50 HRs AND a Gold Glove? This guy could do it

March 1st, 2020

Last season, the A's were the only team that had two players finish among the top six in the American League MVP Award race, as shortstop Marcus Semien placed third and third baseman Matt Chapman came in sixth. First baseman , meanwhile, was something of an afterthought.

Olson received a single MVP vote, tying for 21st. But the young slugger had a terrific season in his own right, hitting 36 homers, recording an .896 OPS and winning a Gold Glove Award.

He was also a Statcast superstar. Just look at his 2019 MLB Rankings chart. And yet, there's a sense that the well-rounded first baseman still hasn't reached his potential when it comes to actual production.

Olson is poised to change that in 2020. In fact, he could find himself in rarefied air, pulling off a combination that has been achieved by just four players in MLB history: 50 home runs AND a Gold Glove Award in the same season. These are the only players who have done it since the Gold Glove Award was introduced in 1957. An impressive list, to say the least.

Andruw Jones (2005)
Alex Rodriguez (2002)
Ken Griffey Jr. (1997, 1998)
Willie Mays (1965)

So, how could Olson get there?

The path to 50

Now, 50 homers for Olson may seem like a stretch, considering he hasn't even reached 40 in a single season. But a closer look reveals that, since his rookie season in 2017, he ranks among the very best in hitting the ball out of the park on a per-at-bat basis.

Lowest AB/HR rate, since 2017
Min. 1,000 at-bats
1. Mike Trout, 11.48
2. Joey Gallo, 11.55
3. Aaron Judge, 12.58
4. J.D. Martinez, 12.71
5. Giancarlo Stanton, 12.73
6. Nelson Cruz, 13.07
7. Gary Sánchez, 14.00
8. Matt Olson, 14.06

In 2019, Olson slugged 36 homers in just 127 games, as he made up for lost time after returning from a fractured hamate bone in his right hand -- an injury he suffered during the Japan Opening Series against the Mariners. Olson didn't hit his first homer until May 12, Oakland's 42nd game of the year. From that point on, only four players had more roundtrippers.

He also set a remarkable pace in 2017, crushing 24 dingers in only 59 games. His surge helped him finish tied for fourth in the AL Rookie of the Year voting, despite playing barely a third of the season.

As Olson's Statcast ranks show, few players are better at hitting the ball with authority and producing barrels, the ideal type of contact (in terms of exit velocity and launch angle) for extra-base hits and homers.

Olson's ranks, since 2017
Min. 750 batted balls
2nd in hard-hit rate (50.8%)
2nd in hard-hit line drive + fly ball rate (35.5%)
T-4th in average exit velocity (92.3 mph)
11th in barrel rate (13.6%)

Simply put, the Georgia native elevates the ball often, and when he does, he typically hits it hard. As a result, his expected slugging percentage (xSLG) since 2017 is .537, tied for 12th in the Majors (min. 1,000 plate appearances).

Of course, while advantageous, those factors don't automatically make a 50-homer, or even 40-homer, hitter.

In 2018, Olson ranked fourth in hard-hit rate, tied for eighth in hard-hit LD+FB rate, tied for fifth in average exit velocity and tied for 22nd in barrel rate (min. 250 batted balls). He played in all 162 games for the A's, amassing 660 plate appearances. And yet, he went deep only 29 times.

There was, however, a stark difference in where Olson hit the ball in 2018, compared to '17 and '19.

In 2018, Olson pulled the ball only 37.2% of the time when he hit either a line drive or a fly ball. Last season, he increased his pull rate on such batted-ball types to 46.2%, MLB's eighth-highest mark (min. 150 LD+FB). He pulled line drives and fly balls even more often in 2017, at a rate of 50%. This is particularly important for Olson, who has proven to be as dangerous as anyone when he pulls the ball.

xSLG on pulled LD+FB, since 2017
Min. 200 pulled LD+FB
1. Matt Olson, 1.535
2. Mike Trout, 1.533
3. Cody Bellinger, 1.425
4. Justin Smoak, 1.405
5. Marcell Ozuna, 1.402

If Olson can continue pulling the ball in the air, the homers are going to fly.

The gold collector

As good as he can be with the bat, Olson is actually more accomplished with the glove. The Gold Glove Award he won last season was his second straight. The honor was well deserved, as he led all big league first basemen in Defensive Runs Saved and Ultimate Zone Rating.

When Statcast's Outs Above Average metric was expanded to include infielders in early February, he also measured favorably there.

Outs Above Average, IF, 2019
1. Javier Báez, +19
2. Nolan Arenado, +17
3-T. Andrelton Simmons, +16
3-T. Nick Ahmed, +16
5. Trevor Story, +15
6. Matt Chapman, +14
7. Paul DeJong, +13
8-T. Matt Olson, +12
8-T. José Iglesias, +12
8-T. Freddy Galvis, +12

Apart from Olson, no first baseman had more OAA than Christian Walker's +9, and no AL first baseman was better than Yuli Gurriel at +3.

Olson and Gurriel were two of the three first-base finalists for the AL Gold Glove Award last season. The other was Justin Smoak, who was also a finalist in 2018. Smoak is now in the National League with the Brewers, removing a potential challenger from the mix as Olson seeks his third straight Gold Glove Award.

Looking around the AL, Olson's chances of earning the honor again appear to be strong. Gurriel is certainly a contender, but most of the other clubs in the Junior Circuit either are set to go with a combination of players at first base or have a bat-first starter.

One exception: the Mariners, who are expected to open the season with Evan White (MLB's No. 56 prospect) as their everyday first baseman after signing him to a six-year, $24 million contract in November. According to MLB Pipeline, White is by far the best defensive first-base prospect in the game, scoring a 70-grade on the 20-80 scale for his fielding.

Even if White makes a strong first impression on voters, securing the second leg of the 50 homers/Gold Glove Award feat is obviously going to be easier than the first for Olson. After all, he has already done it twice.

Plus, hitting 50 homers is hard. There's a reason the mark has been reached only 46 times, by 30 different players, in Major League history -- and only once by an Oakland hitter (Mark McGwire, 1996). Still, if there is a blueprint for going deep 50 times in a season, Olson appears to have it.