If you were like me, you were all in on Oakland’s Matt Olson in 2020. After an impressive 2019 campaign where he hit 36 home runs in just 127 games with a .267 average, I was fired up for his 2020 outlook. Well, it didn’t quite pan out. He still smashed 14 home runs in 60 games and posted a career best 13.9 percent walk rate, but the deadly combination of a .227 BABIP and career-high 31.4 percent strikeout rate sent his batting average crashing through the Mendoza line. In 2020, Olson hit just .195. Yikes. To his credit, his xBA was .224, so multiple signs point to just being a bit unlucky. Will Olson rebound in 2021 in the batting average department or is he just another Joey Gallo type? Let’s dive in.
Spoiler alert: He’s not going to be a Joey Gallo type. Sure, he’s not going to be a .300 hitter, but Olson is a guy that should be able to maintain at least a .240-.245 batting average. His power is legit, and we’ve seen it in multiple seasons. For his career, he homers every 14.4 at-bats, and if you remove his cup of coffee in 2016, that mark is at 14.1! For further reference, here are his marks in recent seasons:
The power is legitimate and even though his exit velocity took a step back in 2020, he was still in the 91st percentile of big league hitters.
Olson’s strikeout rate from 2020 is atrocious and something that simply cannot happen again. He was right around the 25th percentile the two previous seasons in his strikeout rate, but in 2020, he was down to the ninth percentile. Meanwhile, his whiff rate plummeted to the eighth percentile. What the hell happened? His O-Swing rate was down, meaning he wasn’t chasing as much. Well, he had two noteworthy statistics that likely contribute to the elevated strikeout rate.
1. More whiffs in the strike zone
His whiff rate on fastballs in the zone jumped for a second straight season, culminating in last year’s career high 35.8 percent. Overall, his whiff rate on pitches in the zone jumped by nearly three percentage points.
2. Despite leaving the zone less, he whiffed more
Per Baseball Savant, his chase rate of 19.8 percent in 2020 was his lowest mark in the past four seasons. However, his chase miss rate jumped nearly 20 percentage points, up to 51.9 percent in 2020. Olson saw increases on his whiff rate outside of the strike zone against breaking stuff and fastballs of nearly 20 percentage points and 30 percentage points respectively!
When he didn’t strike out, if he did hit the ball, particularly on the ground, there was likely someone right there to gobble it up. He’s being shifted against more and more, and in 2020, it reared its ugly head. His wOBA against the shift was just .280, the lowest mark he’s posted in the last four years, while his .548 wOBA with no shift is quite impressive.
It’s no surprise he’s being shifted against more and more, and in fact, it’s increased every season since entering the league.
Courtesy of Baseball Savant and FanGraphs
So, you’re telling me that aside from his cup of tea in 2016, each year, his ground ball pull rate has gone up, and each year, he’s being shifted against more and more? You don’t say? I mean, it makes sense to me. Should we be surprised if after a career-high ground ball rate in 2020 (Excluding 2016), Olson sees a shift deployed closer to 90 percent? I would bet on it.
Fun fact here, but in 2019, Olson had five bunt hits, whereas in 2020, he had just one singular bunt base hit. Perhaps he attempts to beat the shift a bit, or at least keep the defense slightly more honest by laying down a few more bunts? I wouldn’t bet against it.
At the end of the day, for the same reasons you liked Olson in 2020, you have to do it again in 2021. It’s hard to take a lot away from the 2020 season, and there were some shortcomings in Olson’s game. However, he’s a tried and true 35-40 home run bat, and he’s not going to be a .195 hitter again, or even a .224 hitter as his expected batting average may say. At the time of writing, he’s the eighth first baseman off the board, and he presents a nice value at the position.
You can pencil Olson in for at least 35 home runs and a .240 batting average, but he has monster upside in the power department, and he’s a guy I’d be willing to hang my hat on to join the 40-home run club for the first time in his career in 2021.