Remember the movie “Rookie of the Year”?
It was one of many in a string of early 90s sports movies. A young Thomas Ian Nicholas (of American Pie fame) breaks his arm, but the tendons heal “a little too tight,” turning him into an absolute freak of nature.
Nicholas’ character, Henry Rowengartner, is discovered by the floundering Cubs when throwing a strike from the bleachers to home plate at Wrigley. He goes straight to the majors as a 12-year-old reliever and is mentored by an aging Gary Busey before leading the Cubs to a division title, which somehow sends them directly to the World Series.
Ah, the 90s.
Why the history lesson on a small sliver of the golden age of kids’ sports movies? At this point, it’s looking like Marcell Ozuna might’ve pulled a “Rookie of the Year” of his own.
It’s no secret that Ozuna has struggled with shoulder issues in his time as a Cardinal. The front office knew of those problems when they traded for him. The story this past offseason for Ozuna revolved around the recovery of that shoulder, and he was quoted on April 9 saying it was only “at 55 percent.”
That fall off of the outfield wall on April 10 against the Dodgers must’ve knocked the other 45 percent into it.
What we thought to be physical injury—or injury to his pride—as he lay facedown on the ground in left field must have actually been him allowing the effects to take hold.
Through April 9, Ozuna was batting .211/.250/.395 on the year. He had a K rate of 30 percent and a BB rate of just 5 percent.
In the six games that have followed, his line is comical: .417/.481/1.250. He has six home runs over that time. In fact, just two of his 10 hits since April 10 have been singles. He’s made hard contact 60 percent of the time over that span. Ozuna now has eight home runs on April 18, a total he didn’t reach until June 13 last season.
So, what happened? Is Ozuna feeling reinvigorated after his embarrassing wall scaling gone wrong? Did his connection with the ground do what the doctors couldn’t and miraculously make him the Cardinals’ version of Henry Rowengartner? Where is Gary Busey in all of this?
Really, it’s just been a matter of expectations catching up with reality. In 2018, Ozuna ranked in the 83rd percentile or better in exit velocity, hard hit percentage, xBA, xSLG and xwOBA.
While his wOBA of .327 had him in the company of Derek Dietrich and Brandon Belt, his xwOBA was closer to the actual production of Anthony Rizzo and Lorenzo Cain.
The difference between the two halves of Ozuna’s short 2019 have really been dictated by his plate discipline. Ozuna before-fall (BF) was swinging 45.5 percent of the time, whereas Ozuna post-fall (PF) is swinging less at 44.1 percent. The change is in the location of the pitches he’s choosing to go after.
Ozuna dropped his swing rate at pitches outside the zone from 34.4 percent to 27.9. At the same time, he’s swinging at pitches in the zone 69.8 percent of the time, up from 58.4.
It may seem simple, but that’s been extremely beneficial when the exit velocity and launch angle already seem locked in. Pick the right pitches and the results follow. Baseball Savant has what they call attack zones, broken up like this:
Ozuna has drastically altered his results in those zones. Here are the changes in his performance given his adjusted swing rates:
Marcell Ozuna, wOBA - xwOBA by attack zones, 2019
|3/28 - 4/9||0.125 - 0.195||0.402 - 0.333||0.252 - 0.306|
|4/10 - 4/17||0.377 - 0.381||0.594 - 0.517||1.523 - 1.490|
It’s not a matter of Ozuna seeing more hittable pitches, either; his zone percentage has gone down from 46.1 BF to 38.1 PF. He’s simply being much more selective.
That’s probably shown best in his numbers against the slider. If one watches Ozuna play long enough, there’s an image burned into their head of him chasing a slider tailing outside over the middle of the plate with two strikes.
He’s been working to erase that image over his recent tear.
These are the results of every slider Ozuna has seen this year, split by the two dates:
There are noticeably fewer called strikes on the right side, with many more balls in play. It’s not that he isn’t still chasing a few, but they’re mainly the ones that ended up down and away.
Across the heart of the plate, he’s laying off or putting the ball in play much more often. That’s resulted in a wOBA - xwOBA change of 0.145 - 0.255 to 0.970 - 0.822. Even if he’s outperforming a bit, that’s still a marked improvement.
Before his hot streak, Ozuna was taking nearly 40 percent of pitches he saw over the heart of the plate for strikes. No swing at all. Go figure, when he swings at pitches over the middle of the plate, the result looks something like this:
Whatever might be going on with Ozuna, he’s seeing the ball extremely well and connecting with some authority. Henry Rowengartner might’ve lost his newfound ability at the end, but it looks like Ozuna is just reclaiming the offensive prowess he showed in 2017.