Another Marcell Ozuna Breakout

Entering the 2017 season, Marcell Ozuna had been a roughly average offensive player over the course of his career and slightly better than that in the field. Per 600 plate appearances, that works out to something close to a three-win player. This year, Ozuna looks like he might reach 3.0 WAR by the All-Star break. He’s getting on base nearly 40% of the time and has powered up with 14 homers just a third of the way through the season. His switch from center field to left field doesn’t seem to have hurt his value.

There’s talk that Ozuna, whose salary is likely to increase through arbitration, could be a trade target. With two-plus seasons left of team control, it certainly looks like Ozuna is breaking out. That said, we’ve also seen this show before. Is this somehow different?

Back in 2014, Ozuna broke out for the first time. After a half-season of playing time the year before, Ozuna hit .269/.317/.455 and with good numbers in center field. The result: a four-win campaign. The following year, Ozuna was pretty close to average for a while, then slumped badly enough for the Marlins to send him to the minors and prevent him from becoming a super-2 arbitration player. Last year, Ozuna recorded solid numbers, hitting .266/.321/.452 and essentially matching his 2014 campaign. Unfortunately for Ozuna, the surge in offense over the last few seasons meant that his 116 wRC+ in 2014 was now just 105 last year. While hitting 5% better than average last year might not seem that great, we should remember that Ozuna broke out last year, too.

On May 20 of last season, I wrote a piece asking, “Is Marcell Ozuna Breaking Out?” At the time, Ozuna was hitting a lot like he is right now. Good power with a high BABIP has been Ozuna’s path to productive performance. Here are some relevant stats on Ozuna for this season and last season:

Marcell Ozuna Breakout
HR/PA BB% K% BABIP BA OBP SLG ISO wRC+
On May 20, 2016 4.9% 6.7% 22.6% .352 .301 .348 .529 .229 133
On June 5, 2017 5.8% 9.6% 20.8% .373 .329 .392 .569 .241 153

Looks pretty similar. This season, the BABIP is even higher, which leads to the higher average, OBP, and most of the 20-point increase in wRC+. He’s hitting homers at a slightly more prodigious rate, but fewer doubles and triples, so the ISO is really close. If you want a reason for optimism, that walk rate looks really nice. However, three of Ozuna’s 23 walks were intentional. His unintentional walk rate is 8.3%; that’s better than last year, but not as big of a gap as we might think. That said, his plate-discipline numbers might shed some light on Ozuna’s year so far.

Marcell Ozuna Pitch f/x Plate Discipline
O-Swing % Z-Swing % O-Contact % Z-Contact % SwStr %
On May 20, 2016 35.7% 63.4% 53.0% 85.6% 13.1%
On June 5, 2017 31.8% 72.8% 58.3% 82.9% 13.1%

He’s swinging at fewer pitches outside the strike zone and more pitches in the strike zone. That’s a good sign and does lend some support to the increased walk rate this year. He also has the exact same percentage of swinging strikes as last season and is making contact less on pitches in the zone. It’s possible he’s going for it a bit more, getting aggressive on pitches in the zone, especially offspeed pitches. The chart below shows swing percentages from last season compared to this season on the pitches he saw the most often.

Marcell Ozuna Swing %
2016 2017 Change
Four-Seam 47.5% 43.3% -4.2%
Two-Seam 43.5% 44.2% 0.7%
Change 48.9% 61.8% 12.9%
Slider 47.1% 50.6% 13.5%
Curve 48.0% 60.9% 12.9%
SOURCE: Brooks Baseball

He isn’t swinging at more fastballs than last season. On offspeed and breaking pitches, however, he’s swinging a lot more. Thus far, that aggressiveness has paid off. Last season, 218 of Ozuna’s at-bats ended on the slider, curve, and change, per Brooks Baseball. He struck out 70 times (32%) and had an ISO of .170, with nine of his 23 homers coming on those three pitches. This season, in 102 at-bats, he’s struck out 34 times (33%), so roughly the same rate as last year. He’s already hit seven homers on those pitches this year, though, with a .245 ISO. His power numbers are also up on the fastball despite little evidence of a change in his swing patterns on those pitches. So this might just be a bit of noise.

As for what Statcast has to say about Ozuna, his average exit velocity is roughly the same as last season. On fly balls and line drives, though, it’s up a couple miles per hour — from 94 mph to 96 mph this year, per Baseball Savant. His average launch angle was 10.8 degrees last season and has lowered to 9.5 degrees this year, with the same margins of fly balls and line drives, so it doesn’t appear as thoug he’s part of the fly-ball revolution you’ve been hearing so much about. In fact, if we look at Ozuna’s fast start last year and compare it to the one this year, there’s one more commonality: luck.

Over the course of last season, Ozuna’s expected wOBA (xwOBA) based on launch angle and exit velocity was .339, right in line with his wOBA of .335, per Baseball Savant. In 2015, he might have gotten a bit unlucky, recording an xwOBA of .318 and actual wOBA of .305. There doesn’t appear to be any scenario where Ozuna has a skill set or park where we would expect him to outproduce his xwOBA. That’s exactly what he did at the start of last season, and that’s exactly what he’s doing to start this season, as well.

Marcell Ozuna xwOBA
xwOBA wOBA Difference wOBA ROS
On May 20, 2016 0.335 0.377 -0.042 0.314
On June 5, 2017 0.376 0.412 -0.036 ?
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

We see a pretty sizable gap in both starts. The good news for Ozuna is that he’s started off even better this season. Even if he declines to the degree he did last season, he’ll still be in pretty good shape overall. Last year, he lost 63 points over the rest of the season after his hot start. If he did the same this season, that would put his rest-of-season wOBA at about .349. Currently, Ozuna’s FanGraphs Depth Chart projections have Ozuna at .346, which is good for a 116 wRC+. He does that and he’ll end up the season with a wRC+ somewhere close to 130 and the best season of his career. That’s a fine season, some might even call it a breakout, but there isn’t much reason to think that Ozuna has turned himself into one of the best players in baseball with this fast start.





Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

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Tim Jackson
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Just a head’s up: the swing% chart has a 13.5% difference between slider swing rates but shows 3.5%.

I was just looking at Ozuna…his heat maps add to how he’s attacking the non-fastballs. It looks like he’s focusing on stuff low and away, which maybe makes it easier to drive for power when he sees those pitches.