to start hitting again, so some of the proprietary stuff that they’ve filed in their scouting reports for their club, I’m not allowed to publish. But, they were both very gracious with a majority of their thoughts, and they were willing to share some great insights on the issue.
Below are some excerpts from two seperate conversations I had, edited to read smoothly. While its going to read like a transcript of three guys sitting together talking, the two conversations took place separately, but I asked them both basically the same questions, so I’ve put their answers together. Off we go.
Dave: Well, let’s start off with a little background. Can Miguel Olivo hit major league pitching?
Scout A: Yea, I think so. He’s an aggressive hitter–you’d call him a hack, I think–but he’s got bat speed, and there’s juice in his swing. He can catch up with major league fastballs and turn on pitches on the inner half. With his catch-and-throw skills, you don’t need him to hit like Piazza, but I think he’s an asset with the bat, too.
Scout B: Definitely. He was hitting really well for Chicago last spring. He killed (our lefties). Anything inside that doesn’t jam him, he can pull with ease. Really quick hands. Physically, you have to like the package he brings to the plate. He’s got 60 power (on a 20-80 where 50 is league average), which is rare for a catcher. He’s always taken a while to adjust to new places, but the key is he always has. There’s offensive talent in that kid.
Dave: Okay, so he can hit. So why has he been so awful since the trade?
Scout A: I was talking to (a White Sox official) and they said the kid cried when they told him he’d been traded. It sounds like he took it more as “the White Sox don’t want me”. Getting traded from Oakland for a triple-a middle reliever (Chad Bradford) earlier in his career, it sounds like he saw this as another organization giving up on him. Mentally, I think he decided that he was doing something wrong, since he kept getting traded. So he started changing things that weren’t broken.
Scout B: Look at his career. This isn’t the first time he’s gone somewhere new and forgotten how to hit. It seemed like everytime Oakland promoted him up a level, he’d leave his bat behind and have to repeat the league. He was a pretty easy out his rookie year in Chicago, too. For whatever reason, he’s not a quick adapter. He always needs a couple hundred at-bats to learn how to hit in a new city.
Dave: From my point of view, it seems like Olivo is trying to pull every pitch on every swing, making him easy to pitch on the outside half of the plate. Has he always been like this?
Scout A: He’s always been a pull-guy, but never like right now. He’s throwing his arms out and aiming his head towards the foul pole. We tell our guys to throw him nothing but breaking balls away, because with the way he’s trying to hit everything past the third baseman, there’s no way he’s going to reach that pitch.
Scout B He did a nice job of going to right field on fastballs away last year with Chicago. He knows how, but right now, it seems like he’s not trying. He’s not making any adjustments. We threw him the same pitch in the same count four times in a row, and he swung and missed all four times. He definitely is too pull-conscious right now.
Dave: Okay, so if you’re Don Baylor, how do you fix him?
Scout A: Throw him a thousand curveballs a day. He has to learn how to recognize offspeed pitches. He doesn’t have to hit them. He just has to learn to see that its a curve ball and not swing. Nobody in this league throws him a curve for a strike, because the book is out. He’ll chase the hook in the dirt, so there’s no reason to risk leaving one up for him to drive. Until he stops swinging at that pitch at his toes, he’s an automatic out.
Scout B: Make him go the other way. Do whatever it takes to make sure he understands that he can’t pull every pitch, especially soft stuff. He has to hit the ball to right field. As long as he’s trying to rip every pitch down the line, he’s an out. And have patience. He’s always come around after a few hundred at-bats. Don’t give up on the kid. He’ll come around.
They both said pretty much the same things. The book on him is to pitch him away with breaking balls and change-ups and let him get himself out. He’s too impatient to walk right now, so there’s no reason to throw him anything on the inner half. Just pound him away with offspeed stuff and take the easy out. This lines up with what I’ve seen, and what I felt, but it was good to know that both think that this is something he can break out of.
After we were done talking, I decided to look at some hitting charts for Olivo to see if the objective evidence backed up the scouting observations that Olivo has become more pull-conscious since the trade. The results are amazing. Since the hitting charts aren’t broken out by pre-trade/post-trade but are broken out by ballpark, I used U.S. Cellular Field as a proxy for his 2004 in Chicago and Safeco Field as a proxy for his time with Seattle.
Olivo with White Sox:
Singles:: Left-6, Center-2, Right-3
Doubles/Triples: Left-2, Center-4, Right-1
Home Runs: Left-4, Center-0, Right-0
Fly Outs: Left-6, Center-7, Right-8
Olivo with Mariners:
Singles:: Left-7, Center-3, Right-1
Doubles/Triples: Left-4, Center-2, Right-0
Home Runs: Left-4, Center-0, Right-0
Fly Outs: Left-7, Center-7, Right-4
The graphical hitting chart makes the case even better than the numerical breakdown above. In Chicago, Olivo was a pull hitter, but not a dominant one. His extra base hits were in the right-center field alley, and he had a majority of balls in the air to right field. Since the trade, however, he’s basically cut the field in half, hitting almost solely to left field. The hitting chart is in complete agreement with the scouts take: since the trade, Olivo has been far too pull-conscious, making him an easy out by exploiting the outside half of the plate.
Is this fixable? Two pro scouts think so. His minor league numbers and his performance in Chicago suggest that there is offensive talent there, somewhere. He just has to make some adjustments. He can’t continue to just hope the funk miraculously ends. This is going to take some proactive work on the part of Miguel Olivo. He has to make strides in hitting to right field, recognizing and laying off the breaking ball, and adjusting to what pitchers are throwing him.
For the M’s sake, lets hope he can.