The Matt Olson-Freddie Freeman debate misses a crucial point

Braves first baseman Matt Olson (28) reacts after hitting a single during the first inning at Truist Park, Tuesday, September 19, 2023, in Atlanta. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Braves first baseman Matt Olson (28) reacts after hitting a single during the first inning at Truist Park, Tuesday, September 19, 2023, in Atlanta. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

OPINION / MATT OLSON

When he broke in with the Oakland A’s in 2016, Matt Olson had a teammate in shortstop Marcus Semien who was an influence.

“He was one of the vets in Oakland when I was there coming up,” Olson told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “He would throw a fit if somebody wanted to give him an off-day.”

The approach rubbed off, though perhaps not the inclination toward tantrums.

“I guess he kind of instilled (that) in me a little bit,” Olson said. “And I took it and ran with it.”

The Braves first baseman has been running for a while now. The last time Olson missed a game was May 1, 2021. He had an all-time excuse. He missed three games as the A’s first baseman after he smoked a ball in batting practice that ricocheted off the pitcher’s protective screen and hit him in the eye, swelling it shut.

Since then, through Tuesday, he has played in 447 consecutive games, the longest active streak in baseball. In second place was none other than Semien, at 283.

“I feel like we get paid to be on the field, and obviously, freak things are going to happen, freak injuries,” Olson said. “But you’re supposed to spend your time in the offseason to prepare yourself to play 162, and this is something that I try to go out and do. I feel like you owe it to your team and the organization to do your best to be on the field every day.”

Olson’s offensive production combined with his duty (along with his leadership) are reminiscent of the player he replaced at first, the great Freddie Freeman. In his 11 seasons in the lineup with the Braves, Freeman played in all 162 regular-season games twice and 157 games or more six times.

Much oxygen has been given to debating which of the two is better and did the Braves come out ahead by letting Freeman go and trading for Olson. But it seems as though the simple fact that Olson has proved to be legitimately worth the comparison – while being five years younger and with about 1,000 fewer games played – is overlooked.

It’s not often that one of a franchise’s all-time greats is replaced by someone who, at least two years in, has a chance to join him. As Braves fans have been up to their necks in success to celebrate, they can add that to the list. An MVP winner goes out the door, and the guy taking his spot sets the franchise record for home runs in a season.

It doesn’t always happen this way. Before Freeman, the Braves’ most recent All-Star first baseman was Andres Galarraga in 2000. They had some quality players at the position after that, most notably Mark Teixeira and Adam LaRoche, but also the likes of Rico Brogna, Robert Fick and Casey Kotchman.

Freeman yielding to Olson is not at the level of Aaron Rodgers replacing Brett Favre as the quarterback of the Packers or Mickey Mantle taking the place of Joe DiMaggio in center field for the Yankees. That’s three Hall of Famers and one who will be.

But it’s nevertheless a most impressive baton pass. Of baseball’s top five players in offensive WAR through Tuesday, one of them is Freeman and Olson is another.

The similarity of Olson expecting to play every game to Freeman doing likewise is uncanny. Olson trains in the offseason at P3, which shares space with the Hawks’ training facility, to build the strength and mobility necessary for a 162-game grind.

“We aren’t running up and down the field like football players are, but 162 games does a lot on the body, and not really getting off-days,” Olson said. “So you’re going to slowly deplete throughout the year. But to be able to start at your max and hold your max as long as possible of how you’re feeling is big.”

Olson shares the field with similarly minded ironmen. Austin Riley played every inning at third base but one in the first 138 games of the season until an illness kept him out for the next two games. Ozzie Albies’ streak from the start of the season reached 117 games before he was sidelined by a hamstring injury. Ronald Acuña Jr. started the first 147 games before a tightened calf kept him out for two games.

According to Sarah Langs of MLB.com, they became the first set of four teammates to play in each of their team’s first 115 games since a quartet of Reds did it in 1944.

“I feel good,” Olson said. “It’s September. Nobody’s 100% right now unless they missed some time and built back, but I feel good.”

Before Wednesday’s games, Olson was one of four major leaguers to have appeared in all of his team’s games this season, another of the four being Olson’s template Semien. Last season, Olson and Dansby Swanson, then playing his final season of shortstop for the Braves, were the only two players to log 162.

It perhaps is an increasingly quaint notion, given the growing emphasis on load management, but one not entirely vanished. Not so long ago in 2018, there were seven players to play all 162 games, including Olson, Freeman and former Braves right fielder Nick Markakis. That’s more than accomplished the feat 50 years ago in 1973, when six did it.

But the approach fits Olson, and over in Los Angeles, Freeman, too.

Manager Brian Snitker never asks him if he wants to take a day off, Olson said, “which I love. It’s the way that it’s been done here and the way that I like it.”

Atlanta Braves' first baseman Matt Olson (28) reacts after hitting a single during the first inning at Truist Park, Tuesday, September 19, 2023, in Atlanta. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

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Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC