May 17, 2017
Marcell Ozuna is Obliterating the Baseball
We live in a Golden Age of player development. Teams understand their players—and especially their young, talented players—far better than they used to understand them. Just as importantly, though, players understand themselves far better than they used to. In this era dominated by strikeouts, defensive innovations, and so many home runs, with all the technological and instructional resources available, there is no good reason (other than wanting makeup, the kind that prevents one from taking full advantage of those resources) for a team to give up on a talented player.
Stardom is always one turned corner away, and there are more intersections at which to make such a turn than ever. For Marcell Ozuna, there have been a few wrong turns. He came up way back in 2013, and has shown flashes of brilliance in every season since. He’s a fine defensive outfielder, though better suited to a corner spot than to center field. He possesses a strong arm, and he pairs his natural power at the plate with a good enough instinctual approach to get by. He’s battled inconsistency, insufficient contact, and a vulnerability to right-handed pitching, but the talent has always been obvious.
Still, the Marlins nearly gave up on him. In 2015, when he slumped around midseason, the team sent him back to the minors for a prolonged period. Ozuna didn’t handle the demotion with exceptional grace, although he more or less forced his way back into the picture before long. He and agent Scott Boras considered a grievance against the Marlins for the stunt, which helped the team keep Ozuna under the service-time threshold that would have made him Super Two eligible in the winter of 2015-2016.
Then there was an up-and-down 2016, during which Ozuna found and lost a mentor (Barry Bonds, the hitting coach who lobbied for the team to keep Ozuna after being hired in January; lent the young hitter his own bats in May; then checked out during the second half), and perhaps also found and lost his way at the plate (he was a monster in May, and that carried over a bit into June, but before and after that, he struggled).
After all of those wrong turns, Ozuna has found the right one, and it consists mostly of simply turning on the ball more. According to FanGraphs, his pull percentage this season is 48.5 percent—higher than it was in any of his last three seasons. Admittedly, the sample is small, but since the start of 2014, Ozuna hadn’t pulled the ball as often in any month as he has pulled it over the first month-and-a-half of this year.
He’s elevating the ball about as often as usual, but popping it up less often. He’s swinging about as often at pitches outside the zone, but a bit more often at pitches inside it. He’s also made some small changes in his swing. He sets up more quietly, with less tipping and movement of the bat pre-swing. He’s opening up his front foot more, and his front hip is following that cue, such that he’s getting around on inside pitches with more authority. His lower half is a bit more geared toward momentum, and a bit less toward balance, than in the past. All of these are small changes, but with Ozuna’s natural physicality they’ve been enough to more than outweigh his slight drop in contact rate on swings.
Here at BP, we have Adjusted Exit Velocity data on hitters and pitchers. Instead of taking the raw reported Statcast averages for exit speed on batted balls, this data set takes those reported figures and adjusts them for opponents and for parks (not because of traditional park factors, but because our stat folks discovered that there is a significant measurement bias for reported exit speed—essentially, a batted ball in Arizona will be reported as much faster than the exact same batted ball in Boston), then reports the median figure.
Among qualifying hitters, Ozuna ranks third this season in Adjusted Exit Velocity, behind Miguel Sano and Joc Pederson. We also have an internal stat that estimates each batter’s per-batted-ball impact on run scoring based on both Adjusted Exit Velocity and launch angles, and in that category, only Sano tops Ozuna. It seems like Ozuna has simply set himself free. It seems like he’s hitting with less fear.
Here’s what we know for sure: he’s hitting the ball much, much harder, and farther, and not just compared to past iterations of himself. Pitchers, on the other hand, are pitching him more fearfully than ever, and with good reason. If he can continue to wait for his pitch, turn on it, and do this level of damage, Ozuna will soon be the Marlins' outfielder at the top of everyone’s wish list.