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What to Make of Ozuna’s First Games in Cardinal Red

Leaving Miami meant one thing: no more Stanton or Yelich. But does that matter? And Is more improvement on the way?

MLB: Arizona Diamondbacks at St. Louis Cardinals Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

If you navigated to a list of players without no walks heading into last weekend, Marcell Ozuna’s name sat with four others.

Avisail Garcia and Jose Peraza accounted for two, each poor at the OBP-inflating feat. Gary Sanchez and Ozzie Albies were the other pair, both expected to walk at reasonable rates, likely a victim of small-sample bias.

Marcell Ozuna’s first walk of the season came Saturday in Cincinnati, removing him from this list.

Raising my eyebrow at this data point of Ozuna’s, I wondered whether the root of his no-walk stretch could be linked to a change we may not be considering: the batting order around Ozuna. Specifically, if leaving a lineup of Christian Yelich and Giancarlo Stanton affected the pitches thrown and locations targeted against the Cardinals’ new clean-up hitter.

That thought was incorrect.

The idea of “lineup protection” has been denounced by the majority of sabermetricians and I agree with a lot of the claims. Tom Tango and others in the industry have documented why, leading to the conclusion that while the “protected hitter” does walk more, the goal of protection is to give that hitter better pitches to hit, presumably resulting in more production, which is not the case.

Ozuna was technically the one doing the “protecting” in the Marlins’ 2017 lineup, which removes him even more than any presuamble effect of the theory. (70 percent of Ozuna’s at-bats last season came in the clean-up spot, behind Yelich and Stanton.) Even if we consider present-day Jose Martinez an upgrade over Justin Bour or J.T. Realmuto, Ozuna’s main backups last year, there isn’t a substantial enough change behind Ozuna for this to matter.

Score: Internet 1 - Lance 0.

It isn’t just the walks that looked off from Ozuna’s track record. Activating my ability to overreact to small samples, Ozuna’s small increase in strikeout rate stands out from prior years. He sat around 28 percent heading into the weekend, and has already smoothed that out to 26 percent entering Tuesday’s action. Playing around with Fangraphs’ stat stabilization tool shows there could be some merit in looking at a strikeout rate before 100 plate appearances are reached. I emphasize “some” in that sentence as early-season analysis should often be qualified.

Does the uptick have to do with Pitch location?

Sliders and curveballs thrown to Ozuna, 2018 vs. 2017 (BaseballSavant).

Above is a look at where Ozuna is seeing the majority of his breaking balls early in the season. The picture above with the dark concentration inside the strike zone is 2017, while the flatter concentration outside of the zone is the same pitch parameters for 2018.

Of any sorting done on Baseball Savant, this is one of the more interesting differences compared to the prior year for Ozuna. It could stem from scouting reports now citing Ozuna’s exceptional ability to hit breaking balls in 2017. But even that fails to explain why his walk rate is down, especially as intuition off my above point suggests breaking balls off the plate would increase Ozuna’s walk rate.

As you’re probably starting to realize, it’s tough to assume anything off early season data. I would suspect the majority of Ozuna data at the moment is noise covering up one of the better hitters in the game, but one should never stop improving or overreacting... right?

You’re looking at a side-by-side comparison of Ozuna in 2018 versus tape of him back with the Marlins’ Double-A affiliate. Always intriguing to me is how early Ozuna gets his front foot down, and how rooted in his swing, even three years ago, this mannerism is. The power he’s still able to generate comes primarily from the explosive rotation of his upper body, as opposed to a large leg kick or heavy hand load. Scouts often praise a power hitter’s “quick twitch” muscles, those proficient at explosive movements, when looking at athletes of this caliber. With how consolidated Ozuna’s swing is, his bat motionless and now perpendicular to the ground as it eases back into his load, these muscles are more than an asset for the Cardinals’ left fielder.

I’ve spoken with multiple sources in the past regarding how an “early” front-foot could sap a player’s power, but Ozuna’s seems to render this idea useless.

While Ozuna’s swing have been refined over the years, we may be seeing even more of an approach change. If we want to overreact again, one of the two holes in Ozuna’s swing might be fading away. Courtesy of BrooksBaseball, take a look at his whiff rate on elevated and outer-third fastballs from this year and last.

All Fastballs, 2017 (more red/purple) compared to 2018 (less red/purple). Via BrooksBaseball.

Yes! Even more confusion as to how his strikeout rate is up. He’s always had a sore spot down and in (especially on breaking balls), but his plate coverage this season seems to be flashing signals of early improvement.

I hope this sampling of Ozuna at least provides reason to take a deep breath and relax early in 2018. It hopefully also points towards a few things to watch in Ozuna’s at-bats going forward.

Are pitchers still primarily keeping breaking balls off the plate? Does he continue to massage away this fastball hole in his swing? Where do his strikeout and walk rates trend as our samples increase and both stats stabilize? And heck, if you want to overreact, go for it!

Thanks for reading my first column with VEB. Excited to share more of my thoughts on the Cardinals this season. Follow me on Twitter (@LanceBrozdow) for more of my work from various outlets.