Written by: Ray Butler
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Edward Olivares isn’t supposed to be here.
The Padres are competing for a playoff spot during a shortened season, which means every game holds more mathematical importance than games during a regular, 162-game regular season. Within the last 24 hours, FanGraphs has increased San Diego’s probability of making the playoffs to 78.1%, which ranks higher than the Braves, Nationals, Mets, Cubs, Cardinals and Brewers amongst others. Expectations are officially high in San Diego.
Less than two weeks ago, the team boasted an already-deep MLB outfield, including players like Tommy Pham, Trent Grisham, Wil Myers, Franchy Cordero and Josh Naylor leading the way. The preseason talk centered around whether the team would trade one of Myers or Cordero prior to Opening Day, which would solidify the other’s role as an every day player throughout the 2020 season.
Yet, it’s the end of July and I’m writing a feature on MLB outfielder Edward Olivares.
Barely a top-200 prospect this preseason, Olivares has always struck me as a player who—in the right situation—could potentially have a surprising impact on a big league team throughout his prime. Unfortunately, it was hard to conjure up many logical scenarios in which Olivares would ever play a legitimate role on the Padres, who benefit from an aforementioned abundance of legitimate outfield options with top prospects CJ Abrams, Taylor Trammell and Robert Hassell III currently projected to become every day big leaguers within the next few seasons. I mentioned this exact issue in my write-up for Olivares on my preseason prospect list:
190. Edward Olivares, OF, SD. Age: 23
Olivares has always been a “if only the hit tool would develop” type of prospect. However, the 23-year-old just faced his toughest challenge in the minor leagues (advancing from High-A pitching to Double-A pitching) and slashed .283/.349/.453 with 18 home runs and 35 stolen bases. The 123 wRC+ was Olivares’ highest mark since 2014, when he played in the DSL as a member of the Blue Jays’ organization. The outfielder distributed the ball to all fields a little more in 2019 than in 2018 (and he did it with a stronger frame than in past seasons), but the 41.9 Pull% means the BABIP will always remain modest despite the 23-year-old possessing above average speed. To fully buy-in, I’d love to see a continuation of an increased walk rate (5.0% in 2018, 7.8% in 2019) to pair with future reports of improved patience at the plate. It’s true that he’s likely blocked (perhaps even mega-blocked) in the Padres’ system, but I do feel as though he gets penalized too harshly for it on fantasy lists. He’s already on San Diego’s 40-man roster, so it’s likely he’ll perhaps receive an opportunity more easily than we assume or he’ll be traded to an organization with less gridlock in the outfield than the Padres (a trade would subsequently open a spot on their 40-man for someone like Taylor Trammell). It’s easy for me to continue buying Olivares’ tools, especially in this tier of a prospect list. Padres Rank: 8th
After a stellar 2019 campaign in the Texas League, Olivares’ trajectory continued to ascend this offseason and during Spring Training, thanks largely to a near appearance at the plate. The catalyst behind this evolution will look awfully familiar, but we first have to understand the outfielder’s track record before we can fully appreciate the new-and-improved version.
Let’s start near the beginning, when Olivares was still a member of the Blue Jays’ organization. Here’s a still frame of the outfielder’s batting stance in 2017, when he was playing in the Midwest League (Low-A). Let’s call it our foundation. Got it? Slight knee bend. Front leg open. Bat close to 45 degrees in his stance. A slightly-more-tall and upright José Ramírez, basically.
Truth be told, there’s not a ton of video on Olivares on YouTube. While that’s certainly a negative when you’re attempting to evaluate how his stance and swing path has changed throughout his professional career, it also makes for an appetizing and interesting deep dive. At least to some extent, Olivares is worth writing about because he’s simply a bit off the beaten path relative to current mainstream narratives or talking points.
A full year after being traded from the Blue Jays in a package for Yangervis Solarte, here’s a video of the outfielder from last summer’s Texas League All-Star game.
It’s hard to get a legitimate feel for the stance during his batting practice session, but fast forward to around the 0:30 mark. It looks extremely similar to the stance he utilized in 2017. Open stance, slight knee bend, bat at ~45 degrees in his stance. Again, you don’t have to crane your neck too much to see a little bit of Ramírez in Olivares’ appearance in the batter’s box.
But something changed this offseason. Take a look at the outfielder at the dish during Spring Training 1.0.
Edward Olivares is Oliværy fast.#PadresST pic.twitter.com/fGGIQrwMLk
— San Diego Padres (@Padres) March 2, 2020
The open stance and slight knee bend look awfully similar, but the hands and spine angle pre-pitch are vastly different. Look at the difference from 2017 to this spring. Also, make a mental note of the 1-1 count.
But Olivares wasn’t quite finished displaying his alterations yet. Here, the openness in the outfielder’s stance has disappeared. This is during Summer Camp, and the 24-year-old laces a double against Griffin Canning. Why the change? See if you can figure it out in the video below.
Edward Olivares pokes one down the 1st base line for a double in his first at-bat tonight. #FormerSoddies | @sodpoodles pic.twitter.com/9sh9KDVWYm
— Sam Levitt (@SammyLev) July 21, 2020
Got it? No? If you need another hint, here’s one more video. Again, Olivares’ lower half is neutral pre-pitch.
OLI OLI OLI!
Edward Olivares has his first @MLB knock!#FriarFaithful pic.twitter.com/ktnVlyTlF0
— San Diego Padres (@Padres) July 26, 2020
Surely you’ve got it pegged now. Olivares is altering his lower half according to the count. In plus or neutral counts, the 24-year-old is a bit open, likely looking to maximize his pull-side power and the damage he inflicts on mistakes in favorable counts.
With two strikes, Olivares becomes more square, switching to a contact-first, all-fields mindset.
Stance changes depending on count is not atypical or abnormal, and that’s not the point of this article (though the lovely result of those two-strike at-bats serves as some nice confirmation bias). Instead, the point of this article is to illuminate the striking similarities between Olivares’ early-count stance and the stance of another, more-popular player. I’ve now included six videos or still frames of the outfielder’s stance in 2020. Do you see what I see?
That’s right. Olivares has taken a page out of Ronald Acuña Jr.’s playbook in neutral or favorable counts. I grant you the fact the two stances aren’t 100% identical. Acuña Jr.’s arms are a bit further away from his body (and his hands appear to be a bit lower in his stance, relative to his chin), but any further differences to the naked eye can likely be chalked-up the height disparity between the pair (Olivares is 6-foot-2, Acuña Jr. is 6-foot). In my eyes, there’s no way this is coincidental.
Why the change? First, let’s remember that Ronald Acuña Jr. hasn’t always looked the way he currently looks at the plate. In this highlight video from RAJ’s rookie season, we see his pre-pitch bat angle is actually even flatter than Olivares’ bat angle from early in his professional career.
We actually see these changes quite often in the prospect world. Teenagers with talented hands and sublime bat speed aren’t often exposed to premium velocity at the top of the zone throughout the minor leagues, meaning they can ‘get away’ with a longer swing until they reach the big leagues. After debuting against Gerrit Cole, Jacob deGrom and countless other MLB pitchers who can effortlessly locate >95 mph fastballs at the top of the zone, the same prospects who dominated minor league pitchers are faced with the reality they must shorten their swings to enjoy sustained success at the sport’s top level.
Acuña Jr. and the Braves had this realization despite the fact he posted a 143 wRC+ throughout his rookie season. I can only assume Olivares and the Padres had this same ‘eureka’ moment during the 2019-2020 offseason, leading to the outfielder’s new pre-pitch stance this season. To this point—albeit a microscopic preseason and in-season sample—the process and results speak for themselves.
Shortening the swing path without sacrificing too much (or any) power is increasingly crucial as pitching continues to trend towards a high fastball/low breaking ball attack plan. And if we can safely assume these changes assist in minimizing being exposed by the best pitchers in the world, we can also infer these changes are especially helpful for hitters with high swing rates and aggressive approaches. Acuña had a single-digit walk rate and a 25.3 K% in his rookie campaign before altering his stance and swing prior to last season. Olivares has a career minor league walk rate of 6.8% (with an adequate 17.7 K%) prior to 2020. Optimizing contact rates simply makes sense for players with aggressive approaches and excellent hand-eye coordination, which Olivares appears to epitomize. And while it’s not the focal point of the adjustment, a steeper pre-pitch bat angle (with significantly lower hands) and a more efficient swing path can also lead to increased natural loft throughout the zone. Olivares has yet to post a FB% greater than 35.0% since being traded to the Padres, so I’m extremely interested to see if he elevates the ball more frequently and more consistently this summer. Perhaps there’s more power in this profile than we’ve evaluated to this point?
Always ahead of the curve, San Diego’s R&D department likely asked Olivares to make these changes following a season in which he posted a 123 wRC+ (18 home runs, 35 stolen bases) as a 23-year-old in Double-A. And, of course, these changes also took place before the outfielder even debuted at the big league level. From an active roster standpoint, the overhaul at the plate (teamed with the outfielder’s speed and defensive prowess in right field) immediately helped Olivares evolve from a relative afterthought to the Padres opting to trade a waning Franchy Cordero to the Royals (for a super-underrated Tim Hill), which helped ensure the 24-year-old was awarded a spot on the Opening Day roster for the sprint season.
Throughout my studying process, I searched to find any inkling of whether Olivares has publicly discussed his alterations leading up to or during the 2020 season. While I didn’t find any quotes, I did realize I’m not the first person to see the Olivares/Acuña Jr. similarities. Sam Monroy of Proformance Advantage notes the similarities between the pair below, evaluating the stances and swings from an open-face viewpoint.
I’m buyin the adjustments and breakout. Upright stance, lower hands and swing looking more n more like Ronald Acuña. Friars gotta feel giddy here. #MLB pic.twitter.com/MaAtAcOZrk
— Sam Monroy (@sammonroy) July 17, 2020
Now, it’s incredibly important to note that Edward Olivares isn’t suddenly going to become Ronald Acuña Jr. simply because the former is imitating the latter at the plate. There’s less explosion, less quick-twitch and less natural loft in Olivares’ swing. In all likelihood, the 24-year-old isn’t a future first round fantasy pick. He almost certainly isn’t a future NL MVP candidate. That’s certainly not the thesis statement of this article. If anything, I think it’s really cool and telling that Olivares is mimicking his stance after a player who’s nearly two years his junior.
However, even in an outfield that consists of Tommy Pham, Trent Grisham, Wil Myers and others, these changes have ensured Olivares continues to see semi-consistent playing time at the big league level, which was a distant thought less than a year ago. Despite the small sample to this point, we can fairly easily assume the 24-year-old is higher on manager Jayce Tingler’s pecking order than Josh Naylor, who made a lot of top-100 prospect lists not too long ago. Indirectly, the alterations have also allowed the Padres to be more patient with top prospect Taylor Trammell, who continues to work to perfect his stance and swing mechanics at the Padres’ alternate site after being traded by the Reds last summer.
If Olivares’ swing overhaul simply means he becomes a fringe average big league hitter (a bit of a conservative estimate, in my opinion), his defensive skills in right field and his speed on the basepaths will make him a coveted player, both in real life and in moderately deep fantasy leagues. Even in an ultra-deep organization, the Padres would love for Olivares to become an every day outfielder at the big league level, especially if it meant shifting Wil Myers (signed thru at least 2022) or Tommy Pham (signed thru 2021) to a regular DH role (assuming the newly-implemented rule is here to stay). There’s legitimate multi-win upside here, which I would have scoffed at a year ago when evaluating the then 23-year-old.
From a fantasy standpoint, this change has helped Olivares evolve from a fringe top-200 prospect who might surprise us to—in my eyes—a fringe top-100 prospect who should be squarely on our keeper and dynasty league radars moving forward, even if you play in a shallower format. The relative impact in 2020 only affirms this notion.
To that end, the best news is quite simple: if you play in shallow-ish dynasty leagues, the outfielder might still be available on the waiver wire. Does your league only roster ~100 prospects? Add Olivares to your Watch List and monitor his progress closely. But if Olivares is currently unrostered and your league roster ~150 prospects? It’s time to make a move and add the 24-year-old, especially if your active roster is a bit flexible or you enjoy the convenience of managing your starting lineup on a daily basis.
The past three World Series winners (Astros, Red Sox, Nationals) have a lot of things in common, but one that is rarely discussed is their ability to enjoy massive contributions from players who were once considered afterthoughts. The Astros immediately transformed an ‘aging’ Justin Verlander, who became a key rotation piece in 2017 and beyond. The literal 2018 World Series MVP was Steve Pearce, who retired from the sport less than two years later. NLCS and World Series hero Howie Kendrick posted a career-best 146 wRC+ in 2019, which was more than 20 points higher than any single season performance the infielder had accrued during his 15-year career.
Even if Edward Olivares isn’t that player for the Padres, it’s awfully encouraging to see the organization’s R&D department digging deep to optimize players who are a bit off the beaten path within an extremely deep organization. When San Diego wins a World Series within the next decade, the same growth mindset that led to an improved Olivares that will be a driving force that leads to Fernando Tatis Jr. raising the Commissioner’s Trophy.
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Featured image courtesy of the San Diego Padres’ television feed