OAKLAND – Matt Olson and Chad Pinder will never forget the day they turned 24 and 26, respectively. On that day, the two friends and longtime teammates lined up on the chalk of a big league stadium on Opening Day for the first time.
“I was getting chills just talking about it the other day,” Pinder said before the Oakland A’s took on the Texas Rangers on Thursday. “It was the best birthday present I’ve ever had. It was cool.”
Olson and Pinder have been teammates since the 2014 season, when they suited up for the High-A Stockton Ports. In 2015, they moved up to Double-A together. In 2016, it was a jump to Triple-A. After making their major-league debuts in 2016, the duo began the 2017 season in Nashville but would end up spending much of the regular season in the big leagues.
The 2017 season was trying at times for both players. While Pinder spent all but the first three weeks of the season on the major-league roster, he had to adjust to being a utility bench player. An infielder his entire professional career, Pinder had to learn to play the outfield on the fly in order to get himself into the lineup. Olson had to deal with the uncertainty of whether he would be on the major league roster or not, and when and where he playing time would come from. He was promoted from and sent back down to Nashville five times before finally moving into the A’s lineup for good on August 8.
Both players made the best of their situations. Pinder carved out a valuable role as the A’s most versatile player, seeing time in the field at second base, shortstop and all three outfield positions. He hit 15 home runs and drove home 42 in 87 games played. Olson went on an historic power run, cranking out 24 home runs in just 189 at-bats. Despite playing in only 59 big league games, Olson finished fourth in the American League’s Rookie of the Year balloting.
A’s manager Bob Melvin says it can be an adjustment for a younger player to learn how to be productive without having an everyday role.
“For younger players who are used to playing everyday in the minor leagues, the most difficult thing is learning to come off the bench,” Melvin said on Thursday. “Nowadays you see more and more younger players on the bench for any number of reasons.”
Olson says early on last year when he wasn’t playing regularly, it was tough to get into a groove mentally.
“It’s nice to be able to kind of know that I’m in the lineup most days and can approach my work and the games a little differently where the other day around – when you’re getting one start every three or four days – it’s harder to get into the rhythm,” he said.
This year, Olson has played in all eight of the A’s games thus far, and he figures to be in the lineup everyday as long as he remains healthy. All of those starts have come at his natural position, first base. With Yonder Alonso ahead of him on the first base depth chart, Olson played mostly right field during his big league stints in 2016 and early 2017. That all changed when Alonso was traded on August 8 of last year.
Olson says he doesn’t mind playing right field, but that first base comes more naturally to him.
“I think there’s no doubt that I’m a better first baseman than I am a right fielder. As far as how it affects me, any way that I can get in the lineup last year, I was taking anything,” he said. “Would I rather be playing first base? Yeah, probably, just because I’ve played that the majority of my life and it comes natural. There are some things in the outfield that don’t just come as naturally to me. It’s nice to be back in that little more comfortable feel being in there everyday.”
Olson gave himself a birthday present when he hit a home run on Opening Day. An 0-for-4 on Thursday dropped his batting average for the young season to .241, but he has seven hits in the first eight games and has walked four times. Olson says he feels better at the plate right now than he normally does this early in April.
“It’s getting there. I’m kind of notoriously a slow starter but even this year with spring I had a little bit better spring than normal and I feel better right now than I typically do at this point in the year,” he said. “Just to be able to see some balls get through and to get some results, hopefully that can kind of cut down that slow start and get rolling a little quicker.”
While Olson has an everyday role as the A’s regular first baseman, Pinder is still dealing with irregular playing time. He is in the lineup in the outfield against left-handed pitchers and acts as the A’s only backup infielder. Pinder played only once out of the first five games of the season, but he got three starts in a row against Texas this week. He was productive in those three games, going 4-for-11 with a double, a home run, a walk, a hit by pitch and three runs scored.
“Getting some consistent at-bats for him helps,” Melvin said. “You don’t have to play mind games with yourself that you’re ready to go after three or four days off. He’s shown that when he gets consistent at-bats, he’s a very productive player.”
Pinder says he learned a lot from his experience as a utility player last season.
“I’ve continued the work I did last year to find a routine to get myself settled in when I am playing different positions and different days,” he said. “Really the ultimate thing is being out there. I’ll do whatever it takes to be prepared for that. I just need to continue to be ready for when there are opportunities.”
On Tuesday, that opportunity came in the form of a start against four-time All-Star southpaw Cole Hamels. While the rest of the A’s lineup struck out 11 times against Hamels, Pinder hit a double, a home run and drew a walk. Lifetime, he’s 6-for-6 with three home runs and three doubles off Hamels.
“That’s just one of those things that I just don’t have an answer to,” Pinder said when asked why he has hit Hamels so well. “I don’t know. I really don’t know. I’ve had success against him and hopefully that continues, but just have good at-bats. That’s all that matters.”
Olson found himself on the flipside of a matchup against a high-profile pitcher over the weekend. He faced off against Japanese phenom Shohei Ohtani in Ohtani’s MLB pitching debut. Ohtani struck out Olson on three pitches – two 99 MPH fastballs and a nasty split-finger fastball – the first time the two faced each other.
Olson says the A’s didn’t have a lot of information to work with in preparing to face Ohtani beyond tape from his starts in Japan.
“There’s a little bit of a feeling out process and that first at-bat, he didn’t really give me much time to feel him out,” Olson said. “He had good stuff. It’s just going to have be at-bats off of him and watch how he throws to guys and create a book off of him from that.”
Olson will get another opportunity to face Ohtani on Sunday in Anaheim. Pinder’s availability for the series against the Angels remains to be seen. He hyperextended his left knee fielding a ball in centerfield on Thursday. Pinder remained in the game but had the knee in ice postgame. All three scheduled Angels starters this weekend are right-handed, so Pinder may have a few days to rest the knee before he’s called on to start again.
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