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Marcell Ozuna is Back, Never Left

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The Big Bear is hot recently. What did he figure out?

Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

They say never to meet your idols. I’d like to add that you should never write about the same topic as your idols, though for a completely different reason. I wrote a piece about Jordan Hicks on Tuesday that I’m really proud of. The stats were interesting, the wordplay felt sharp, and most importantly, the subject matter was exciting. I thought I had nailed it- for exactly two days. Alas, Ben Lindbergh was also intrigued by Hicks’ midseason reinvention, and decided he might as well write about it. You should read his. It’s exquisite. It’s always nice to read a great baseball writer’s work- I just haven’t previously had the pleasure (and agony) of having one of my favorite baseball writers redo something I wrote, only better. In any case, this is just an aside before today’s article, but I really do suggest Lindbergh’s piece on Hicks.

Where were we? Writing about statistics for a Cardinals player, right? Right! Marcell Ozuna is on the Cardinals. He has statistics. Let’s go with that. Ozuna has had a really interesting year, both in terms of his wildly varying statistics and the visceral feeling he’s given Cardinals fans. At the end of April, when he was running a 59 wRC+ and had roughly as many walks as times Tommy Pham cut in front of him in the outfield to hide Ozuna’s hurt throwing arm, the gut feeling and the stats lined up pretty well. Who is this guy, and what did he do with Marcell Ozuna? Even as he heated up and re-cooled in May, though, it was hard to reconcile Ozuna with the guy he was last year. Well, it’s June now, and I am having no trouble seeing Ozuna as the big bat the Cardinals thought they were acquiring. What a change a month can make.

What, though, did Ozuna actually change? It’s pretty hard to figure it out by looking at his mechanics, as he’s quite a tinkerer, though this article makes an attempt at it. Really, though, I have a hard time picking anything consistent out of his pre-swing mechanics. Sometimes he has a toe tap, sometimes he doesn’t. His front leg is oddly straight- except when he bends it during his approach. His bat is here. His bat is there! It’s more noise than signal, that’s for sure. Here, for example, are two swings from about a week apart in May:

I mean- Marcell Ozuna is in both videos, no doubt. He gets good outcomes on both swings- again, no argument there. He is tinkering so much with the exact details of his swing, though, that I don’t even know where to start analyzing it. Given that, let’s take a look at his stats and see if we can find something there.

I’ve created a split sample of Ozuna’s season- the season before May 21 (66 wRC+, 3HR) and since May 21 (216 wRC+, 5HR). As a point of reference, I’ll also consider his breakout 2017. The production stats are hardly worth looking at. Like, he’s hitting .414/.474/.671 in the past few weeks. Trying to look at those numbers will boggle your mind, and it’s not as though he’s going to legitimately hit that for a year. Instead, let’s break it down into a few parts. First, you’ve got his distribution of batted balls. Here’s the two chunks of 2018, with 2017 as a baseline:

Batted Ball Percentage

Split GB% LD% FB% GB/Air Ball
Split GB% LD% FB% GB/Air Ball
2017 47.1% 24.8% 28.0% 0.89
Pre-May 21 50.8% 20.5% 28.8% 1.03
Post-May 21 47.7% 21.5% 30.8% 0.91

It’s all rather similar, honestly. If you’re really looking hard, it seems like Ozuna hit a few extra ground balls at the expense of stuff in the air early this year. The difference in ground ball percentage, though, amounts to four batted balls in that pre-May 21 stretch. That’s hardly worth obsessing over. While it may have felt like Ozuna was just slapping everything on the ground for a while, the stats just aren’t very different from his career. He’s always been a bit of a groundball-happy hitter, and that doesn’t seem to have changed much this year, during either his hot streak or his early season doldrums.

What about how hard he’s hitting the ball? This seems like a more promising avenue of investigation. As John LaRue wrote, Ozuna was hitting grounders with authority but not putting enough pop into balls in the air, which masked a batted-ball weakness that merely his average exit velocity wouldn’t show. How have these stats changed during his recent streak?

Velocity by Batted Ball Type

Split GB Velo LD+FB Velo
Split GB Velo LD+FB Velo
2017 86.7 96.4
Pre-May 21 92.4 94.5
Post-May 21 86.9 96.1

That’s a little more interesting. It looks like Ozuna is hitting with more authority in the air now. His recent stats resemble last season way more than they do the first part of this season, which is super promising. It’s... It’s not all that much different than the first set of data, though. He definitely wasn’t hitting line drives or fly balls all that hard (I excluded popups from the data set because their velocity doesn’t help or hurt them, so they’re more noise than signal), but it’s not very clear exactly how un-hard he was hitting them. Seeking guidance, I looked at a rolling average of Ozuna’s exit velocity on air balls from last year:

The orange line there is his performance to start this year. It’s hardly something he hasn’t experienced before, in other words. This, in part, is the special magic of stats accrued at the start of the season. If these stats were mixed up a bit more, we might never notice this period of soft contact, or we might treat it as statistical noise. Marcell Ozuna’s first at-bats with the Cardinals are a lot harder to treat as noise. They are, more or less, our first gut feeling about Ozuna. They’re also a month and a half of baseball in a long season, and I think I’m fine saying that this is largely due to random fluctuations of dumb luck. If they’re symptoms of some mechanical issue that I couldn’t quite see, he certainly seems to have diagnosed and fixed it.

My next stop on the tour of what Ozuna is doing so well and why he didn’t do it before led me to plate discipline. The recent numbers are really promising on that front- Ozuna is walking more than he strikes out of late, with an 8.9% walk rate to a 6.3% strikeout rate since May 21. He was quite a bit worse before that, rocking a 5.5% walk rate to 22% strikeouts before then. This seems like a marked improvement, and it really is. That has to show something changing in the underlying stats, right? Luckily, it does, at least this once. Ozuna’s underlying control of the strike zone has been extremely impressive of late. He’s dropped his swinging strike rate from 12.8% (first sample) to 7.4%, both by being more selective at the plate (7% lower swing rate) and by missing less when he does swing (9% lower whiff rate). Swinging less often and making contact more often when you do swing is a recipe for success in baseball. But while those stats are amazing, it’s not clear that a new approach has led to this success. Here’s a picture of all the pitches Ozuna swung at before May 21:

I mean, that’s beautiful. He has a target, he swings when the ball is there, and he does a good job hunting pitches that are easier to hit, middle-middle. Here are his swings since May 21:

This seems demonstrably worse. He’s reaching away more, and it’s not even clear that the spot he’s swung at most is inside the strike zone. You might say that Ozuna just has a swing that is built to hit balls away. Historically, at least, you’d be wrong. Here’s his career ISO by zone:

If anything, he’s the kind of guy who likes to turn on inside pitches. That makes total sense to me given how his swing looks. He seems to generate a ton of torque on inside pitches, and he has one of those beautiful pull swings when things line up right.

What we have here, then, is something of a mystery. Ozuna has gotten a ton of things right in the past few weeks, and it’s leading to him putting up some crazy stats. He even has some underlying numbers that he’s improved on of late. It seems, though, like he hasn’t really changed much of anything. He’s swinging a little less and making more contact, that’s for sure. He’s hitting balls harder, that’s for sure. It doesn’t seem like anything dramatic has happened, though. Marcell Ozuna is just… good.

Well, I have a bold claim. I think Marcell Ozuna was always good, and that he really didn’t deserve his early-season struggles. His stats were awful. Awful! Take a look at a radial chart of his batted balls, though:

There are no fewer than nine barreled balls that turned into outs, while only four went for hits (three homers and a double). Since May 21, he’s turned two barreled balls into outs and six into hits (five home runs and a triple). Barreled balls are the best possible contact type. On the year, barreled balls across the majors have gone for a 1.288 wOBA. Ozuna’s early-season woes are largely explained by the .557 (!!!) wOBA he ran on those hits. That’s a colossal string of bad luck. If he’d hit league-average on those balls, he would have increased his wOBA by 60 points, something like 35 points of wRC+. He would have been a league average hitter; he even would have been a league average hitter with his poor plate discipline and diminished power on balls in the air. As it turns out, one of the best answers for what Marcell Ozuna was doing wrong was ‘getting unlucky.’ It can just be hard to see that when a player starts out so cold.

This is not exactly a satisfying conclusion for me. I like looking at stats for enlightenment. I like looking at video for enlightenment. I want to have something for you. He was swinging too much. He was swinging too little. He was stepping in the bucket. His swing path was all wrong. I don’t know- something. What I have, though, is a lot of things that look similar and some results that look wholly different. If there’s anything worth taking away from Ozuna’s swingy season-to-date, it’s that our brains love stories- even when they aren’t there. I spent hours looking for the story in Ozuna’s numbers. Turns out, it was just a novella about how perception doesn’t always match reality.