With Big Shoes To Fill, Matt Olson Is off on the Right Foot

© Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

Less than two weeks into the 2022 season, the Braves and Dodgers crossed paths for the first time, not only rekindling the rivalry between the teams that have met in the last two National League Championship Series en route to World Series wins but also presenting the chance for their recent free agent additions Freddie Freeman and Kenley Jansen to receive some well-deserved fanfare in the presence of their old pals. Freeman figured prominently in Monday night’s game, clubbing a solo homer in his first plate appearance against his old team, furthering a strong start with his new one, while Matt Olson, the Braves’ choice to fill his sizable shoes, collected his fourth three-hit game of the young season and briefly took over the major league lead in WAR and the NL leads in batting average and on-base percentage. His team ended up on the short end of a 7-4 score, and he took an 0-for-4 on Tuesday, though the Braves evened the series in a 3-1 victory closed out by Jansen.

Few players in recent memory have been placed under the microscope as swiftly as the 28-year-old Olson. On March 13, he was still the first baseman for the A’s, though amid the team’s umpteenth teardown, multiple suitors had expressed interest in trading for him. A day later, he was suddenly the new first baseman for the Braves, as the defending champions acquired him in exchange for four players, effectively slamming the door on the Freeman era. The day after that, Olson became a franchise cornerstone himself by agreeing to an eight-year, $168 million extension.

Time will tell as to the wisdom of the Braves cutting ties with their face-of-the-franchise first baseman in favor of making a similarly-sized investment in a talented player four and a half years his junior. But from a baseball standpoint, things are off to a very encouraging start given that Olson is putting up video game numbers: .413/.534/.652 with two homers, a 236 wRC+ and 1.0 WAR in his first 13 games; among NL qualifiers, only Seiya Suzuki has a higher batting average, on-base percentage, or WAR. You don’t need me to tell you that we’re early enough in the season that none of Olson’s relevant statistics have stabilized, but within those eye-popping, unsustainable numbers are reminders of the areas he shored up to put himself in this position.

Olson is coming off the best season of his career, one in which he hit .271/.371/.540 and made his first All-Star team. His 146 wRC+ ranked fifth in the American League, his 39 homers tied for fifth, his slugging percentage ranked sixth, and his 5.0 WAR 11th. It was a huge step up from a very uneven 2020 season in which he hit .195/.310/.424 with 14 homers and a 103 wRC+, becoming just the second player to qualify for a batting title while pairing a wRC+ of at least 100 with a batting average below the Mendoza Line. Carlos Pena did it first in 2010, when he hit .196/.325/.407 with a 105 wRC+ for the Rays. Joey Gallo joined the club last year by hitting .199/.351/.458 with a 123 wRC+.

Like those two sluggers, Olson combined power, a low BABIP (in his case .227), and a high strikeout rate (31.4%) to get to that strange point, and he managed to maintain his punch — and then some — while improving significantly in the other two departments from 2020 to ’21. He actually hit the ball quite hard during the pandemic-shortened season, though his Statcast expected numbers suggested both that he wasn’t getting the full benefit of those hard-hit balls and that even if he were, his placement wasn’t terribly productive. He was particularly pull-happy, and as a big power-hitting lefty with subpar speed, he was an obvious candidate to be shifted against. At the risk of jumping too far ahead in the story, here’s a snapshot of some of his batted balls stats:

Matt Olson Batted Ball Profile

Season BBE EV Barrel% HardHit% GB/FB Pull AVG xBA SLG xSLG
2016-2019 911 92.9 12.6% 50.2% 0.79 47.1% .254 .262 .512 .541
2020 133 92.3 12.8% 45.9% 0.79 47.4% .195 .221 .424 .447
2021 463 91.6 12.7% 48.4% 0.91 40.4% .271 .264 .540 .506
2022 35 94.8 11.4% 57.1% 2.00 31.4% .413 .377 .652 .601

Olson’s 2020 hard-hit rate, barrel rate, exit velocity, and pull rate all ranged between the 82nd and 91st percentile among qualified hitters. Through 2019, he had basically held his own against the shift, with a .292 BABIP and 79 wRC+, both right around the major league averages (.298 BABIP and 78 wRC+) for left-handed hitters over that stretch. He hit bottom when it came to infield shifts in 2020, as his BABIP on such balls — which accounted for about 48% of his plate appearances — dropped to .214, and his wRC+ to 24; the latter ranked in the ninth percentile. Olson wasn’t the only good hitter to struggle against the shift in the shortened season; the uncharacteristically subpar years of Max Muncy, Kyle Schwarber, Anthony Rizzo and Ketel Marte owed plenty to wRC+ splits against the shift ranging from 11 to 25.

Olson’s Statcast numbers from 2021 were quite similar to the year before, ranging from the 82nd to 87th percentile, but he cut his pull rate to a career low. His performance against the shift rebounded to a .273 BABIP and a 72 wRC+ — that’s in about 61% of his plate appearances — putting him back in the ballpark of the major league averages for lefties (.282 and 69, respectively). His Statcast expected numbers offered further testimony as to the value of his less pull-happy approach.

Thus far in the young season, Olson is absolutely scorching the ball, with his hard-hit rate in the 92nd percentile, his exit velo in the 96th, and his barrel rate in the 71st. He’s pulling the ball at a career-low rate, and his numbers against the shift are wild: a .515 BABIP and 241 wRC+ (17-for-33 with five doubles). Somehow all of this is happening while he’s producing a groundball-to-fly ball ratio more than double his career mark.

I’m making no claims on the sustainability of Olson’s 2022 level of performance or even its shape, just noting a trend that’s been part of last year’s turnaround and this year’s even hotter start when it comes to the contact he’s making. As it turns out, we see a similar pattern related to his non-contact. Olson’s 31.4% strikeout rate in 2020 represented a career high, 6.2 percentage points above his rate the previous year, which also happened to be his career rate. He cut that down substantially last year; in fact, he produced the largest year-to-year drop in the Wild Card era:

Largest Year-to-Year Drops in Batter Strikeout Rate Since 1995

Rk Player Team Yr 1 Yr 1PA Yr 1 K% Yr 2 Yr 2PA Yr 2 K% change
1 Matt Olson OAK 2020 245 31.4% 2021 673 16.8% -14.6%
2 Corey Patterson BAL 2006 687 24.5% 2007 503 12.9% -11.6%
3 Josh Reddick OAK 2014 673 22.4% 2015 582 11.2% -11.2%
4 Ryan Klesko SDP 1999 525 24.8% 2000 590 13.7% -11.1%
5 Ron Gant PHI 1998 562 28.8% 1999 605 18.5% -10.3%
6 David Ortiz BOS 2010 606 23.9% 2011 605 13.7% -10.2%
7 Miguel Sanó MIN 2020 205 43.9% 2021 532 34.4% -9.5%
8 Ryan McMahon COL 2020 193 34.2% 2021 596 24.7% -9.5%
9 Bobby Higginson DET 1995 486 22.0% 1996 515 12.8% -9.2%
10 Corey Dickerson PIT 2017 629 24.2% 2018 533 15.0% -9.2%
11 Bryan Reynolds PIT 2020 208 27.4% 2021 646 18.4% -9.0%
12 Trevor Story COL 2017 555 34.4% 2018 656 25.6% -8.8%
13 Josh Bell WSN 2020 223 26.5% 2021 568 17.8% -8.7%
14 Kris Bryant CHC 2015 650 30.6% 2016 699 22.0% -8.6%
15 Kyle Seager SEA 2019 630 21.9% 2020 248 13.3% -8.6%
16 Bryce Harper PHI 2019 682 26.1% 2020 244 17.6% -8.5%
17 Nicky Lopez KCR 2020 192 21.4% 2021 565 13.1% -8.3%
18 Jason Heyward ATL 2013 651 23.3% 2014 649 15.1% -8.2%
19 Delino DeShields STL 1996 642 19.3% 1997 643 11.2% -8.1%
20 Willy Adames – – – 2020 205 36.1% 2021 555 28.1% -8.0%

As noted by the highlighting above, the smaller samples from the short season have left their footprints all over this leaderboard, more with respect to the baseline season than the one with the observed change. That Olson is so far ahead of the pack probably owes something to that, and yet it’s impossible not to notice once you’ve peered at his year-to-year performances, as I did while writing his entry for the first base batch of the positional power rankings, which started the little merry-go-round in my head regarding Olson in the first place.

As with his performance against the shift, Olson’s performance with two strikes crashed through the floor in 2020. After hitting .176/.262/.360 (68 wRC+) with a 43.9% strikeout rate with two strikes from 2016-19 — well above the big league average 49 wRC+ and .294 SLG for non-pitchers, if a bit higher than the league’s 40.8% strikeout rate during that span — he cratered to .114/.199/.220 for an 18 wRC+ in that context, striking out 56.6% of the time.

Olson rebounded last year in a major way, hitting .235/.339/.442 for a 118 wRC+ (third-best in the majors) and just a 31.1% strikeout rate (88th percentile) — lower than his overall 2020 rate! This year, he’s only been in 35 two-strike situations but has raked at a .296/.457/.519 clip in those counts, for a 198 wRC+ that ranks seventh in the majors. He’s striking out 31.4% of the time when he gets to two strikes, matching that 2020 rate, and in just 19.2% of his PA overall.

So where did all of this come from? Olson made some mechanical adjustments after the 2020 season, but A’s assistant hitting coach Eric Martins attributed the slugger’s work with “the little red machine,” a pitching machine later identified as a Heater Sports Power Alley, introduced to Olson by then-teammate Tommy La Stella. Via The Athletic’s Alex Coffey last June:

Martins noticed that Olson was losing his barrel on the bat last season, which created a hole for him at the top of the zone. Working on getting more direct to the ball — with an emphasis on working up at the top of the zone — was a priority, and the little red machine, shooting balls out at a high velocity but at a lower angle, helped him learn how to better get on top of the ball.

“The machine has some ride to it,” Martins said. “It feels like the ball is rising on you, and you can’t make contact if you’re working underneath the baseball — if you’re not in a good position to hit. So I just think the muscle memory of getting on top of the ball has created some good habits for him and reinforced some other stuff that he’s done in the past.

“It’s cleaned up his bat path, helped him keep his barrel on the baseball as he gets into the zone, so those are the habits that he creates while using it.”

Olson has typically pulverized four-seam fastballs, but he struggled against them in 2020, particularly with two strikes. Again we see the pattern: a rebound in 2021, followed by a small-sample extreme undergirding this year’s hot start:

Matt Olson vs. Four-Seam Fastballs

Season PA AVG SLG xwOBA 2-Str PA 2-Str AVG 2-Str SLG 2-Str xwOBA 2-Str K%
2016-2019 466 .243 .546 .372 267 .139 .347 .266 50.6
2020 94 .184 .352 .352 51 .106 .234 .236 60.8
2021 237 .265 .386 .386 116 .184 .466 .371 28.4
2022 28 .455 .818 .500 15 .333 .667 .473 33.3

SOURCE: Baseball Savant

2-Str: with two strikes.

Amid last year’s rebound, Olson put himself in impressive company when it comes to combining power and contact:

Players with Slugging Percentages ≥.500 and Strikeout Rates ≤ 20% in 2021

Pretty cool! This isn’t a super-rare feat, as over the past six seasons an average of 18 qualifiers have met both thresholds, but with strikeout rates trending upwards and slugging percentages coming down, it’s become harder to accomplish; there were also 12 such players in 2020 and 11 in ’18, but 29 in ’19, the year baseball’s overall SLG spiked to .435 amid record home run rates. Freeman is the only player to meet both thresholds five times in the six-year span, while Ramírez, Nolan Arenado, and Mookie Betts each did so four times apiece, albeit with the last two missing the boat in 2021.

Obviously, Olson isn’t going to maintain his .413 average and 236 wRC+ for very long, but his combination of power and contact — not to mention his exceptional defense — should make him a strong replacement for Freeman in Atlanta. For Braves fans put through the emotional rollercoaster of parting with a franchise icon, he might take some getting used to, but a hot start like Olson’s has a way of winning people over.

With Big Shoes To Fill, Matt Olson Is off on the Right Foot

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