There is no way to sugar coat it, Matt Olson is having a down year, by his standards, for the Atlanta Braves. This is not to say that the Atlanta Braves should regret making the trade for Matt Olson . Olson still has a lot of pieces that could make him a very good player. However, it is obvious that his first year in his new home has been kind of a bummer.
In 2021, Olson had a fantastic season with a slash line of .271/.371/.540, good for a wRC+ of 148 (that is, his batting line was 48 percent above league average). For reference, Freddie Freeman had a wRC+ of 135 in 2021; Olson arguably had an even better offensive season than Freeman last year.
2022 has been a completely different case for Olson. At the time of this writing, Olson currently has a slash line of .234/.319/.456 with a wRC+ of 112. That’s a big drop. Last year, among the 360-plus players with 200 or more PAs, only 12 had a better wRC+ than Olson. This year, there are nearly 110 players with 200+ PAs and a higher wRC+ than Olson. Olson’s xStats indicate that none of this is bad luck. Outside of the 2020 shortened season, Olson’s xBA, xSLG, and xwOBA are career lows for him, and accounting for the diminished run environment of 2022 doesn’t do much of anything to change this.
Olson’s season hasn’t been a protracted morass, so it’s not like he’s forgotten how to hit. Instead, it’s been a lot of ups and downs. His April and August this year look like a lot of his great months in years past; the problem has been that he’s had a few bad months, like July and the start of September, which have really dragged down his line.
Before August 31st, Olson was having a solid offensive season at 125 wRC+, but since then, we have seen his wRC+ drop to 112 on the season.
We can also see this by his rolling xwOBA by month
Why is Matt Olson slumping?
At the time of this writing, Olson has a -14 wRC+ in September. That’s horrid for anyone. This really raises two questions:
1) Why was Matt Olson having a mediocre season, by his standards, even before September?
2) What has gone wrong in September, in particular?
While there could be a bunch of hard-to-confirm variables in play (new team, home state, taking over for franchise icon, new life-changing contract), we don’t need to worry too much about those. We have plenty of data to help us get at the “why.”
First, some things it probably isn’t: For his entire 2022 season, Olson’s hard hit rate and exit velocity are slightly up in 2022 at 1.9 percent and 1.1 percent respectively in comparison to 2021. Now, there has been evidence that the ball changing has played a role in how hard the ball is being hit. However, with Olson hitting the ball harder, it would suggest that this is not a root cause of his issues.
In September, his hard hit rate actually improved from his season total. For the season it has been 50.7, in September it has been 52.9. His exit velocity has not varied much from the mean with his full season being at 92.7 and his September being 92.9.
Olson’s launch angle is almost identical having dropped from 16.2 in 2021 to 16.1. Olson’s line drive percentage, groundball percentage, and fly ball percentage do not point to a smoking gun. His liner rate is up 1.5 percent from 2021, his ground ball percentage up 0.3, and fly ball rate down 2.1. Essentially, he has traded a few fly balls for line drives. In September, there has been a drastic shift, which could be playing a part in his struggles.
In September, Olson’s line drive rate has plummeted to 13.2 percent from 18.3, and his fly ball rate has shot up to 50 percent from 41.7. These shifts in and of themselves do not necessarily mean it is the root cause of his struggles, but combine this with other variables, and it can point to being part of the problem. Olson’s ground ball rate has actually dropped from 40 percent in all of 2022 to 36.8 percent in the month of September. Given that what you really want are deep flies and liners, these changes in September are more descriptive of the fact that he’s having issues, than the cause of the issues themselves.
So, if it’s not slower contact, or grounder-itis, what else is causing the drop in production?
The most obvious thing is that Olson’s strikeout percentage is way up from 2021. In 2021, he struck out in 16.8 percent of PAs; in 2022 he’s going down on strikes in 23.9 percent of his PAs. To be fair, Olson’s 2022 strikeout rate is still lower than what he managed prior to 2021, but it is playing a part.
In September, Olson’s strikeout rate is about seven percent higher than the rest of his season at 30.8 percent. For reference, only one qualified hitter in all of MLB has a higher strikeout rate than 30.8 percent on the season (Patrick Wisdom). For just the month of September, only 17 qualified hitters have a higher strikeout rate.
Even beyond strikeouts, Olson’s swing decisions themselves are trending in the wrong direction. He is swinging more often overall (swing rate up 2.5 percent relative to 2021), and his swings have not been against quality pitches, as his chase rate is up 4.2 percent. This 4.2 percent is pretty substantial: Olson went from being a top quartile guy at avoiding chases to a more average-y, 60th percentile guy.
Olson has also put himself in a hole early in counts. He has been starting at bats with a strike much more often in 2022 than in 2021. This increases the odds of a strikeout. His first-pitch swing rate is up 7.4 percent, and his first-pitch swing rate is 8.2 percent. While swinging early in the count is by no means a problem if you do something great with it, it hurts the rest of the PA if you don’t. Olson has a weak .327 xwOBA and .275 wOBA on the first pitch; the league is at .387/.381. He clearly isn’t really picking the right first pitches to swing at, and it’s having downstream effects on his PAs without the benefit of crushing a good first pitch.
Where is Matt Olson swinging and missing?
It’s not rocket science that more chases lead to more whiffs, and Olson’s whiff rate is up a quite a bit at 5.1 percent. Olson went from being better than 64 percent of the league in 2021 at not whiffing, to the 27th percentile in 2022, which is a crazy-big drop to have in a single year.
By the numbers above it is clear that Olson is not only swinging and missing more, but also swinging more at bad pitches, while being less selective.
Specifically, Olson seems to be having trouble with pitches that are low and inside. In 2021 he excelled in this area.
In 2022 he has struggled
In the quadrant of the heat map that is vertically at the very bottom of the strike zone but is 0-6” inside, Olson only swung at a pitch that was thrown there 15 percent of the time in 2021. In 2022 he has swung at that pitch 43 percent of the time. Both in 2021 and 2022 he had a .000 batting average in pitches thrown in that quadrant.
In the quadrant that is 0-6” below the strike zone and 0-6” inside, Olson only swung at that pitch 5% of the time it was thrown there in 2021. In 2022, has swung at a pitch thrown there 36% of the time. In this same quadrant, Olson has a whiff percentage of 90.
Low pitches in general seem to be Olson’s kryptonite. If we include all the quadrants from the image above that are horizontally in the strike zone, but are vertically 0-6” below the strike zone, Olson has swung at these pitches 58% of the time in 2022. In 2021, Olson only swung at these pitches 42.5% of the time.
Olson swinging at these low pitches are well above league average in 2022
It appears that opposing pitchers may have figured this weakness out. In 2021 Olson only saw 268 pitches that are horizontally in the strike zone, but are vertically 0-6” below the strike zone. At the time of this writing, Olson has already seen 304 of these pitches in 2022.
Opposing pitchers are also starting to utilize a slider against him much more often. Since 2020, Olson’s worst xBA against any pitch has been the slider. In 2020, he saw a slider 15.9% percent of the time. In 2021 he saw a slider 15.4 percent of the time. In 2022, pitchers are now throwing him a slider 20.8 percent time of the time.
In 2022, Olson has dropped off hard against righties throwing him breaking balls. In 2021 he had a xwOBA of .342, in 2022 it has plummeted to .286. While he probably shouldn’t be seeing many breakers from righties in the first place, the fact that he hasn’t punished them when he’s gotten them is another issue.
Another area to explore is where Olson is hitting the ball as far as pulling, center, or opposite field. For his 2022 in comparison to 2021, there has not been a massive shift in his approach. In 2021, Olson pulled the ball 40.4 percent of the time, in 2022 it has been 39.6. The biggest difference is that he is hitting the ball center more than opposite field this year. This year his center percentage is up 3.5 percent from 34.6, and his opposite field percentage is down 2.8 percent to 22.3. For what it is worth, his career opposite field percentage is 22.3, so it is not like there has been a huge dropoff or anything like that.
In September, the biggest change is that he is not pulling the ball quite as much. He has traded pulling the ball for hitting the ball up the middle. His pull percentage in September is 2.8 lower than his season average. Olson has been hitting the ball center 1.4 percent more in September than his 2022 season mean.
While September is a much smaller sample size than an entire season, it does play at least a minimal factor in production drop off.
There is a good chance that Matt Olson’s best baseball is not behind him. However, there are some clear areas as to why he is struggling in 2022.
In a nutshell, here some of the main reasons why:
- Swinging on the first pitch more often unsuccessfully, increasing his odds for a strikeout — and not doing damage on the first pitch when he does connect.
- Swinging at pitches low and inside of the strike zone at a higher rate, resulting in more whiffs. Pitchers are capitalizing on this.
- Seeing more sliders due to him struggling this year against them (especially against righties).
In September, there have been clear reasons for struggles as well:
- Olson’s pull rate is down.
- Fly ball rate increased and line drive rate decreased, which would be fine if the flies are homers, but they haven’t been.
- Strikeout rate drastically increased.
If Matt Olson can stay away from pitches that are vertically 0-6” below the strike zone, and work on hitting a slider, odds are we will see some substantial progress. He had great outputs in August, it’s just a matter of getting him back there.