Matt Olson entered a difficult situation in 2022, but put up solid numbers across the board in his first season with the Atlanta Braves. For some players, returning to play in your home town could present its own challenges, and being tasked with replacing a franchise legend like Freddie Freeman could add another level of difficulty. Olson was a consistent performer in the middle of Atlanta’s lineup until a deep slump struck in September. He snapped out of it over the final days of the regular season and then put up a good showing in the Division Series against the Phillies.
The Braves acquired Olson in a trade with the Oakland A’s on March 14 in exchange for four prospects in catcher Shea Langeliers, outfielder Cristian Pache and pitchers Ryan Cusick and Joey Estes. Alex Anthopoulos then wasted no time locking him up long-term on an eight-year, $168 million deal that includes a club option for the 2030 season.
What were the Expectations?
Once the lockout was over, most expected that Freeman would eventually return to Atlanta. However, as negotiations stalled, the Braves grew tired of waiting and pivoted to Olson, who was the best available “Plan B” on the market. Locking Olson up long-term ensured that he’ll be a part of the team’s core for the foreseeable future. The expectation was that Olson would slot into the middle of the Braves’ order and help anchor the lineup for years to come.
Numbers-wise, Olson was a little bit tough to forecast, because his down year happened to be the shortened 2020 season, and he was coming off a career, 5.1 fWAR year in 2021. All things considered, something in the 3-4 WAR range made sense, but you could’ve also safely expected him to replicate 2019 (4.1 fWAR) or 2021 rather than having things weighed down by his 2020 (0.6 fWAR in 245 PAs).
One thing kind of interesting about expectations surrounding Olson was that his defensive reputation had seemingly grown beyond the recent numbers. There was a lot of fixation on his back-to-back Gold Gloves in 2018-2019, but his OAA (and UZR) had fallen into a much more average-y zone since 2019. As such, it wasn’t reasonable to expect that his defense would not be a drag on his value, but that sort of thing happened a fair bit anyway.
Olson got off to a great start, posting a 138 wRC+ and a 14.5 percent walk-rate over the first two months of the season. He hit just six home runs over his first 220 plate appearances, but recorded 23 doubles during that stretch. The power started to tick up in June, as he totaled 21 home runs and drove in 66 runs over the summer months.
Things went south for Olson in September, as he entered a deep slump which skewed his overall season numbers. Over a 24-game stretch from August 28 through September 24, Olson was just 8-for-83 with one home run and 28 strikeouts. He bounced back over the final 10 games of the regular season, going 13-for-37 with six home runs to give him 34 homers for the season and a team-best 103 RBI. Olson carried that good stretch into the postseason where he was 4-for-12 with two homers and five walks in the Division series against Philadelphia.
All-in-all, Olson posted 3.1 fWAR with a 120 wRC+ and barely-above-average defense across 699 PAs, appearing in all 162 games of the regular season.
What went right? What went wrong?
Olson’s 3.1 fWAR in his first season with the Braves was down significantly from the career-high 5.1 mark he had during his final season in Oakland. The September slump played a part, but overall, the Braves were probably reasonably pleased with his overall season.
Per Baseball Savant, Olson finished in the 97th percentile in average exit velocity, the 96th percentile in Hard Hit rate and the 93rd percentile in barrel percentage. The Braves like their guys to do massive damage on contact, and Olson fit into that mold perfectly, even if his contact quality was lower than the lofty highs he had previously reached.
Where Olson struggled was just pitch recognition — he posted a career-high chase rate of over 28 percent, the first time in his career that that stat approached league-average. This didn’t affect his strikeout and walk rates relative to his career that much, but it was enough to tank his line — the strikeout rate jumped from 16.8 percent in 2021 to 24.3 percent in 2022, and the walk rate fell from a career high 13.1 percent to 10.7 percent. Overall, it gave Olson kind of a weird line, where he was elite when he connected and not awful or even bad at the K/BB stuff, but just not good enough at it to push his overall offense above around 20 percent better than league average.
Counting stat-wise, he did set a career-high with 44 doubles and the 36 homers were just five off his total from the previous season, in a diminished offensive environment (but a much friendlier home park). If more of those doubles were homers, Olson probably would’ve had an unequivocally great season, but it’s hard to say he was robbed much, given an xwOBA that mostly equaled his wOBA, and his xHR only exceeded his actual homer total (including the postseason) by one.
Olson’s defensive performance continued to be more or less what it was in the recent past. He posted marginally above-average OAA and UZR, similar to his post-2019 track record, but his DRS was again +6, reinforcing a trend of DRS giving him high marks even when the other metrics stopped doing so. For whatever reason, he was nonetheless a finalist for the Gold Glove Award.
Olson had a completely insane game on May 31, which was the day before the Braves started reeling off their giant winning streak. Yet, that game still ended in a loss. He doubled in the second, hit a go-ahead two-run homer in the fourth, added a two-run double in the fifth, and managed an infield single to boot. He did make an out in the tenth before the Braves were walked off on, but even that out came after the Braves had already taken a lead. And no, I have no idea why this video has the events out of order.
And of course, who could forget this great-slash-accidentally-great piece of hitting, that was A) one of the silliest doubles of the year and B) set up a walkoff win for the Braves:
Amusingly, Olson’s roughest game of the year by WPA really doesn’t seem that rough. He went 1-for-5 in a close game that ended as a 6-2 extra-innings win, with three weak fly outs, a pop out, and a single. I guess that’s the flip side to having a monster game in a loss. As for his worst PA overall? Maybe this one, which doesn’t showcase any kind of egregious chase, but does show the dangers of going with a pitch if you’re not going to elevate it.
It also should be noted here that Olson managed a 216 wRC+ in 17 postseason PAs, and homered in each of the three games that delivered the Braves’ season-defining sweep of the Mets in Atlanta.
Early on, Steamer has Olson pegged in the 3.5 fWAR range as a point estimate for the 2023 season. I think there is a reasonable chance for more, given that he will be more settled in his second season with the Braves, and might avoid an egregious slump. Even during said slump in September, Olson made himself accountable and it was nice to see him end the season on a good note and carry it into the postseason. One thing possibly working in Olson’s favor is the newly-imposed shift restriction for 2023 — there should be less to deter Olson from just selling out and pulling the ball as hard as he can, now that his liners into shallow right won’t be outs by default.