The 2023 version of Matt Olson reminded Braves’ fans, and the baseball community at large, that he is among the scariest left-handed hitters in the game. Along with Ronald Acuña Jr., he formed as dynamic a duo as the Braves have had since a couple of guys surnamed Jones and Jones.
The Freddie Freeman saga is a well-documented portion of Braves history and it was, of course, the catalyst for Atlanta adding Olson to the organization. After the lockout ended in March of 2022, the Braves and Freeman were still negotiating a contract. Freeman’s agent called Alex Anthopoulos with the now-infamous ultimatum offer, and the Braves immediately pivoted to Billy Beane and the Athletics to check on the price of Olson. Once it became clear Freeman wasn't coming back, and with the price of Olson in hand, the Braves finally made the call to move on.
On March 14, 2022, the Braves and Athletics completed a five-player deal that sent Olson to Atlanta in exchange for Cristian Pache, Shea Langeliers, Ryan Cusick, and Joey Estes. Freddie Freeman signed with Los Angeles about a week later, and the torch had officially been passed.
What were the expectations?
Olson’s 2022 season was a bit of an enigma. It wasn’t bad by any stretch, as a a 120 wRC+, a .350 xwOBA, 34 homers, and 3.2 fWAR season is perfectly solid production. But it included some incredibly streaky stretches, and “just solid” numbers don't fly for a lot of fans when you're the guy who replaced Freddie Freeman. On top of that, Olson came to Atlanta with a 132 career wRC+ and an fWAR/600 much closer to 4.0 than 3.0, so 2022 seemed like a temporary down year at best, and a marker of a long-term downgrade at worst. So the expectations for 2023 were all over the place.
Those of us who watched Olson all those years in Oakland knew there was more in the tank, and hoped maybe being a year removed from having to play in Freeman’s shadow, plus a year removed from having to adjust to a new offensive approach, would unlock all that talent. Olson had spent his career as a 135ish wRC+ guy so the 120 from 2022 felt incomplete and at the very least, it seemed a better offensive season was on the horizon. ZiPS also had Olson bouncing back to 4+ WAR on the back of hitting around 30 percent, not 20 percent, above league average.
Even the most optimistic of fans could've never imagined what Olson did in 2023, launching 54 homers, a new franchise record, posting a 6.7 fWAR season, rebounding with a 160 wRC+ and a .394 xwOBA, and finishing the 2023 season fourth in MVP voting. Along with Acuña, Olson anchored the best lineup in baseball, the best offense in baseball, and the best team in baseball, exorcising any Freeman demons that anyone still allowed to linger internally or externally.
Offensively, the results looked like this:
Usually hitting 54 homers in a season ranks as the most impressive stat of a season, but averaging almost 94 mph exit velocity across every single ball you hit into play is truly some ridiculous stuff, as is having 56 percent of all your batted balls being hit at 95 mph or greater. Olson’s 2023 can be summed up with three words: very loud contact.
What went right?
This section could just be 54 highlights of baseballs being knocked over different types of fences in a bunch of different cities but we’ll just do a few to make a point:
Olson demolished fly balls and line drives to the tune of a 97 mph average exit velocity. It led to the greatest home run season in the history of the franchise. What may be most impressive about his season was how well he handled every type of pitch. Olson posted a .433 wOBA/.407 xwOBA on fastballs, a .380 wOBA/.377 xwOBA on breaking balls, and a .406 wOBA/.365 xwOBA on off-speed pitches in 2023. His bread and butter has always been destroying 4-seam fastballs and that was no different last year, posting a .451 wOBA/.421 xwOBA against them. He also continued to show elite plate discipline, finishing in the 95th percentile in walk rate and while punishing anything in the heart of the plate.
Relative to 2022, and aside from just hitting everything way harder, Olson made slight changes to be able to smash the ball more frequently. He became more selective, even on strikes, and traded even more z-contact for power. Where he was a little over-aggressive last year, which caused more swings at pitches he couldn’t elevate, he posted the best fly ball rate of his career in 2023.
The game-winning homer against the Brewers in the clips above was actually his second of the game in probably his biggest game of the season — where he had both a three-run shot that turned a 2-3 deficit into a 5-3 lead, and the game-winning one in the eighth:
And sometimes, his prodigious raw power led to ridiculous stuff like this: an 0-2, two-out swing on a non-strike that turned into a three-run homer and his biggest WPA play of the year:
What went wrong?
Very little goes wrong when you post nearly 7 WAR, but there are still some areas Olson can improve on going forward. His elite defensive reputation from Oakland has still never translated to Atlanta and at times, he looked downright miserable over at first base. Olson finished at -4 Outs Above Average and showed very limited range and also some inaccurate throws at times. He was particularly miserable on dealing with slowly hit balls by right-handed batters where the pitcher had to cover first. Just an all around cleaner defensive game would not only help Olson’s individual value but also the team’s defensive profile.
Like anyone, Olson can also get into mini strikeout binges that drag down his whiff rates and contact rates at times. Of course with a guy who can hit 50 homers in a season, strikeouts becomes much less of a concern as that amount of power more than covers it up, but it is an area he could improve. Olson went through a bunch of approach- and adjustment-related struggles in April that ended up being hidden by a .394 wOBA on a .357 xwOBA this year, but was able to figure it out and mash the rest of the year. If those issues occur for a couple of months rather than just one stretch at the beginning of the year in a different season, his line probably won’t be as dominant.
Like most of his teammates, Olson didn’t do much of anything in the NLDS, with four singles and a walk in four games. He, like everyone, also had the occasional bad game. On June 8 against the Mets, which was the epic massive come-from-behind win with big homers from Orlando Arcia and Ozzie Albies, Olson went 1-for-6 with a single, including a strikeout with the bases loaded when down by a run, and fly out to send the game to extra innings with the walkoff run on second. There was also run of the mill stuff like this — who among major league hitters hasn’t tried to pull an outside pitch and ended up with a poorly-timed double play?
Coming off a top four placement in MVP voting and having exceeded expectations such that there’s no doubt about his place in the franchise, Olson is the obvious Atlanta first baseman for now, and for the future. The projection models see a 3.5 to 5 WAR guy with a batting line 35 to 45 percent above league average. Given that Olson outhit his xwOBA a bit in 2023, it’ll be fairly hard for him to replicate his insane 160 wRC+ from 2023... but if a 5ish WAR, 40+ homer season is some sort of consolation, Braves’ fans will be perfectly fine living with the “disappointment.”