Matt Olson Is Powering the A’s Offense

The 2020 Oakland Athletics won 36 games on their way to winning the AL West for the first time since 2013. They did this despite rather lackluster offensive contributions from their core quintet of Matt Olson (103 wRC+), Matt Chapman (117), Ramón Laureano (103), and Marcus Semien (92). Those four players combined for 4.5 WAR, mostly driven by their stellar defensive performances. Instead, breakout seasons from Mark Canha and Robbie Grossman helped the A’s reach the postseason for the third consecutive season.

With Semien now out of the picture, Oakland needed bounce back seasons in 2021 from the two Matts and Laureano to continue their run of success. Thus far, the A’s are still waiting on two of those three to really get it going. Chapman has taken an even bigger step back; the strikeout issues that plagued him last year have stuck around and now his power has all but disappeared, too. Laureano has had an up-and-down season; he had a strong start to the year with a 138 wRC+ through June 22, but he’s fallen into a deep slump over the past month with a 54 wRC+ since then. Thankfully, Olson has been good enough for both of them.

Last year, Olson saw his strikeout rate jump up to 31.4%, contributing to a batting average that fell below the Mendoza line. A high strikeout rate had been the big concern since he burst onto the scene in 2017 with 24 home runs in 59 games. He’s always had some swing-and-miss in his profile, but a strikeout rate over 30% was definitely a big red flag, no matter how many home runs he launched over the fence.

This year, Olson has managed to cut his strikeout rate nearly in half, from 31.4% in 2020 to just 16.1% (all stats are through games on July 21). That’s the largest decrease in strikeout rate by any batter over the last decade (min. 200 plate appearances in consecutive seasons):

Biggest Year-to-Year K% Declines
Player Season K%Δ
Matt Olson 2021 -15.3%
Justin Smoak 2017 -12.8%
Austin Riley 2020 -12.6%
Evan White 2021 -11.8%
Aaron Hicks 2020 -10.2%
Cody Ross 2013 -10.2%
Evan Gattis 2017 -10.1%

Olson always had a good eye at the plate but his long, looping swing has resulted in significant holes in the zone where he struggled to make contact regularly. His contact rate fell to just 67.8% last year, easily a career worst and the 16th lowest rate among all 142 qualified batters. After that dismal performance, he went to work readjusting his swing mechanics and working off of a new pitch machine. A’s assistant hitting coach Eric Martins described the effect the pitch machine has on batting practice to Alex Coffey of The Athletic:

“The machine has some ride to it. It feels like the ball is rising on you, and you can’t make contact if you’re working underneath the baseball — if you’re not in a good position to hit. So I just think the muscle memory of getting on top of the ball has created some good habits for [Olson] and reinforced some other stuff that he’s done in the past.”

Here’s a look at the adjustments he’s made to his swing mechanics this year, with his 2020 swing on the left and his 2021 swing on the right.

This comparison shows his stance as the pitcher comes set. This year, he’s holding his bat higher and even further out over the plate, and his front shoulder is closed off from the pitcher. That odd stance was introduced to him when he first made it up to the majors and it’s a mental cue to help him find the ideal bat path through the zone.

This set of images were taken right at the pitcher’s release point. We see Olson holding his hands further up and back in a loaded position this year. That position has helped him close off the holes in his swing up in the zone.

Looking at his heat maps, that’s exactly the area Olson’s swing had trouble getting to.

Olson had no problems making contact with pitches down in the zone, but as soon as a pitcher started to elevate against him, he was toast. Last year, on pitches located up in the zone, he ran a whiff rate of 53.3%, the second highest rate in baseball behind only Keston Hiura. This year, he’s managed to close the hole in his swing; his whiff rate against elevated pitches has fallen to 29.5%. It’s still high — above league average for pitches located in those regions — but it’s a career low for him and a huge improvement over his ugly 2020.

He’s improved his ability to make contact in every other area of the strike zone, too. His overall contact rate is above league-average for the first time in his career and his swinging strike rate has fallen to 9.8%. With two strikes against him, he’s been nearly flawless, improving his two-strike whiff rate by a whopping 23.3%; he has swung and missed just 17.8% of the time he’s offered at a two-strike pitch. With his back against the wall and no strikes to give, he’s running a phenomenal .357 wOBA, the highest in the league. Nearly half of his hits this year (42 of 96) have come with two strikes against him. His new approach has made himself an incredibly difficult out at the plate.

Olson has also changed his batted ball profile a bit. He’s pulling the ball less often and using the whole field to his advantage. With so much raw power, it’s no surprise he’s been pull happy in the past, and opposing teams have shifted their defense accordingly. This year, he’s seen a shift employed against him 93.4% of the time. But because his newfound contact abilities have helped him use the entire field, he’s posting a .401 wOBA against shifted defenses.

Even with all those adjustments to help him put the ball in play more often, he hasn’t seen a dip in his power output. He’s still crushing the ball with regularity. His hard hit rate, barrel rate, and exit velocity are all trending upwards or staying steady, and his .297 ISO is the highest it’s been since that incredible breakout in 2017.

Matt Olson, Batted Ball Peripherals
Year ISO Avg EV Max EV Hard Hit% Barrel%
2017-2019 .262 92.9 113.3 50.4% 12.9%
2020 .229 92.3 112.5 45.9% 12.8%
2021 .297 92.0 115.3 48.7% 13.9%

Olson been one of the premier sluggers in the game over the last five seasons and now he’s turned himself into one of the game’s best complete hitters. In fact, there are just three qualified batters in all of baseball with a strikeout rate below 20% and an ISO near or above .300: Olson, Max Muncy, and Vladimir Guerrero Jr.

With the rest of Oakland’s core trio continuing to struggle to make an impact, the timing of Olson’s huge step forward is impeccable. They’re getting solid production from Canha again — he’s made a strong case for taking Semien’s place in this core quintet over these last two seasons — but he was recently sidelined for a month with a hip injury. The rest of the A’s lineup has been filled with more modest contributors. Laureano could break out of his slump at any time but Chapman’s worsening struggles are extremely concerning. Depending on how they approach the upcoming trade deadline, the A’s might be leaning on Olson’s bat to carry them through the summer.





Jake Mailhot is a contributor to FanGraphs. A long-suffering Mariners fan, he also writes about them for Lookout Landing. Follow him on Twitter @jakemailhot.

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nevinbrown
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nevinbrown

I think the pictures are mislabeled. It says the right is 2020 and the left is 2021, but I think it’s the other way around.