In late April, we took a closer look at how Matt Olson was crushing the ball and also missing it less. The Oakland A’s first baseman was hitting for all of his usual power in the early going but had slashed his strikeout rate in half from the previous year, and by one-third from his career rate. A slugger with elite power who figures out how to stop whiffing is a superstar, even before factoring in his Gold Glove defense, and I stated the following in that article:
I’m not saying he’ll finish the year at 16.7%, I’m saying that if he does then he’s in the MVP conversation.
It’s been nearly two months, and we’re approaching the halfway point of the season. Olson’s strikeout rate has technically gone down since then, to 16.5%, in far more plate appearances than it requires for that stat to become meaningful.
Accordingly, he’s still having a career year. His 18 homers are halfway to his personal high, and they’re tied for fourth in MLB. His 167 wRC+ is sixth in the majors, and second in the American League. His .297 batting average is higher than anybody ever thought he could hit, and it’s backed up by a completely sustainable .291 BABIP. He’s toward the top of Statcast in xwOBA and exit velocity. By any measure, he’s one of the best hitters in the sport right now.
But it’s not just the stats, it’s how he got them that’s extra encouraging. This isn’t just a hot streak, it’s Olson developing into a better and more complete hitter.
Start with his pitch recognition. He’s swinging more both inside and outside the zone, but his contact rates in both areas have skyrocketed as he learns which pitches he can hit and which ones to lay off. He’s still patient, with a 10.9% walk rate identical to his career norm, he’s just picking his spots better. Even breaking it down by pitch type he’s whiffing less against everything, especially four-seamers and splitters.
When you hit everything hard, it’s a mighty good thing when you start hitting the ball more often. And he hasn’t sacrificed any of his trademark power to accomplish it, as his 93.3 mph exit velo matches his career high, and his 14.7% barrel rate blows away his previous best and ranks Top 10 in the majors.
To illustrate just how seismic of a shift we’re seeing in Olson’s profile, here are some percentile rankings from the last few years courtesy of Statcast, denoting where the player stands among MLB hitters. Higher numbers are better, like harder contact or fewer strikeouts, and they’re color-coded with red being good and blue being bad.
He’s always hit the ball as hard as anybody in the league, and he still is. He’s always walked at a strong clip, and he still is. But he’s gone from one of the easiest strikeouts to one of the toughest, and he swings and misses less often than two-thirds of the sport. Here’s what that does to a player’s batting line:
- Olson, 2018-20: .246 average, 122 wRC+, 18.4 PA/HR, .361 xwOBA
- Olson, 2021: .293 average, 167 wRC+, 14.8 PA/HR, .406 xwOBA
On top of making more contact, he’s beginning to use the whole field more too.
- 2018: 42.7% Pull, 33.7% Middle, 23.6% Oppo
- 2019: 49.4% Pull, 32.1% Middle, 18.2% Oppo
- 2020: 44.4% Pull, 36.1% Middle, 19.5% Oppo
- 2021: 43.2% Pull, 31.6% Middle, 25.3% Oppo
He got a bit pull-happy the last two years, but he’s rediscovering the opposite-field this summer, which is especially useful given the heavy defensive shifts that are employed against him. There are free hits available in left field whenever he wants.
He’s even hitting lefty pitchers. The underlying B/KK rate hasn’t improved and still makes clear that he’s obviously better against right-handers, no matter what the small-sample OPS says, but the fact that he’s thumped eight of his 18 homers against southpaws isn’t a fluke. He’s always been dangerous regardless of opponent and can’t be neutralized by any reliever, as Josh Hader can attest from a couple years ago.
Unfortunately, Olson will not be starting the All-Star Game. There is one hitter in the entire American League who is statistically hitting better, and it’s megastar Vladimir Guerrero Jr and he also plays first base. Olson is playing for an All-Star bench spot this year, and until further notice, the MVP discussion is between Vlad Jr and Shohei Ohtani.
But you don’t need to start the ASG or win the MVP to help your team win a WS. We’re nearly halfway through the season and Olson is still bashing like a superstar, with every sign that he’s taken a real step forward at the plate.