By Sahadev Sharma
It wasn’t too long ago that Mike Olt was a consensus top prospect. Entering the 2013 season, Baseball Prospectus named him the 30th best prospect in all of baseball. But, as many realize, rankings don’t mean much if the performance doesn’t match the expectations.
That was certainly the case with Olt this season during his big league stint with the Cubs. Olt posted a line of .139/.222/.353 with a rough 39.6% strikeout rate in 72 games on the North Side. On July 23, the Cubs optioned Olt to Triple-A Iowa and since then the numbers started to resemble the ones that earned him top-prospect status just 18 months ago.
When Olt was initially sent down, both president of baseball operations Theo Epstein and manager Rick Renteria said that Olt admitted to developing some bad habits at the plate over the recent past. While speaking with him recently in Des Moines, Olt acknowledged that was the case, but believes he’s made changes to his approach and as corrected the flaws that led to his struggles while with the Cubs.
“My swing the last two years just hasn’t been the same as it was in 2012,” Olt said, referring to the season in which he hit .288/.398/.579 with 28 home runs with the Texas Rangers’ Double-A affiliate. “We noticed some things in the video that I was doing with my head. I was seeing the ball great, my eyes are great, but I wasn’t seeing the ball into the bat. So I come down here, worked on a lot of things, just changed my swing completely, pretty much. I’m a lot wider, I don’t have a lot of head movement now, short leg-kick. Everything’s a lot simpler. Which is what I need. I’m seeing the ball a lot better, so it’s good.”
While playing winter ball after the 2012 season, Olt was hit in the head and suffered a concussion. After a bout with post-concussion syndrome, Olt started having trouble with his eyes and discovered this past off-season that he was having allergy issues, which made his eyes very dry and kept him from seeing the ball well. Now that his eyes are properly lubricated, Olt says those issues are a thing of the past. But he believes the bad habits he developed may stem from the numerous problems he’s faced over the past two seasons.
“Some of it leads towards what happened when I got hit in the head,” Olt said. “It’s like my body coming up with a way to protect itself after that. So I went a whole year with that bad habit and then continued through. I wasn’t picking up off-speed pitches well. That’s always been a strength of mine, hitting off-speed pitches, so it was definitely frustrating being there and not doing what I was supposed to do. Coming down here, it’s been a great adjustment. I’m happy because a lot of my hits are off off-speed now, so it’s good.”
Olt is on point when he says he was having trouble with off-speed pitches and breaking balls. According to baseballsavant.com, of Olt’s 26 hits, 21 came against ‘fastballs’ (including four-seam, two-seam, sinkers and split-finger). Add in the fact that Olt was rarely chasing pitches out of the zone – according to Baseball Prospectus, his swing-rate at non-strikes was 23.3%, well below the league average of 30.0% — and the poor results were all the more perplexing. The simple fact is, Olt was just swinging and missing at too many strikes – again, Baseball Prospectus says he was making contact with just 74.1% of the strikes he swung at, while the league average is 87.3%.
“I’m not dumb, I know what those pitchers are doing,” Olt said. “I know what pitches are coming. But I was trying to make physical changes to help it out and nothing was really clicking. Then I came down here and I was able to slow it down and really work on the swing. And I’ve been working hard to get it back to where it needs to be.”
Olt actually had some interesting peripherals while with the Cubs, walking at a 9.0% rate with an impressive .214 ISO. It really appears that Olt’s future success will come down to his ability to make contact, particularly with breaking balls and off-speed pitches.
Olt has certainly seen those results change during his time in Iowa. Through 27 games, he had posted a .301/.348/.592 line with seven home runs. Not everything has been perfect in Des Moines, though, as his 29.5% strikeout rate still raises some eyebrows (as does his .375 BABIP, but assuming his line is lucky solely based off his BABIP is never a good way to break down a player’s statistics, much more information is needed to determine if these numbers are sustainable).
For his part, Olt isn’t concerned with the high K-rate, something that’s always been a part of his game, even when things were going right.
“It’s been great,” Olt said of his time with Iowa. “Even my strikeouts are completely different than they were in the big leagues. I’m not afraid to get two strikes on me, I’m not afraid to work the count. A lot of my strikeouts are 3-2 and a battle and the pitcher just makes a good pitch. I can live with that, but I couldn’t live with what I was doing up there. I was beating myself, I wasn’t letting the pitcher beat me.”
Olt admitted that the intermittent playing time he was getting in the big leagues did affect his ability to get in a rhythm and fix his issues. But he also pointed out that it’s just a bit easier to work through problems in the minors, where the pressure of trying to stay in the lineup and justify his roster spot isn’t nearly as crushing.
“I was up there trying to work with things during the game to try and fix it and really, my head was spinning,” Olt said. “It’s not that the games don’t count here, but I’m able to face a little less pressure to get things going, so I think that helps. And I was able to get the back-to-back-to-back at-bats in games and that helps too.
“Confidence is the biggest part of baseball. When you’re thinking negative thoughts in baseball, you’re gonna have negative results. And that’s kind of how it was up in the big leagues, it was a lot of negative thoughts from me. And just knowing that that’s not the way I play and I’m capable of way more. So that kind of got to me. I definitely have a lot of confidence now and I really feel like that player I was back in 2012.”
Olt said that immediately upon arriving in Iowa, he began working with Iowa hitting coach, Brian Harper. Harper pointed out that Olt didn’t need to incorporate any extra power in his swing, so they toned down his leg kick, which can often lead to player’s having timing issues, especially when not getting regular playing time. Harper also noticed that Olt was letting his front side was open up early, making his swing long and causing his head to move, thus not allowing Olt to keep his eye on the ball as it approached the zone.
“When you’re in the big leagues and you’re not playing all the time, then you press and you struggle, there are lot of mental things going on, you lose confidence and everything,” Harper said. “So, I wanted to, first of all, get his confidence back, then just change little things. Trying to get him to just slow his body down so his hands work better, he’s done a great job of making adjustments. He’s making what I call, ‘in at-bat adjustments.’ He’ll take a bad swing, then adjust in that at-bat and then take a good swing. A lot of it is in your head. You have to just relax your body, just relax and see that ball, then that allows your swing to be in the right position. He’s making some good mental adjustments.”
Harper added that Olt came down to the minors with the right attitude and is doing all the right things to make sure he gets back to the big league club and find success.
“He really wants to do good and he’s a real teachable kid,” Harper said. “He came down here not at all bitter or upset, he realized he needed to make adjustments to get back there and get better. He has a great attitude, so it’s been real easy for him because he wanted to make some changes. It’s hard when you’re up in the big leagues to make a lot of changes because you’re scrambling to keep your job, you’re scrambling to survive, basically. So I think the atmosphere here is a little more conducive to experimenting and learning.”
While Olt’s numbers and attitude appear to be that of someone once again headed down the right path, one has to wonder if that path leads to a future with the Cubs. Olt’s primarily been at first base and DH while in Iowa. At Wrigley, first base is presently filled by all-star Anthony Rizzo, who isn’t going anywhere in the near future, and there is no DH in the National League. As far as returning to third base, the Cubs still believe top prospect Kris Bryant can stick at the hot corner and his arrival is likely coming sometime early next season, possibly eliminating another option for Olt if he were to return to the majors.
However, right now Olt isn’t worrying about those things. He’s working on getting himself back on track, with a likely return coming in September, and from there, he believes the rest will work itself out.
“That’s the only thing I can do, focus on getting myself right,” Olt said, adding that he’s been very comfortable playing at first. “It’s always good to be versatile. I’m just worried about getting my swing right and if I can be in a good spot, hopefully we can figure something out down the road. Other than that, I’m just working on getting better.”