Olson’s key stat is his suddenly modest strikeout rate
Last year, during the abbreviated 2020 season, Matt Olson finished with a .195 batting average. The first baseman still hit for some power, placing Top 10 in AL in homers, but he struck out too much and his overall batting line was barely league-average.
“To put it bluntly, I stunk last year,” Olson said this spring.
Imagine what a best-base bounce-back might look like for the 27-year-old slugger. Now add 10% to that and you’ve got what he’s doing so far this month.
The lefty is tearing the cover off the ball, just like we’ve seen him do before and knew he would again. And if his early returns are anything more than a small-sample fluke, then he might be taking the next step as a star hitter.
First, the basics. These numbers include 245 plate appearances last year, and 66 so far this year.
- Olson, 2020: .195/.310/.424, .227 BABIP, 103 wRC+, 17.5 AB/HR,
- Olson, 2021: .316/.394/.684, .293 BABIP, 201 wRC+, 9.5 AB/HR,
His batting average is back and then some, thanks in part to his BABIP normalizing. His dingers have flown off the charts, and his total of six is just one off the MLB lead, but for now let’s write off at least some of that power to the small sample and come back to it later. We can also use his career baselines to temper excitement on his average (.248) and BABIP (.278). This article won’t conclude by suggesting he might bat over .300 all summer.
You could stop there and pat Olson on the back for a nice start to the year, and for putting last year behind him right out of the gate. But a few other numbers suggest even more optimism.
- Olson, career: 10.8% BB, 25.7% Ks, .370 xwOBA
- Olson, 2020: 13.9% BB, 31.4% Ks, .336 xwOBA
- Olson, 2021: 9.1% BB, 16.7% Ks, .449 xwOBA
He’s always had heavy Three True Outcomes tendencies, with high walk and strikeout rates. Last year the Ks crept up too high, and the extra walks weren’t enough to make up for it. What’s more, nearly half his at-bats ended without him even hitting the ball. Walks are great, but so is a hot Olson swinging and making contact, and you don’t want to lose too much sight of the latter.
So far this year he’s putting the ball in play far more, and without sacrificing the quality of his contact. He’s not walking quite as much yet, but not because he’s chasing, just because he’s getting lots of pitches to hit and actually offering at them. And it’s working, as he’s currently 40 points above his career-high OBP and 80 points above last year.
But the key is the strikeouts, or lack thereof. That’s an enormous drop, from normal slugger territory into elite hitter, and it comes coupled with a dip in his swing-and-miss rate (11.7% career down to 9.5% now). It remains to be seen if he can maintain anything like this pace, but even settling at 20% instead of 25% would be game-changing for him. If he stays in the mid-teens, with the rest of his skill set including top-notch power and great patience and pitch recognition, then he becomes a national superstar. 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.
This is what Josh Donaldson did when he blossomed into a superstar here and then an MVP in Toronto. This is what Marcus Semien did when he finished third for MVP. When you can pound the ball like Olson, and you have the patience and ability to get your pitch, then adding an extra 50 cracks at it because you didn’t whiff as often can make a massive impact.
For starters, that alone will help his batting average, since more balls in play means more hits even if your BABIP doesn’t change. And if part of the process of reducing the strikeouts was tied up in further improving his pitch recognition and selection, such as using virtual reality goggles to simulate opposing pitchers, then it could also mean better contact, more often. Oakland has reached triple-digit exit velocity 112 times so far, and he’s got 20 of them.
A few more numbers, including exit velocity, barrels per batted ball, and xwOBACON (that’s xwOBA on just the balls they hit, removing walks and strikeouts).
- Olson, career: 92.8 mph, 13.8% barrels, .462 xwOBACON
- Olson. 2020: 92.3 mph, 12.8% barrels, .440 xwOBACON
- Olson, 2021: 92.8 mph, 19.1% barrels, .511 xwOBACON
A barrel isn’t a literal measurement of where the ball hit the bat but rather a numerical threshold for contact that’s statistically likely to do serious damage, both in terms of being a hit and being extra-bases. He’s not hitting it any harder overall, but his smashes have taken more useful trajectories.
Instead of a launch-angle revolution to add lift for extra homers, he’s actually cut his once-lofty launch angle (18.4% career) nearly in half (10.5% this year). He’s still elevating enough to leave the yard with frequency, but more often his rockets go horizontally through defenses instead of straight up into the air as routine flyouts. It turns out you can’t shift that well against 107 mph darts.
Again, let’s remember that we’re taking this snapshot at the peak of one of Olson’s signature power binges. He’s homered five times in his last seven games, and that kind of heater will level out eventually. Don’t get caught up in the specifics of a .316 average or a 201 wRC+ or a single-digit at-bat-per-homer rate. Those will regress, with the only question being whether it’ll be a little or a lot.
But some of these underlying trends are absolutely worth keeping an eye on. He’s been more aggressive, and at the same time he’s striking out less than ever, all while making the best contact he’s ever made. If even two of those continue, much less all three, then the surface numbers will take care of themselves, including that surge in dingers that we partially but not completely wrote off at the beginning of the article.
Those would be the ingredients of a monster career year at the plate for Olson.