Wednesday, May 29, 2024
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What Marcell Ozuna Brings to the Atlanta Braves

Expected metrics are fun to toy with, but it’s even more fun when they actually translate into mammoth home runs, frozen rope doubles, or even the occasional — wait for it — single. Above all else, the most fun thing in baseball is winning games, and Marcell Ozuna is on a mission to help the Atlanta Braves do so just that. While his season to season production has fluctuated about as much as Mama June’s weight, all signs now point towards Ozuna’s bat making a bold statement in 2020.

Expected metrics can only be suppressed temporarily. Ozuna has posted hard hit rates well above 40% in each of the last three seasons, and as a result, his average exit velocity comfortably sat in the top 10% of the league all three years. Without a doubt, 2017 has been his best season to date, but the best might be yet to come for the 29-year-old.

BABiP Luck

Marcell Ozuna posted a .355 BABiP in 2017, his final year with the Miami Marlins. Because of this, one might write off his .924 OPS as luck, but he did so with a hard hit rate 9% lower than the 48.1% he boasted last season. Ozuna followed up the 2017 campaign with a .309 BABiP in 2018, and his OPS suffered severely, dropping to .758. He saw 21 fewer extra-base hits and a 51-point drop in on-base percentage in his first season with the St. Louis Cardinals, creating worry for St. Louis fans and executives alike. In 2019, his OPS jumped to an even .800, but this can be attributed to a league-wide boost in offense, as his OPS+ only increased from 106 to just 107. Interestingly, Ozuna was able to maintain his level of offensive production relative to league average, despite a 50-point drop in BABiP (.309 to .259).

One of the reasons for Marcell Ozuna’s huge BABiP drop from 2018 to 2019 was the defensive shift. Fangraphs’ shift statistics do not take into account home runs, strikeouts, or walks, because shifts have zero impact on any of the three. This allows for balls put in play to be independently analyzed in shift situations. In Ozuna’s case, his average on balls in play in shift situations from ’18 to ’19 plummeted from .312 to .239, and he had 14 more ball-in-play events against the shift in fewer games. Overall, Ozuna saw the number of at-bats ending with a ball in play versus the shift increase from 13.2% to 19.0%. While significant, it should not be worrisome, given his elite batted ball profile. He’s gotten extremely pull-happy, but a change of scenery and coaching could help straighten that out without losing too much of the power.

We all miss Donaldson, but…

Images via Baseball Savant

Atlanta Braves fans’ main concern after Josh Donaldson signed with the Minnesota Twins was replacing his crucial contributions to the lineup for 2020. Donaldson posted a .536 xSLG, .387 xwOBA, and a 50.0% hard hit rate, putting him near the top of the league in all three categories. For those who worry about whether or not Marcell Ozuna will fill the void offensively, his same three metrics are encouraging, to say the least. In his age-28 season, Ozuna’s xSLG was .548, and his .382 xWOBA and 49.2% hard hit rate trailed Donaldson only marginally.

One of the keys to the Atlanta Braves’ success in 2019 was the club’s ability as a whole to put good wood on the ball. The team’s 9.1% barrel rate ranked third in all of baseball, and Donaldson’s 15.7% mark was a huge factor in them doing so. Marcell Ozuna hopes to carry over, and possibly improve on, a career-best 12.6% barrel rate. Even with just an average BABiP of around .300 in 2020, Ozuna’s bat has the potential to generate 35 home runs and an OPS much closer to .900. With enhanced plate discipline and pitch recognition, the numbers could climb even higher.

Should fans worry?

Ozuna saw sliders at an absurdly high 26.2% rate in 2019, while the league average is just 18.3%. The slider has become more widely-used throughout the league, along with the cutter, as both pitches create an effective tunnel with the fastball. This allows pitchers to use their fastballs less often (Ozuna saw just 47.6%, a career low), and leave hitters guessing more often. This was often the case with Ozuna, and he did not fare particularly well against pitches with sharp, lateral movement. He was worth 8.4 runs below average against sliders and 3.1 runs below average against cutters, using FanGraphs’ linear pitch weights (wSL and wCT). To give Atlanta Braves fans a ray of hope regarding Ozuna’s success, or lack thereof, in these areas, Dansby Swanson saw a 9.8 run improvement against sliders from 2018 to 2019. Braves hitting coach Kevin Seitzer has plenty of time before and during Spring Training to assess what changes, if any, need to be made to Ozuna’s swing/approach. The only hope is that, as his batting average improves, the career-best 11.3% walk rate from 2019 will stick around.

New-age metrics don’t exactly agree with each other about how good Marcell Ozuna is defensively. Primarily a left fielder, he posted the second-best defensive runs saved total at his position, and a league-leading 8.6 UZR/150. On the flip side, Statcast’s Outs Above Average pegs Ozuna as one of the league’s worst left fielders. He struggled significantly to make plays to his left and right, posting -4 Outs Above Average in both areas, and -8 OAA total. Before 2019, he had not posted an OAA total in left field worse than -1, which gives hope for a more solid defensive year in Atlanta. Hopefully the good defenders surrounding him will both rub off on him and take some of the pressure off of him.

This six-minute video serves as both a sum of his value throughout the 2019 season, as well as something to look forward to as an Atlanta Braves fan:

Video courtesy of NicksHighlights on YouTube

Marcell Ozuna brings an assortment of skills to the Atlanta Braves. Despite facing intense struggles in certain areas of the game, he generated 2.6 fWAR in 2019, and per Fangraphs, Steamer has him projected to do the same in 2020, belting 31 homers and raising his BABiP to a respectable .306 along the way. The Braves have him on a one-year deal, which allows him to both rid himself of the Qualifying Offer attachment and establish extra long-term value for himself, as he’ll hit the free agent market again at just 30. Josh Donaldson proved in 2019 that these one-and-done deals can pay off, and now it’s Ozuna’s turn to do the same.