Matt Olson leads MLB in home runs, but how did he become the league’s top slugger?
Matt Olson has been on a tear this season, improving steadily since his major league debut in 2016 to become one of the league’s top sluggers.
So far this season, Olson is on pace to win both the home run and RBI batting titles, with an impressive .279 .385 .614 slash line, 51 home runs, 128 RBIs, a wRC+ of 163, and a bWAR of 6.5 (wins above replacement). Olson’s stellar play since September has put him in stiff competition with his predecessor, Freeman (LA Dodgers), for the Silver Slugger award at first base.
Olson, who was often compared to Freeman last year in his first season after signing an eight-year, $168 million extension, due to his 34 home runs and subpar on-base percentage (OPS of 0.802), has erased any doubts about his extension with his performance this season. Atlanta’s decision to replace the 34-year-old Freeman with Olson, who is five years younger, is also considered a stroke of genius.
Turning into the league’s most dominant right-handed pitcher is the key to winning the home run title
Despite being a left-handed hitter, Olson hadn’t shown much power against right-handed pitching until last season, when he posted an OPS of .821.
Since this season, however, he has transformed into one of the league’s best right-handed pitching killers, hitting 42 home runs against right-handed pitching, the most in the majors, along with an OPS of 1.067, the highest in the National League (NL, below). This has helped Olson outpace all of the competition, including Ohtani, to become the best slugger in the majors.
The biggest reason for Olson’s vastly improved performance against right-handed hitters is that he has developed a better response to right-handed slider pitches (slider+sweeper).
Prior to last season, Olson had a career OPS of .646 against right-handed sliders, but this season he has a career OPS of .948 against those pitches, which is a far cry from his previous performance.
The fundamental key to Olson’s transformation is that he has modified his batting form to create a leaner, more impactful swing. This allowed him to overcome his weakness against right-handed slider pitches. Not only that, but his overall batted ball velocity and hard-hit percentage (the percentage of batted balls that hit 95 mph or higher) have increased significantly (93 mph/51% last season to 94.5 mph/58% this season).
The most noticeable change in Olson’s batted ball metrics this season has been the dramatic increase in his fly ball rate. Prior to last season, Olson was a high fly ball hitter with a career 30% fly ball rate, well above the league average (23%), but this season that number has risen to a whopping 37%.
Fly balls have a high expectation of becoming long balls, but a low probability of becoming hits due to the long time it takes to hit them. In fact, Olson’s high rate of flyballs compared to the league average is one of the reasons he has a career .255 batting average despite maintaining a respectable career strikeout rate (24%) compared to his long ball rate.
This season, however, Olson has upped his fly ball rate to 37%, and while he’s been hitting home runs on a consistent basis, he’s also posting a career-high batting average (.279) and league-leading on-base productivity (.999 OPS).
This has been driven by increased long ball production, as his percentage of fly balls hit 105 mph or higher (31%/career average 18% prior to last season) has risen to a much higher level than last year despite an increase in fly ball contact.
Higher launch angle pitches that would have been doubles or fly outs last season are clearing the fence at a much higher rate this season (33+ degree launch angles/home runs in that range: 8 last season to 22 this season), which has led to an explosion in home runs and a conventional wisdom that batting average is actually up.안전놀이터
Completing his batting revolution by hitting more pitches harder this season, Olson has surpassed the home run and RBI crowns and is now on pace to break Stanton’s 59 home runs in 2017 and Ryan Howard’s 149 RBIs in 2006, both 21st century single-season records for cleanup hitters.
After exploding for seven home runs and 15 RBIs in 11 games since September, Olson has already tied the Atlanta franchise record for most home runs (51, formerly held by Andrew Jones). It will be interesting to see if he can carry this momentum into the end of the season and reach the 60-homer, 150-RBI milestone.