An Attempt To Solve The Mystery Of Marcell Ozuna

The Marlins, as bad as they are, have an entertainingly wanton disregard of service time considerations for their top prospects. Marcell Ozuna is one example of this philosophy (or lack thereof). In late April of last year, despite having no chance of either contending or selling tickets, Miami called up Ozuna, who had logged a grand total of 47 career plate appearances above A-ball. For those of you wondering, Ozuna will now very likely get the Super Two tag on him, making him arbitration-eligible in 2016.

But we’re not really here to talk about the business of baseball, are we? Ozuna is a player that I’m very intrigued by coming into 2014 because he’s so incredibly difficult to project. Heck, just look at his Steamer and Oliver projections:

  • Steamer – .249/.296/.405, .156 ISO, 5.8% BB%, 19.9% K%
  • Oliver – .253/.290/.370, .117 ISO, 4.5% BB%, 23.0% K%

Oliver is pretty bearish on Ozuna’s plate discipline, while Steamer projects a .287 batting average on balls in play, which feels a bit low for a guy with a .325 career minor-league BABIP. At any rate, the two models come up with nearly identical batting averages and on-base percentages, albeit by different means.

The big discussion point here is how far apart the two projections are regarding Ozuna’s power profile — Steamer has him hitting 16 homers, compared to Oliver’s projection of eight. It was quite the surprise to see Ozuna hit just three home runs in 291 plate appearances in the majors last year after he had hit an average of 23 long balls in each of the previous three seasons. Of course, those homers were hit in A-ball, but it’s fair to say that his power production in the majors last year failed to meet expectations.

There are plenty of seemingly easy answers here — he wasn’t ready to face big-league pitching, he plays his home games in a stadium that absolutely hates home runs, etc. Oddly enough, Ozuna did pretty much everything well, except for the one thing he was expected to do. His .265 average was a pleasant surprise, considering that he was a .266 hitter in A-ball.

His defense was so good that the team moved him from right field to center, where he is expected to start on opening day this year. Ozuna had played just 38 of his 445 minor-league games in center field, as opposed to 399 games in right field. It’s not too often that you see a corner-outfield prospect get moved to center full-time in the majors.

But his light-tower power, the one thing scouts really raved about — the one thing that even had him on top prospect lists at all — never materialized. Let’s address the ballpark argument. As expected, Ozuna was a better hitter on the road than at home:

  • Home – .252/.280/.339, 0 HR, 5 2B, 3 3B
  • Away – .277/.323/.432, 3 HR, 12 2B, 1 3B

If you look at the home-run totals and the gaps between his OBP and slugging percentages, yeah, that looks like a valid argument on the surface. But if his home park was to blame for robbing him of dingers, why didn’t he hit more doubles? You’d think that if he was hitting balls that would go for homers in other parks, they’d be banging off the wall in left field or going to the track in the gap a bit more often.

Thinking along those lines, I looked up his average fly ball distance, which confirms that Ozuna simply wasn’t hitting the ball very far, regardless of what stadium he was playing in. His average fly ball distance in 2013 was just 255.51 feet, good for 291st in the majors, right in between Eric Sogard and Ichiro Suzuki. Even if he wasn’t ready for the majors, and even if his home park suppressed his power, which are both completely reasonable and valid arguments, you would expect him to be hitting fly balls a bit further than guys like Jeff Keppinger and Alcides Escobar. Which he was not.

This leads to the question of why Ozuna wasn’t getting much distance off the bat. Last March, Ozuna broke his left wrist/hand when he crashed into the wall in spring training. (I settled on “wrist/hand” because he suffered a fracture at the base of the fourth matacarpal of his left hand near the wrist. I’m not a doctor, and I don’t know much about hands beyond the fact that I have them and they’re typing this, so we’re going with “wrist/hand.”) He missed four weeks, played two weeks of High-A and Double-A games, and joined the big-league club. It certainly seemed that the injury was fully healed, as he hit five homers in his last six Double-A games, and it’s entirely plausible that his wrist/hand wasn’t bothering him at the time.

Maybe his wrist/hand started bothering him again as the season wore on, a theory which seems logical when we look at his monthly splits, leading up to his season-ending thumb injury in July:

  • May – .330/.372/.462, 113 PA
  • June – .265/.287/.398, 100 PA
  • July – .162/.219/.265, 72 PA

Sure, that could also be the result of pitchers figuring out his weaknesses and Ozuna failing to adjust. As I said before, Ozuna’s 2014 is nearly impossible to forecast, and this is one of the many reasons why. But there has to be a reason that a prospect known for his power failed to show much of it whatsoever. Lingering effects from the wrist/hand injury are as plausible as anything else.

The bottom line is that Ozuna had a really, really weird 2013. He did many things well, except for the one thing everyone agreed he could probably do well. We may never know why Ozuna’s 2013 went the way it did, but my money’s on him regaining that power profile. For whatever reason, he was an entirely different hitter last year than he had ever been before; regardless of the level of competition, a prospect with prodigious power doesn’t simply mutate into a slap-hitting major leaguer.

Given Ozuna’s relative lack of plate discipline, last year’s .265 is probably the high-water mark for his batting average, but I’m siding with Steamer over Oliver in the power department. I think 16 homers is a reasonable projection; then when you throw in 8-10 steals, run/RBI totals around 60 and a batting average that likely won’t kill you, that’s a valuable NL-only asset. I have an obsession with finding value picks in auctions/drafts, and I think that’s exactly what Ozuna is. I’d put his value around $10 in an NL-only auction, and you’ll most likely be able to get him for less than that.

Scott Strandberg started writing for Rotographs in 2013. He works in small business consultation, and he also writes A&E columns for The Norman Transcript newspaper. Scott lives in Seattle, WA.

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8 years ago

I kept him for a dollar in my 12 tm mixed league, hes on a rookie contract so I have nothing to lose to give him a year to figure it out. If he sits on my bench all year oh well.