While the start of Spring Training for the 2022 season was frantic thanks to the owner’s lockout, just imagine all that and being Matt Olson. Within days of reporting to Athletics camp in Arizona, Olson was whisked away on a plane headed (metaphorically) to his hometown, Atlanta, to replace franchise legend Freddie Freeman at first base for a team coming off of a World Series title. At Braves Fest, Olson discussed his return home and how he is looking forward to a normal Spring Training this time around.
“Yeah, I was actually talking to my wife last week about it. It’ll be pretty nice showing up to spring and not having to meet everybody and figure out where stuff is. Kind of like be settled in already and have a normal Spring Training and get ready for the year,” Olson said on the start of spring camp.
“It was weird not having to pack up and leave at the end of the year,” he added. “It was good, I got some time to kind of reflect on the season. It was a whirlwind of a season. I don’t think I realized [it] until I finally slowed down.”
Olson turned in a solid season in his first campaign in a Braves uniform, logging 44 doubles and 34 home runs to go along with a 120 wRC+. His numbers would have been even better if not for a severe slump that plagued him for parts of August and September. He was able to right the ship late in the regular season and went 4-for-12 with a couple of homers in Atlanta’s loss in the Division Series to the Phillies. Coming off of a normal offseason and going into a full, no-weirdness camp could have Olson poised for an even bigger campaign.
Olson will serve a familiar face in the clubhouse this year for at least one new Braves acquisition: catcher Sean Murphy, whom the Braves acquired from Oakland during the offseason. Olson knows Murphy better than anyone else on the team given the time they spent in Oakland and he thinks that he is going to fit in just fine.
“He’s a really good player. Good guy, really smart mind back there,” Olson said of Murphy. “I think the combination of him and Travis [d’Arnaud] is going to be really nice. I think one of the best in the league as far as behind the plate, they’ll work really well together. Murph is studious. He’s a smart guy and I think his talent will speak for itself when he gets out there.”
Olson was asked if he had any good stories about Murphy from his time with the Athletics, and then described him as an “old soul” despite his relatively young age.
“For whatever reason pops in my head, I just picture Murph when he first came up as a 23 or 24-year old guy. He’s in Spring Training every day, like one of the first guys, just like a 40-year old man sitting there with his crossword and his analytics stuff drinking a coffee. Is this kid like 23 or what? But that’s kind of how he is. He’s got his regimens. He’s studious. He does his thing.”
When the Braves do report to camp in the coming weeks, there will be a different feel to the clubhouse after Dansby Swanson opted to move on to the Chicago Cubs via free agency. At times, Swanson was credited with having filled a large part of the leadership void left after Freeman’s departure. Atlanta will be tasked with filling that void again for the second straight season.
“I think we’ve got a good group in there, a really good group. Obviously, a lot of these guys have had a ton of postseason experience winning the World Series couple of years ago. Coming off a 100-win season, I feel like we’re in a good spot,” Olson said. “Dansby’s a great guy. I loved playing with him. We’re just going to have to carry on this year. Between me, Trav, Fried, I mean Charlie Morton’s been around. I could go on and on. It feels like every guy’s has some time and done it and played in some big moments.”
There will be some on-the-field changes in addition to Swanson’s departure. Major League Baseball is adding several rule revisions for the 2023 season, including restrictions on defensive shifts. Olson is a player that several of his teammates mentioned that might benefit the most. However, he doesn’t think that it is going to alter his approach.
“Well yeah, I mean, it’d be good to see some ground balls go through the four-hole again. I can’t remember the last time unless a guy was on first base. As far as approach, it’s not really going to change it. If I’m rolling over a ball, that’s normally a miss for me. I’m trying to stay through and drive something in the middle of the field, but it will be nice to get rewarded on a miss every once in a while. I really think it’ll be good for defense too. I think kind of getting back to the old way of playing defense and letting guys showcase their defensive ability and range. I think it’ll be good for the game.”
Coming off of a World Series win in 2021, the Braves were hoping for another deep postseason run. After spending most of the season chasing down the Mets and a fifth straight division title, they ran into a hot Phillies team in the NLDS who, despite finishing third in the division, made it all the way to the World Series.
“Obviously it’s such a grind at the end as far as like the division and chasing the Mets there. Winning the division was big. A lot of emotion involved in that last month and then we got the time off and then ran into a hot Phillies team,” Olson said. “You set into each year with the goal to win the World Series so anytime you come up short, it’s going to be a motivator for the next year. We got a lot of the same dudes back, I think everybody’s eyeing that prize.”
While no one wants to say it, that grind chasing down New York could have played a part in Atlanta’s early exit. The Braves were 23-27 at the end of May and were 10.5 games out on June 1.
“I don’t think there’s one thing you can pinpoint. Obviously, every team wants to come out to a hot start,” Olson said. “If you look at it, I almost think it’s a little more impressive the way that we ended with the start that we had. It’s not easy when you get kicked around to start the season. I know we were playing .500 ball, but we had a really good team and it felt like we were playing pretty bad. The fact that we were able to bounce back, I think is a lot better than what a good start would be. You want to come out to that hot start. We plan on coming out into a hot start. We want to do everything to get it, but sometimes things go awry and you got to do what you can to bounce back.”
Getting off to a faster start could be key in 2023, especially given the additions the Mets and Phillies have both made in the division.
“I think it’s got to be up there with, if not the best, one of the best divisions in baseball,” Olson said of the NL East. “You look at the teams around. Those three and then you look at the Marlins. They got an incredible staff and are adding some pieces. The Nationals didn’t have the best year last year, but they got a lot of young guys with talent too. There’s no gimme games. You gotta grind out everybody. I think we saw that last year with the Phillies and the Mets and the Marlins. It’s anybody’s season every year. That’s the best part about baseball, you go out and do your thing.”