How High is the Ceiling for Matt Olson?

The 26-year-old first baseman has made a name for himself as one of the premier power hitters in the league. In 2019, Olson posted career highs in home runs (36) and RBIs (91) across 126 games. He also posted an .896 OPS and won himself a Gold Glove, not too shabby for only your second full season in the majors. The young slugger was an absolute superstar when you look at his statcast profile, and yet, many believe there is room to grow. Some believe that Olson could do something that only Willie Mays, Ken Griffey Jr, Alex Rodriguez, and Andrew Jones had done before; Hit 50 home runs and win a gold glove in the same season.

Now 50 home runs is a lot for anyone to hit, it has only been accomplished five times in the last decade, but when you take a closer look at his numbers, you can see that Olson ranks among the games best when it comes to hitting the ball over the fence. In 2019, Olson produced a 13.5 AB/HR rate good enough for 13th best in baseball. If we take his AB/HR rate and apply it to the 42 games he missed, we are able to project that if he had played a full season, Olson would have likely hit somewhere around 47 home runs.

Since he entered the league in 2017, Olson’s AB/HR rate ranks 8th best across the league per 1000 at-bats. Olson did not hit his first home run in 2019 until May 12th, the Athletics’ 42nd game of the year as a hamate bone injury sidelined him for the first month of the season. From May 12th on however, only four other players hit more home runs than Olson.

Over the past two seasons, Olson has ranked in the top ten of all of baseball in Barrel % and average exit velocity in addition to placing in the top 2% in hard hit%. To summarize, when the 26-year-old hits the ball, he typically hits it very hard. As a result, his expected slugging percentage (xSLG) was a .576 and ISO power of .277, are both good enough for 12th in the majors. Now these numbers alone won’t get Olson to 40 or even 50 home runs. 

In 2018, Olsons’ only full season of his career, he ranked 4th in hard-hit rate, eighth in hard-hit rate on line drives and flyball rate (LD+FB), and tied for fifth in average exit velocity across 660 plate appearances, yet he only hit 29 home runs. One possible explanation for this could be where Olson was hitting the ball. 

In 2018, Olson pulled the ball only 42% of the time. Last season he pulled the ball 51.7% of the time. When we take it a step further, we see that Olson pulled the ball 37.2% of the time when he hit either a line drive or a fly ball whereas, in 2019, he increased his pull rate on such batted-ball types to 46.2%, MLB’s eighth-highest mark (min. 150 LD+FB). In 2017, he pulled these types of batted-balls at 50% rate. It is particularly important for Olson to pull the ball as he has proven to be one of baseballs best home run hitters when he can pull the ball.  

MLB Leaders in xSLG on Pulled LD-FB (Min 200), since 2017 

  1. Matt Olson 1.535
  2. Mike Trout 1.533
  3. Cody Bellinger 1.425
  4. Justin Smoak 1.405
  5. Marcel Ozuna 1.402

If Olson can stay healthy for a full 162 and pull the ball at this rate, there’s no telling what sort of power numbers he can produce.

Olson batted a career-high .267 last year, but I don’t think we can expect much more out of him than that. He had an xBA of .276 which gave Olson his largest difference from BA to xBA of his career. This indicates that Olson is hitting right around where he should be in terms of average. He strikes out at a very high rate, the MLB’s 26th highest mark in 2019. At the rate he was on, he was projected to finish somewhere around 183 strikeouts for the year which would’ve been tied with Pete Alonso for the 3rd most in baseball. Shall he be able to show some more discipline at the plate, it will be very interesting to see if he can have an uptick in batting average and really take that next step into becoming an elite player at his position. 

Overall, Olson is a fine player. He hits the ball very hard, and produces excellent contact when ball meets bat. His thunderous swing, combined with his great ability to pull the ball, makes it realistic to see Olson averaging mid to low 40s home runs for the foreseeable future and he certainly poises a threat to break the 50 home run barrier. 

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