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Appreciation For The Sometimes Underappreciated Matt Olson

Oakland Athletics v Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
“Does this swing make me look phat?”
Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images

I wouldn’t say that Matt Olson is as polarizing, on AN, as legendary icons such as Jack Cust and Daric Barton, but suffice it to say that opinions seem to differ as to what Olson is and what he can reasonably be expected to be.

Here are the A’s, somehow 74-49 and tied for 1st place in the AL West with a Houston Astros team whose starting rotation and on field talent and athleticism is pretty daunting. How do you explain that the A’s have been able to go toe to toe with such a good team over a 123 game sample? How do you account for Oakland having a record tied for 3rd best in all of baseball? Matt Chapman is great but he is not quite a 40 WAR player.

Answers to the question of why are the A’s this good lie in a multitude of players and factors, but the fact is one of them is Matt Olson. If your instinct is to think otherwise, consider a few realities many of which are easy to overlook.

  • The notion that Olson is a strict “TTO hitter” whose positive outcomes are mostly HRs and walks, with lots of strikeouts and not much else to offer, is untrue. Olson will never win a batting title, but for the season — slumps and all — Olson is batting .242. So if you are inclined to remember his HRs, his Ks, his pop ups, and not much else, there is in fact much else. (Specifically, he has 60 singles and 26 doubles amongst his 109 hits.)
  • Part of why Olson can maintain a decent batting average with some singles and doubles sprinkled in is that when he does make contact he hits the ball extremely hard. All season, Olson has been in the top 5 in the AL in “hardest contact,” with today’s two doubles providing a couple examples. Currently, with an average exit velocity of 93.6 MPH, according to Fangraphs Olson trails only Giancarlo Stanton, Aaron Judge, Nelson Cruz, and Joey Gallo. When Olson hits the ball he hits it exceptionally hard, allowing him to hit balls through the shift, others past the outfielders.
  • As for the long ball, over the course of a career not yet at 200 games Olson is averaging over 40 HRs per full season. Even throwing out his “Babe Ruth imitation” stretch that was 2017, just looking at this season Olson remains on pace to hit 30 HRs for the year. It may feel like we are in an era where “everyone is hitting 30 HRs” but that is not actually the case.
  • Meanwhile, defensively Olson is being recognized more and more as being elite at 1B. Leading the league in “scoops” (granted it helps when your shortstop goes through stretches of bouncing every other throw), the defensive metrics love Olson no matter how they are viewed. With an UZR/150 of +5.7 and 9 DRS Olson has a very real shot at a gold glove.

So we’re talking about a 1Bman who not only offers gold glove level defense and 30-40 HR power with a good eye, but has maintained a perfectly decent batting average. And now here’s the kicker: Matt Olson is doing all this in his very first full major league season.

Go back to a stat that was only briefly alluded to: Matt Olson has played in all of 193 major league games. Sometimes a player can peak early and have his best season first before fading into the twilight, but more commonly — and we’ve seen it with Olson for sure — first and second year players encounter bumps in the road, teams adjusting and exploiting weaknesses. There is little reason to think Olson has peaked or that he will never get better. In fact, Olson comes across as a “thinking man’s player” with unusual maturity who is willing to make adjustments and can figure things out.

Most likely the best is yet to come, and yet the status quo is darn good when you get down to it. Wonder why the A’s are so good? Olson, who is still just 24 years old all season, is absolutely part of the reason why — and part of why the future, not just the present, looks bright for Oakland.