On March 14, 2022, the Atlanta Braves sent four prospects to the Oakland Athletics in exchange for Matt Olson. They then inked an eight-year deal with the star first baseman. Let’s look at the extremely early returns so far.
All stats are as of May 27, 2022.
Olson has suited up for all 45 of Atlanta’s games so far in 2022. He leads the Braves in OPS+, OPS, on-base percentage, walks, doubles, and ranks in the top three in batting average, hits, and slugging percentage. He has been worth 0.9 bWAR and 0.8 fWAR respectively. Olson currently has a slash line of .251/.370/.449, giving him an OPS of .819 and an OPS+ of 125. He ranks first in doubles in the Majors and third in the National League in walks and extra-base hits.
Even accounting for an uncharacteristic three errors, Olson has brought his usual good defense to Atlanta. He is in the 80th-percentile in Baseball Savant’s Outs Above Average. Among first basemen, only Christian Walker and Freddie Freeman have eclipsed Olson’s OAA total or his runs prevented.
At a certain point, Olson’s total performance will never be given the correct amount of attention. He will always be compared to Freeman, perhaps unfairly. Freeman has been excellent for the Dodgers in his first 44 games and 198 plate appearances. He is slashing .312/.399/.500, but his expected numbers are even higher than that. He has the same number of doubles and extra-base hits as Olson, but he has tacked on 11 extra singles. Freeman ranks in the top 10 in the NL in bWAR, batting average, on-base percentage, OPS, runs, hits, total bases, doubles, walks, and OPS+.
The issue in comparing Freeman to Olson directly is that it misses out on the sizable chance the Braves had of beginning the season with neither player o the roster. Trading for Olson closed the door on Freeman, but Freeman was far from a guarantee to return to Atlanta in the first place. Freeman had declined the Braves’ offer before the Olson trade, and the two sides were reportedly $25 million apart in contract negotiations.
Freeman did take a lower average annual value deal to head to the Los Angeles Dodgers, but it is unclear how much of Freeman’s decision was strictly money versus reasonable options by that point in free agency. The Braves could have increased their offer to Freeman, but they opted to get Olson.
If the Olson trade did not go through, the Braves would have been left in a prickly situation. Without a drastic shuffle of the Major League roster (namely Austin Riley moving to first base), the Braves did not have a viable replacement at first base anywhere in the system. In 2021, the Braves traded their top corner infield prospect (Bryce Ball) to get Joc Pederson from the Chicago Cubs. With Ball gone, none of the Braves’ top 30 prospects are corner infielders.
In free agency, the theoretical big fish remaining was Anthony Rizzo. Rizzo returned to the New York Yankees, but the Yankees were in the market on Olson. If the Yankees had swung the Olson trade, Rizzo could have been a Brave, but that is more of a hypothetical than a guarantee.
Olson might not be Freeman, but he has still been a productive hitter for the Braves in 2022. He has brought excellent plate discipline, a strong glove, and effective power to the Braves’ lineup.
Batted-ball data suggests Olson is underperforming slightly. His expected batting average is 21 points higher than his actual batting average while his expected slugging percentage is 16 points higher.
As of writing, Olson has one fewer expected home run this season. This should even out over 162 games. Additionally, some of Olson’s doubles will likely be home runs as summer approaches.
Between April 19 and May 22, Olson had a 29-game stretch in which he slashed .162/.277/.315. This was an utter disaster, but even in the cold spell, Olson had two stats that poked out. First, he had 11 doubles in that span, pacing for 61 over the full season. Second, he drew 18 walks, pacing for 101 over the full season.
Olson brings a steady floor of production, a blessing for a team as inconsistent as the Braves at this point. He is on pace for 65 doubles and 112 walks. As soon as a handful of those doubles become home runs, Olson could go on a Herculean tear.
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