A Marcell Ozuna Warning, Disguised as a Fun Fact

Baseball has a thing for archetypes. Leadoff hitters are supposed to be fast. Right fielders have good arms. Closers need either to be Mariano Rivera or slightly bizarre. These archetypes exist, in theory, because they are consistent with what you need from certain players. The rise of the analytics movement in baseball has fought against some of the ill-conceived archetypes, like the bat-handling No. 2 hitter, but many of these ideas remain because they align with success.

One straightforward example is that center fielders should be fast. Technically speaking, you just want a center fielder who can prevent hits over a large section of the field. There’s more than one way to possess that ability, obviously, but speed certainly helps, even if you could imaging a successful center fielder who didn’t run particularly well. Yet, in general, it’s a baseball archetype that seems to have stood the test of time.

This article is not going to challenge that belief. It is better to have a fast center fielder. But what this article is going to do is study and celebrate a particularly unusual data point relating to center fielders and speed. Marcell Ozuna is just weeks away from becoming the first center fielder since 2005 and just the 22nd ever to go an entire season without a stolen base.

From the start, we have to acknowledge that this is essentially a piece of trivia. A fun fact. The difference between one stolen base and zero stolen bases is tiny. If he had swiped two bases over his first five months, we probably wouldn’t have said a word about this.

To get a sense of how frequent this was across the whole positional spectrum, I used the Baseball-Reference Play Index to search for individual player seasons since 1901 in which a player (a) qualified and (b) recorded more than 50% of his games at a given position and also (c) failed to steal a single base. Here’s the breakdown by position, keeping in mind the overall DH population is much smaller.

Player Seasons with No Stolen Bases
Position Player Seasons with No SB
C 143
1B 197
2B 34
SS 65
3B 120
LF 72
CF 22
RF 80
DH 69*
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference
Since 1901.
Qualified position players with 50+% of games at the position.

There are clearly three tiers of no-stolen-base seasons. Catcher, first base, third base, and designated hitter have averaged at least one no-SB season per year. Shortstop, left field, and right field average one of these seasons at least once every two years. Second base and center field average many fewer. In particular, there have been just 21 player-seasons in which a qualifying center fielder didn’t steal a base. Marcell Ozuna is going for number 22. (This year’s Robinson Cano is number 34 on the 2B list.)

Here are all of those center-field seasons, per the the Play Index. I included their triple tallies as an additional proxy.

CF Seasons with No Stolen Bases
Player Year Tm PA 3B
Marcell Ozuna 2016 MIA 553 5
Ken Griffey 2005 CIN 555 0
Juan Gonzalez 1992 TEX 632 2
Chet Lemon 1987 DET 553 3
Chet Lemon 1985 DET 575 4
Tony Armas 1983 BOS 613 2
Chet Lemon 1983 DET 573 5
Jerry Morales 1977 CHC 538 5
Mickey Stanley 1973 DET 661 5
Bobby Thomson 1958 CHC 614 5
Gus Bell 1957 CIN 555 3
Larry Doby 1956 CHW 619 3
Gus Bell 1953 CIN 665 5
Joe DiMaggio 1951 NYY 482 4
Joe DiMaggio 1950 NYY 606 10
Wally Judnich 1946 SLB 573 4
Lloyd Waner 1939 PIT 410 3
Hank Leiber 1935 NYG 680 4
Len Koenecke 1935 BRO 374 2
Mule Haas 1933 CHW 682 4
Mule Haas 1931 PHA 489 7
Mule Haas 1929 PHA 655 9
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference
Since 1901.
Qualified position players with 50+% of games in CF.

Ozuna doesn’t appear to be a case of a corner outfielder being pressed into center-field duty; he’s been a solid defender in center in each of his seasons, with the exception of his DRS numbers this year. Combine that with his slightly above-average record running the bases while the ball is in play, and there’s not an obvious reason why Ozuna doesn’t steal at least a few bags every year.

He swiped five, three, and two across his previous three seasons, never attempting more than six steals in any one season. His batting-order position has also varied, including reps mainly at second, fourth, and fifth this year. In other words, it’s not like he’s been hitting in front of Stanton and has a red light; Ozuna simply doesn’t attempt many stolen bases despite seeming to be a reasonable enough runner.

This is a delightful oddity, and one that we’ll probably get to savor given that Ozuna’s recent knee injury will probably keep him from running wild in order to remove the goose egg from his stat sheet.

But, of course, the thing about this fun fact is that it can vanish instantly. It’s not like someone who is chasing .400 or 73 HR. If he steals one base, it’s over. And the thing is, he’s tried to steal three bases this year and has been caught each time. A worthwhile question, as far as these things go at least, is how close Ozuna has come to stealing a base in 2016.

April 23:

In his first attempt, the camera angle doesn’t offer a lot of information about his jump, but a less than perfect throw gets him.

July 9:

In his second effort, hilarity ensures. Not only is he picked off, but watch as he tries to tuck his necklace into his shirt in the middle of the play. The defenders were so taken aback by this that they dropped the ball. Of course, he still managed to get tagged out despite the defensive flub.

July 27:

His most recent and final attempt was a bit of a more traditional attempt and the catcher delivered a good throw. Although he goes for another necklace tuck as he leaves the field.

We don’t have a full cupboard of Statcast at our finger tips, but perhaps Ozuna is slowing down. I don’t want to make a big deal about zero swipes versus three to five, but there are some other angles. First, his DRS numbers have tanked. Second, over the last two weeks he’s been bumped to right field while Christian Yelich has gotten starts in center.

What’s fascinating about this whole thing is that Yelich grades out very well on the bases and in the field, in addition to be being a better hitter. Ozuna is chasing this “record” despite the fact that the club seems to have someone else who is a better fit for center field. If Ozuna had been playing left or right field all along, he’d be just be one of many to fail to steal a base.

Ozuna doesn’t need to steal bases to be a good player. With his home run on Wednesday, he’s up to 110 wRC+ on the season and has been worth more than two wins for the Marlins. He hasn’t played like a star during his four seasons, but a few stolen bases wouldn’t move the needle. The fact that he hasn’t stolen a base as a center fielder is interesting, but it’s possible he might not be a center fielder when camp breaks in 2017. His lack of steals this year may be a good indication that he’s not long for the position and his move to a corner this month will prove permanent.





Neil Weinberg is the Site Educator at FanGraphs and can be found writing enthusiastically about the Detroit Tigers at New English D. Follow and interact with him on Twitter @NeilWeinberg44.

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jdbolick
Member

What’s fascinating about this whole thing is that Yelich grades out very well on the bases and in the field, in addition to be being a better hitter. Ozuna is chasing this “record” despite the fact that the club seems to have someone else who is a better fit for center field.

I’m not so sure about this. Yelich has been better in center this season over a 125.2 inning sample, so it’s possible that you’re correct, but over his entire 524 career innings in center he has been substantially worse than Ozuna’s 2016 defensive performance. I would agree that Yelich has better range than Ozuna, yet range is only one factor in defensive performance for center fielders, albeit arguably the most important one. Interestingly, UZR suggests that Ozuna’s range in 2016 has been roughly equivalent to his range in 2014 and superior to what he produced in 2015. The culprit for his overall decline in UZR has been going from one of the best arms among center fielders in those seasons to a roughly average one this season.

Concerned Reader John
Member
Member
Concerned Reader John

524 innings is a pretty small sample. He’s logged 3500 innings in left and consistently graded as above average. I’m not disagreeing with you necessarily, as using grades for left for center is hardly apples-to-apples, but it’s worth pointing out.

jdbolick
Member

I am not saying that Yelich is definitely worse than Ozuna in center field. What I am saying is that the evidence we have so far does not appear to support that he would be “a better fit.”