In 2017, Matt Olson burst onto the scene. He slugged 24 home runs in just 216 plate appearances while playing fantastic defense at first base and looked like one of the league’s breakout young stars.
The following season, nobody expected Olson to replicate his Ruthian rookie numbers — his absurd .392 ISO and 41.4% HR/FB rate were just unsustainable — but even baking in some regression, he still looked like a threat to hit 35+ bombs in 2018.
While he did put together a very good 2018 season, it was hard not to see it as something of a disappointment. His slugging percentage dropped almost 200 points, from .651 to .453, and he hit “only” 29 home runs. He went from an elite 163 wRC+ in 2017 to an above average, but not spectacular, 117 wRC+ the following year. His defense remained spectacular and earned him a Gold Glove, but he wasn’t quite the impact bat many had hoped he could become.
But there was reason for optimism heading into 2019. The underlying metrics suggested Olson might have gotten unlucky in his sophomore season. His 93.1 MPH average exit velocity ranked in the top 2% of the league, while his 52.2% hard hit rate ranked in the top 1%. It looked like he hit into his fair share of hard outs, which might turn around in 2019.
And the A’s looked like they would need him. If Oakland was to come anywhere close to repeating their 97-win 2018 campaign, they would need significant steps forward from Olson and teammate Matt Chapman to weather the loss of three-hitter Jed Lowrie.
Instead, Olson’s 2019 season got off to just about the worst start imaginable. He struggled in Spring Training, slashing just .129/.200/.161 with nine strikeouts in 35 plate appearances. And just two games into the regular season, he was placed on the Injured List with a right hamate issue that would require surgery.
After missing 34 games, he finally returned to an A’s club that desperately needed him. The team had fallen to 15-21 and Olson’s replacement, Kendrys Morales, wasn’t getting the job done.
But now, 14 (and a half) games later, the A’s are right back at .500 and Olson is part of the reason why. He is continuing to crush the ball, and is showing signs of an improvement over his 2018 season.
Olson has always had a solid eye at the plate, but as one would expect with a power hitter, he has a fair share of swing and miss in his game. In the early goings, he seems to have made slight improvements in both categories.
At 11.3%, Olson’s walk rate is up slightly from his 2018 mark of 10.6%. His strikeouts are also slightly down, from 24.7% to 22.5%, largely due to a drop in swinging strike rate.
These improvements come with the usual small sample size caveat, as he has tallied only 71 PAs so far. But with Olson’s power, if he can keep his strikeout rate below the league average of 23.0%, he could become an elite hitter.
Batted Ball Data
As usual, Olson is hitting the snot out of the ball. It doesn’t seem as if the hand injury has slowed him down at all.
While down a bit from his 98th percentile 2018 mark, his 90.7 MPH average exit velocity remains well above average. His hard hit rate has actually increased to 52.5%, and ranks 17th in baseball (minimum 40 batted ball events), ahead of stars like Gary Sanchez, Javier Baez and J.D. Martinez.
Olson is barreling the ball a ton. Statcast defines barrels as “batted-ball events whose comparable hit types (in terms of exit velocity and launch angle) have led to a minimum .500 batting average and 1.500 slugging percentage since Statcast was implemented Major League wide in 2015.” Thus far, 14.1% of Olson’s plate appearances have ended in a barrel, good for the third-highest mark in baseball behind just Sanchez and a surprising Jason Castro.
The slugger has also traded a few ground balls and line drives for fly balls. At 51.2%, his fly ball rate is the highest of his career and the tenth-highest in the league (minimum 70 PAs). On the whole, Olson’s xwOBA is all the way up to an elite .402, placing him in the top 10% of hitters.
Beating the Shift
Through his first 71 PAs, Olson has tallied eight singles. But two of them in particular were very different.
In just a few short weeks, Olson has notched the first two bunt singles of his career. The first came on May 8th against the Cincinnati Reds, and the second came just a week later against the Detroit Tigers on May 16. In both cases, Olson sent a high fastball towards the vacant third base position for a free base.
Maybe these were two isolated incidents. But if Olson continues bunting against the shift and shows success, defenses will have to adjust. This will open up the right side of the infield just a bit more and allow more hits to go through when he is swinging away.
Nothing dramatic has changed for Matt Olson, and nothing needed to. He has already obliterated the ball throughout the entirety of his major league career. But for a hitter that was already due for some positive regression, some slight tweaks in plate discipline, batted ball distribution and approach could go a very long way. This season, we could very well see Olson reach a new level and establish himself as one of the league’s premier power hitters.