Ozuna Has Room For Growth

Marcell Ozuna had a breakout year in 2017. If you haven’t been following him much over the past few years, Ozuna had a terrific year in 2014 which set high expectations for him going into 2015. Unfortunately, he had a terrible 2015 season and was eventually demoted to AAA. Some say it may have been related to his maturity or attitude. Michael Hill, Marlins President of Baseball Operations, had this to say about the incident:

“I’ve seen him since he was 16, and it was the first time I had ever seen him hang his head. We spoke after the game, and I was like, ‘Ozo, what’s up?’ He said, ‘I don’t know.’ He had no answers. He was completely lost. That was when we decided it was in his best interests to send him down. It’s hard when you don’t see Marcell Ozuna with a big smile; that’s who he is.”

Source: Miami CBS Local

Ozuna described being sent to the minors as a “jail sentence.” To his credit, he appears to have used the experience to propel his career forward. In 2016 he had a bounce back year. He matched his then career high 23 homers, posted a solid 106 wRC+, improved peripheral stats (more walks, fewer strikeouts), and played pretty decent defense on top of it.

He took another step forward in 2017, hitting 37 home runs, with a 142 wRC+, even better peripherals, and great defensive numbers. This career year, combined with the extra year of control the Marlins “earned” in 2015 by keeping Ozuna in the minors (nothing to see here) made Ozuna a valuable trade chip. The Cardinals, aiming to consolidate their resources, were happy to trade Sandy Alcantara, Magneuris Sierra, Zac Gallen, and Daniel Castano for an upgrade. So let’s see what sort of player they acquired.

A Brief Defensive Aside

Defensive stats didn’t like Ozuna in 2015 or 2016, but personally I’ve never put much stock into those stats in the first place. Watching him play, I never saw him as a butcher. He certainly isn’t a spectacular defender, but he is good. He has great speed. He is just as fast as Andrew Benintendi and Juan Lagares and faster than Charlie Blackmon, Michael A Taylor, and Aaron Hicks. All of whom are good defenders.

Route efficiency might be Ozuna’s weakness in this regard. Juan Lagares, for example, is very good at turning his back to the ball and using his full sprint speed to get to a location before turning around again for the catch. I haven’t seen Ozuna do much of that, rather he glides towards the ball, which limits his maximum speed and acceleration. He also tends to take herky-jerky steps while tracking the ball, which can throw off his gait and limit his closing speed.

His arm is certainly his greatest defensive asset. He has a cannon, with quick release and good accuracy. I’ve seen him throw accurately from multiple arm slots, but he tends to prefer throwing straight over the top, which is great for accuracy and tends to long hop fielders making the ball easier to catch. Especially for the catcher.

His 2017 defensive numbers were much better than 2015 or 2016, and he finished the season with 10 DRS.

Back to Offense

Ozuna’s exit velocity has remained roughly constant over the past three seasons, but his average launch angle doubled from 5 to 10 degrees. More importantly, the number of balls hit above 10 degrees, which you can think of as “balls in the air” went from 44% in 2015 to 50% in 2016 and down to 48% in 2017. Nearly the entire increase in fly balls came on valuable trajectories, only about 15% of that increase came in the form of pop ups.

Even still, this is below the major league average. In 2015 49.7% of balls were hit above 10 degrees, 51% in 2016 and 52% in 2017.

Ozuna has above average exit velocity, as well. Especially on balls in the air. According to my six batted ball categories, which you can read about here and here and here, Ozuna averages 95.6 mph on LD, 96.2 mph on HD, and 94.2 mph on FB. Where the league averages are 92.5, 91.4, and 89.0, respectively.

Ozuna vs MLB Exit Velocity
2015 95.6 92.5 96.2 91.4 94.2 89.0
2016 97.0 92.9 92.7 92.1 91.5 89.8
2017 96.3 92.4 94.5 91.4 94.3 89.6
AVG 96.3 92.6 94.2 91.6 93.1 89.5
SOURCE: xStats.org

Ozuna has averaged 3-4 mph above average on these launch angle ranges, which represent the most valuable launch angles in the game. As a result, he has above average slugging in these categories.

Ozuna BB Type Stats
LD 2015 48 35 0 .729 1.083 .775
LD 2016 51 37 1 .726 1.078 .766
LD 2017 62 46 2 .742 1.097 .777
LD All MLB .708 .968 .711
HD 2015 23 10 5 .455 1.273 .689
HD 2016 47 21 9 .447 1.277 .700
HD 2017 41 24 16 .585 1.854 .978
HD All MLB .544 1.270 .734
FB 2015 38 6 5 .162 .595 .305
FB 2016 59 18 13 .321 1.089 .542
FB 2017 47 22 18 .468 1.702 .862
FB All MLB .323 .987 .517
SOURCE: xStats.org

His above average exit velocity, above average success rate, and below average fly ball rates are likely interrelated to a large degree. His average fly ball velocity is higher because he hits fewer of them. Each fly ball has a certain chance to be poorly hit, which you can call a ‘just miss.’ You hit it well enough to get the ball on the correct trajectory, but maybe you hit it too far towards the end of the barrel so you fail to impart sufficient velocity. These weakly hit balls are very easy outs, since they tend to float in the air giving the defender a lot of time to cover ground and make a play. On the flip side, high velocity hits are difficult to defend, because you’re forcing the defender to cover a lot of ground in a shorter period of time.

So if he hit more balls into the air, his average velocity would go down bringing the success rates down with it. The average value of his fly balls would go down, but his overall value as a batter may go up. Instead of having, 150 fly balls with an average wOBA of .859, maybe he could have 180 fly balls with an average wOBA of .780.

Why doesn’t he hit more balls into the air?

Let’s try to figure out where Ozuna’s swing plane might be at the moment. From what I can tell, a batter will create maximum exit velocity when their swing plane is closest to the launch angle of the ball. So, if you look at exit velocity with regards to launch angle, you can find where a batter peaks and that angle is probably pretty close to their swing plane. I’ve created a chart for Ozuna over the past three seasons.

Click the image to see a full sized version.

Notice how the angle changes each season. In 2015 it is around 10 degrees, in 2016 it is around 8 degrees, and in 2017 it is closer to 20 degrees.

That jump from 8-10 degrees to 20 degrees is exactly what I was looking to see out of Ozuna. He needs to hit more balls into the air, and it appears he has already geared up his swing. So, why did he only hit 48% of his batted balls above 10 degrees last season?

Well, you might guess that his issues stem from either plate discipline or inability to make contact. Perhaps both.

Looking at his plate discipline stats, he has 32.9% O-swing (65th percentile) and 60.2% O-contact (24th percentile). He’s also in the 71st percentile of Z-swing, the 37th percentile for Z-contact, and 45th percentile of Contact rate. In other words, he’s swinging a bit more often than an average MLB player, and nearly a standard deviation below average at making contact. That’s a problem.

But that just leads us back where we started. Is this a contact problem or a plate discipline problem? Is he swinging at easy to hit balls and missing, or swinging at hard to hit balls and missing? Well, I have a stat called lgEV, which measures how successful batters are against certain pitches. This takes into account pitch location, velocity, and movement. I’ve created a combination chart depicting lgEV, EV, and Launch Angle for each batted ball Ozuna has created over the past few seasons.

Click the image to see a full sized version.

The left chart shows lgEV on similar pitches. Orange = strong contact. Blue = Weak Contact. As you would guess, the heart of the strike zone tends to give up strong contact, and balls outside of the strike zone tend to have weaker contact. Generally speaking.

The middle chart shows Ozuna’s actual exit velocity. Orange = strong, blue = weak.

The rightmost chart shows launch angle. Orange = high, blue = low. It is set such that blue begins on 10 degrees, so anything below 10 degrees will be blue, and the darker the blue the lower the angle. Likewise anything orange will be above 10 degrees and the darker the orange the higher the angle.

The EV chart seems to show higher EV up in the zone, which makes sense. That launch angle chart on the right seems weird. Look at the blue up in the zone, you’d expect most of the blue ground balls to cluster towards the bottom of the zone. There is a cluster towards the bottom, no doubt about that, but there is a lot at the top of the zone, too.

Maybe it is just weirdness from the software, huh? Maybe it painted the orange dots first and the blue dots second, so the blue ones are more obvious. Let’s look at only balls hit above 85 mph and above 10 degrees.

Click the image to see a full sized version.

Again, this is pretty much what you’d expect to see. Ozuna is hitting balls that he should be hitting. This is normal. Now let’s see balls above 85 mph but below 0 degrees.

Click the image to see a full sized version.

This…. This is not good. This is your problem.

Notice that a lot of these balls have high lgEV, meaning the league is generally hitting these balls pretty well. There are a few mixed in that the league hit poorly. Namely the balls on the inside and outside corners. But, look at this. Ozuna hit all of these balls into the ground. Some of these are very high in the zone. Some are right down the middle of the plate.

Naturally, this piqued my curiosity so I filtered by pitch type, and I found that the vast majority of these pitches are fastballs. Two seamer and four seamers. Almost all of the pitches were thrown harder than 88 mph, and most are between 93 and 98 mph.

Furthermore, going back to his hard hit balls, it seems that the majority of pitches that he has hit hard sit between 88 and 93 mph.

So, that tells part of the story. There is one last piece to consider: Year to year variation. So let’s see how that is going. The following three charts show batted balls hit above 85 mph off of pitches thrown at least 93 mph.

Click the image to see a full sized version.

We can call these moderately hard to hard contact off fastballs-like pitch velocity. In 2015, 38% were in the air. This number raised to 47% in 2016 and 50% in 2017. Ozuna has clearly made a correction and he is hitting high velocity pitches better than before.

You can view the viz used to create these images here.

So, what have we learned? Ozuna has below average plate discipline and a history of pronounced weakness against high velocity pitches. He also appears to have a weakness for pitches up in the zone. When he does make contact, he tends to hit balls into the ground more often than his peers. This is not strictly related to his poor plate discipline, but rather an issue with contact. We can deduce this by the location of the batted balls which he hits into the ground, many of which are high in the zone. Typically, pitches high in the zone will produce pop ups, so this is a bit weird.

I don’t know if this contact issue can be corrected going forward, since I don’t know what is causing the issue. Perhaps someone with more expertise in analyzing swings could address that issue. When I see Ozuna swing, I see him stepping into the bucket and pushing his butt out a bit. I think he may be right eye dominant, so he has a bit of an open stance to keep that eye on the ball. I don’t see an obvious reason for hitting so many ground balls.

How will Ozuna fair with the Cardinals?

Looking at the 2017 numbers alone, xStats ranks Ozuna as the 4th most valuable hitter on the team, roughly tied with Tommy Pham and behind Matt Carpenter and Jose Martinez. If you consider the 1 for 1 roster move of Marcell Ozuna vs Stephen Piscotty, xStats claims Ozuna will be adding a net 51 runs to the offense. Granted, Ozuna had nearly 50% more plate appearances. If you set both to 600 plate appearances, Ozuna is worth about 14 more runs over the course of the season. And I would argue maybe another 5 on defense, giving the Cardinals a 20 run swing, worth just under 2 wins.

In terms of fantasy value, the current Cardinals roster could optimistically be worth around 782 runs, up from the 761 they scored in 2017, which is roughly on par with what the Marlins scored in 2017. As a result, you probably shouldn’t expect a significant change in Runs and RBI totals for Ozuna. In 2017 Ozuna had an expected home run total of 32, as opposed to the 37 he hit in game. That should improve by moving to St. Louis. The xStats park effect difference between the two parks is .87 versus .91, which should net an increase of about 5%. Which would be one additional homerun. So that brings Ozuna’s xHR total up to 33.7.

Similar Runs Scored. Similar RBIs. Similar Home Run total. I don’t see this trade making a big difference in terms of fantasy value. In terms of real baseball, this is a great pick up for the Cardinals.

Andrew Perpetua is the creator of CitiFieldHR.com and xStats.org, and plays around with Statcast data for fun. Follow him on Twitter @AndrewPerpetua.

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NL Rulesmember
4 years ago

Fantastic article! Thank you – love this type of analysis!!

Trey Baughn
4 years ago
Reply to  NL Rules

Agree, one of the best writers on the site.