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Starting Nine: What’s been right and what’s been wrong with Matt Olson

He’s delivered doubles in excess, but defense and situational hitting have been sticking points for the Braves’ new first baseman

MLB: Atlanta Braves at Arizona Diamondbacks
Matt Olson is on pace for 73 doubles, which would break the single-season record of 67 set by the Red Sox’s Earl Webb in 1931.
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

If the Braves were riding the wave of a championship into another successful season, the spotlight wouldn’t be so bright on the only major lineup change from that World Series winner. But here we are, with Atlanta below .500 in the nascent days of June and sitting 10 1/2 games back of the Mets in the National League East, further than it was at any point of last season.

Within an offense that’s largely been stuck in neutral, Matt Olson isn’t the reason for those frustrations (though it hasn’t all been perfect). In fact, he’s been the lineup’s most productive qualified hitter in a group that is 14th in runs scored, 21st in fWAR and seen two everyday players in Ozzie Albies and Adam Duvall suddenly become below league average hitters.

But in stepping into the shoes of Freddie Freeman, former MVP and franchise foundational piece, Olson’s first two months as a Brave came with heightened focus.

Here’s what has gone right and what has gone wrong for Olson.

1. Right: Doubles on doubles on doubles

No Braves player has ever hit doubles at the rate that Olson has, and few players on any team have ever collected as many two-base hits as Olson has through 51 games. His MLB-leading 23 at this point in the season — a pace of 73 — are the most since David Ortiz hit 26 in 2016 and is three than the most by any Brave (20 each by Johnny Estrada in 2004 and Freddie Freeman in 2020).

At Olson’s current rate, he’ll obliterate the franchise mark of 51 set by Hugh Duffy in 1894 and break the majors’ single-season record of 67 set by the Red Sox’s Earl Webb in 1931.

It’s not the kind of extra base hits many forecasted for a slugger coming off a 39-home run season, with Olson having almost doubled (pun very much intended) his previous career high of 12 two-base hits through 51 games in 2021. But within those doubles, Olson is generating an average exit velocity (91.5 mph) that’s nearly identical to last season and is delivering a higher percentage of hard-hit balls (39 percent) than a year ago (36.3).

Per Statcast, Olson’s down two homers from his actual HRs (six) to his expected HRs. But he’s had seven batted ball events, five of which were doubles and two that were flyouts that all had launch angles of 21 degrees of more (16-20 degrees is that ideal range and where Olson has lived throughout his career. Per the mandatory follow @would_it_dong, each would have been homers in another park, including three doubles and two flyouts at Truist Park.

If you’re tired of blaming the ball, you’re going to hear it again, because Olson is hitting the ball hard and doing so consistently.

2. Wrong: Tainted gold?

Olson entered this season with 14 more defensive runs saved than any other player since 2018, had a UZR that was double the next closest at the position and was second during those seasons in Outs Above Average. Olson also arrived in Atlanta with a pair of Gold Gloves on his resume from 2018 and ‘19.

These first 51 games in Atlanta have looked anything but golden, and it came to a head Monday in Arizona, when Olson dropped a throw that would have been an inning-ending double play. Instead, he opened the door for a two-run double from Ketel Marte.

That’s the visual for Olson being a negative defensive player for the first time in his career, with a minus-0.8 UZR and he’s tied for eighth among first basemen with one OAA. He’s also committed two fewer errors than he did last year in 900 fewer innings.

It all adds up to Olson being ninth among qualified players at the position at minus-2.6 Def, putting him just a notch above the Mets’ Pete Alonso (minus-2.8). Since Alonso’s debut in 2019, he’s been the worst league’s worst player at first in Def.

Here’s the thing though, Olson’s success rate/out probability (73 percent) is higher than a year ago in Oakland and his best in a 162-game season since he won his last Gold Glove. He’s in the negative on plays in (minus-1 OAA), but that was the case back in 2019 as well.

There’s also been a benefit to this point to Olson getting out of Oakland Coliseum, where Olson had been negative OAAs every year, which makes sense in a ballpark that has the most foul territory of any MLB stadium.

The errors stick out, but nothing else is a red flag from his normal defensive profile, and not having to cover as much ground to his left like he did with the A’s should be a net positive by season’s end.

3. Right: The last week

Olson ended the series against the Diamondbacks by going 0-for-4 with a walk and a two strikeouts Wednesday (that’s bad), but in all he was 5-for-14 over those three games with three doubles and a homer (that’s good).

Go back to Olson’s sixth-inning home run off the Phillies’ James Norwood on May 24 and he’s 11 for his last 34 with two homers, seven doubles and an OPS of 1.224. In that span, he’s posted the game’s 15th-best OPS and 16th-best wRC+ (232) along with the 13th-best ISO (.433), and to little surprise, no one has hit more doubles (seven).

Tuesday’s extra-inning loss damped the mood, but it felt like Olson’s coming out party as a Brave as he hit two doubles and homered in a four-RBI night. It was the first game of his career in which he’d gone deep along with a pair of two-base hits.

4. Wrong: Situational struggles

Olson’s fourth-inning homer Wednesday came with Austin Riley aboard and the fifth-inning double — both of which off Arizona’s Humberto Castellanos — drove in Ronald Acuña Jr. and Marcell Ozuna.

Those are positive developments for what’s been one of the biggest issues among Olson’s first two months as a Brave.

He’s hitting .194 with a .669 OPS and 89 wRC+ with men on, delivering five doubles and two home runs in those situations. Meanwhile, 18 of his two-base hits and four homers have come with the bases empty, when he’s hitting .307 with a .976 OPS and 170 wRC+.

There are only 10 qualified hitters who have been more productive than Olson with the bases empty, a who’s who of early MVP candidates with the likes of Aaron Judge, Mike Trout, Rafael Devers, Mookie Betts.

Meanwhile, among 239 qualified hitters, Olson is in the bottom 30 percent with men on.

5. Right: Doing damage vs. righties

Olson is hitting .281/.378/.516 with 147 wRC+ against right-handed pitching through 148 plate appearances, putting him in line with the best production he’s had in his career at this point of a season.

Last season, he hit four percent higher (151 wRC+) and had an OPS that was 30 points higher, but his batting average is eight points better in 2022 and he’s never had more extra-base hits than he does right now (22).

Olson’s .388 wOBA ranks 23rd among all qualified hitters vs. righties and he’s 29th in wRC+.

6. Wrong: Reverting against lefties

Between 2018-2020, Olson hit a combined 18 home runs against left-handers with a .726 OPS, then he put those struggles behind him last season in bashing 22 homers with a .962 OPS and 159 wRC+.

Olson is back to having issues vs. lefties again, with that OPS dropping to .738, his lowest in a 162-game season since 2018.

After a May 8 double off the Brewers’ Aaron Ashby until he hit another two-base hit off the Diamondbacks’ Kyle Nelson on Tuesday, Olson was hitless in 14 straight plate appearances against left-handers. He followed that two-bagger vs. Nelson by striking out in his first two trips to the plate opposite Madison Bumgarner on Wednesday.

Olson is now hitting .210 (13-for-77) against lefties. A year ago, that number was 60 points higher.

7. Wrong: Catch a whiff

Olson’s strikeout rate has increased nearly seven percent year over year, going from 16.8 in 2021 — which was his career low in any full 162-game season — to now 23.6.

Within those strikeouts, he’s whiffing at a 29.1 percent rate that includes a jump of 6.1 percent over last season. That’s the seventh highest increase of any qualified player and comes a season after he saw that whiff rate drop 11.8 percent. He’s been at his worst against curveballs, with a 34.3 percent whiff rate and that pitch has been responsible for 35.3 percent of his strikeouts. That’s a 16 percent increase year/year in his Ks via the curve.

8. Right: Take a walk

Along with that elevated strikeout rate, Olson is also drawing walks and doing so at a career high. Case in point, his bases-loaded free pass Wednesday that pushed the Braves’ lead to 6-0 in the ninth inning in Phoenix.

Among NL players with at least 200 plate appearances, only the Nationals’ Juan Soto (18.8 percent) and the Phillies’ Kyle Schwarber (14.6) have a higher walk rate than Olson’s 14.5. It also constitutes a career high for the first baseman, who had a 13.1 percent walk rate last season, and was at 11.6 percent through this part of the 2021 schedule.

Soto is also the only player in the majors ahead of Olson in terms of pitches seen, with the Washington outfielder drawing two more (940) than Olson (938).

9. Right: He’s stacking up favorably to Freeman

We waited this long to stack the current first baseman against the old first baseman, but let’s get into it, because it’s going to continue to be the inescapable part of things for Olson. How he performs (or doesn’t) is going to be compared to what Freeman is doing for the Dodgers.

Through 225 plate appearances, here’s where it stands:

  • Olson: .258/.369/.474, 23 doubles, six homers, 22 RBI, 135 wRC+, 1.2 fWAR
  • Freeman: .295/.387/.466, 19 doubles, four homers, 30 RBI, 141 wRC+, 2.1 fWAR

Even if we’re of the belief that this isn’t Olson operating at his highest point, if you take what was deemed a struggling Freeman at this point of 2021, Olson’s OPS is still higher (.843 to .828) and he’s hitting 17 percent higher (135 wRC+ to 116) than where Freeman was through 225 PAs a year ago.

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