Is Marcell Ozuna Breaking Out?

Marcell Ozuna is the third-best outfielder on his team. He can’t match the power and discipline of Giancarlo Stanton, and he can’t match the patient, contact-oriented approach of rising star Christian Yelich. Partially related to those two statements, Yelich and Stanton have signed contracts worth nearly $400 million total while Ozuna, despite possessing more service time than Yelich and having played 50 more games than Stanton since the start of 2014, will be paid near the league minimum this year. Ozuna is off to a great start this season, and we might want to look for changes to his game after a rough 2015 season, but Ozuna is very much a similar player to the one that slugged 23 homers back in 2014.

Ozuna has a fairly unique game. He has good power, but in more than 1500 plate appearances, it has only shown up as average with a .157 ISO. He walks at a below average rate (6% for his career), strikes out at a below-average rate (23% for his career), and has maintained a high .331 BABIP. Together, it has made him a roughly average offensive player, and a difficult home park elevates his wRC+ to 104. Not too bad. On defense, Ozuna has recorded nearly 3,000 innings in center field and both UZR and DRS place him right at average. Average offense and average defense in center field combine for an above-average player. Average to above-average might sound a bit boring, but Ozuna’s streaky performance and perceived inconsistency means he gets to his stats in rather exciting fashion.

Ozuna has had one really good year, in 2014, followed by a disappointing season in 2015 that saw him receive a demotion in the middle of the season, although that demotion might have been tied more closely to Ozuna’s super-two status and his agent Scott Boras rather than any strict performance-related deficiencies. This season, Ozuna is back, picking up where he left off at the end of 2015 and playing like the player who exhibited so much promise two seasons ago. How long will this last? It’s hard to say.

To help understand Ozuna’s production, first let’s compare him to teammate Christian Yelich, who also debuted in 2013 and has played roughly the same number of games. The chart below shows a rolling 12-game wRC+ average over the course of Yelich’s career.

Screenshot 2016-05-19 at 12.25.10 PM

That’s Yelich and it’s not too different from most players. Lots of ups and downs and really rough patch to start the 2015 season, but ultimately the ups outweigh the downs and Yelich ends up with a 121 career wRC+.

Now let’s take a look at Ozuna’s 12-game rolling wRC+ during his career.

Screenshot 2016-05-19 at 12.26.30 PM

It’s not that different: a series of peaks and valleys ultimately arrive at the aforementioned 104 wRC+. Like Yelich, he had a difficult period where he had quite the valley. Ozuna’s occurred in the middle of 2015 and it looks a lot like Yelich’s. But wait. Did you check the scale on the graph? You checked the scale on the graph, right? Because Yelich’s graph starts at 0. Ozuna’s, meanwhile, drops down to -100.

On June 12, 2015, Marcell Ozuna’s line stood at .289/.344/.396 with a 104 wRC+, right in line with his current career numbers. He actually wasn’t striking out all that much (just 19% of plate appearances) and featured a .347 BABIP that compensated for his decrease in power. He would proceed, however, to record just nine hits in his next 75 plate appearances. He struck out 27 times against only two walks during that stretch and produced a wRC+ of -20 during that time. He was sent down to the minors, hit well almost immediately there, and after the Marlins had assured Ozuna would not get super-two status for this season, he was called back up and continued to hit well. He saw a spike in his power numbers, recording an ISO close to .200 and a healthy 115 wRC+.

So what was the problem last year? It was mostly a blip for a 24-year-old who is prone to strikeouts and reliant on a solid BABIP to post good overall offensive numbers. The results-based answer is that for much of the season he was hitting too many ground balls, an indication that perhaps he was making too much contact on pitches out of the zone at the expense of power, and for a brief stretch, a contact-oriented approach terribly combined with lack of contact had disastrous results.

Here is a similar 12-game rolling chart, except for ground-ball percentage.

Screenshot 2016-05-19 at 12.53.57 PM

Now here is the ground-ball graph overlapping with the wRC+ graph with wRC+ showing up a bit lighter.

ozunaoverlap

It’s not perfect, but it certainly appears that the more Ozuna hits the ball on the ground, the worse off he is. In 2014, his ground-ball percentage was 49%, and was 53% before getting sent down last season. So far this year, his ground-ball rate is down to 43% and his fly-ball rate is a career high 38%. In his rough 2015 campaigm, his plate-discipline numbers were roughly the same as in 2014, except he was making more contact on balls outside of the zone and his swinging strikes were down. His BABIP fell down to .320, rendering him a below-average hitter overall.

This season, Ozuna is making less contact on pitches outside of the strike zone — the pitches most batters do poorly with. His swinging-strike rate is back up to 2014 levels, and his BABIP and power have also risen. Ozuna might not ever be a player with average walk or strikeout numbers, but he needs to play to the strengths of his game. It is counter-intuitive that a hitter could benefit by making less contact and swinging and missing more often, but most players make some power/contact tradeoff. Giancarlo Stanont misses the ball a lot, but he has such fantastic power that when he does make contact, the damage is immense.

Ozuna doesn’t have Stanton-like power, but he does have decent power and the ability to hit the ball pretty hard. An aggressive approach won’t work for everyone, but a contact-oriented approach doesn’t appear to work for Ozuna. He might be prone to slumps and his on-base percentage might never be great, limiting his ceiling, but an average to above-average offensive player who can play a decent center field is still a valuable player. He might not continue to hit as well as he is now, but he’s the type of player who could string together enough hits and enough home runs that a four- or five-win season is a possibility. He might not ever be Stanton or Yelich, but with Ozuna, the trio combine to make one of the best outfields in baseball.





Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

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Am I the only one who’s accidentally downvoted a comment with the new interface, because the “thumbs down is where the “+” used to be?