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What’s Wrong with Marcell Ozuna?

So much looks so right for the Cardinals outfielder, and yet so much is wrong.

Chicago White Sox v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

The season is settling in to a nice rhythm. A lot of early season anomalies are starting to smooth out. In the very least, Matt Carpenter looks like Matt Carpenter again, which is reassuring. And while there’s still plenty of noise in small samples, year to date numbers for Paul DeJong, Tommy Pham, Jose Martinez, Jedd Gyorko, and Yadier Molina, amongst others, are all very comfortably within their expected levels of production (even if two of those guys are frozen in time due to injuries). We took a look at Dexter Fowler’s nasty start a few weeks back and how the shift was affecting numerous Cardinals through early May. There’s still one enigmatic hitter who has yet to see his numbers bounce back. We haven’t really looked at Marcell Ozuna in any depth. All aboard, it’s time for another ride on the What the Hell is Wrong With This Guy Express.

Note: this was written before the finger injury was disclosed on Wednesday.

First, we’ll look at some obvious data. Through Monday’s games, amongst all players with qualified plate appearances in both 2017 and 2018, Ozuna’s drop in isolated slugging percentage (a collapse of .159) is the largest in the game. I’m sure you all knew it was bad. That should tell you how bad it’s been. That goes hand in hand with the third largest drop in wOBA amongst those same 94 players. His collapse in BB/K isn’t quite as extreme (18th largest drop), nor is the drop in BB% (10th largest), but neither are anything to brag about. Put succinctly, Marcell Ozuna isn’t hitting for nearly as much power as he did last year, and he’s walking less. There are holes all over his production.

Admittedly, some of that is a function of his breakout year last year. He’s fallen a long way, but he also had a lot farther to fall because he was a lot better in 2017 than a lot of other hitters. Perhaps there’s something a little deeper. Per Statcast, his hard hit percentage is almost identical to last year’s breakout (45.2% in 2017, 45.1% in 2018), and he’s barreling up more pitches (8.5%) than any other year of his career other than last season (9.3%). His plate discipline percentages (swing %, contact %, out of zone and in zone swing %, contact rates in and out of zone) are all exactly where they were a year ago, and he’s even making more contact on pitches inside the strike zone. His exit velocity is actually higher than last year’s breakout, 91.3 to 90.7. I’d point to his xwOBA minus wOBA, but Baseball Prospectus kind of obliterated the metric a few weeks ago as a predictive metric (although it still holds water as a descriptive metric). Still, the raw components of Ozuna’s 2018 aren’t dramatically worse than any other year of his career, even in the less exciting seasons. What gives?

If you read Birds on the Black, then you likely saw Zach Gifford’s brilliant piece a few weeks back on this very subject. If you didn’t read it (you should) or if you don’t recall, Zach astutely points out one gigantic missing piece of this puzzle for Ozuna. His exit velocity is not distributed equally. His damage has been limited because his hardest hit balls are going straight into the ground, while making weaker contact on his elevated results- his line drives and flyballs. That’s an enormous culprit for why we’ve seen what we’ve seen out of Ozuna thus far. I don’t mean to rewrite Zach’s article. Rather, you might think of this as a companion piece. Let’s take a look at this a few different ways. Here are his launch angle graphs via Baseball Savant- 2017 vs. 2018.

There’s a lot more gray underneath the zero degree angle in 2018, and a lot more red above 20 degrees in 2017. There’s also a nasty divot on batted balls in his 2018 graph between 25 and 30 degrees, which just happens to be where he found a vein of hits in 2017. He’s getting less loft, and it has basically inverted his launch angle graph. The 25 to 30 degree angle spike that helped him to success last year is now coming in around the -5 to -10 degree angle.

In a vacuum, having a red spike in the -5 to -10 degree range isn’t terrible. It means he’s getting a lot of hits where a lot of other hitters don’t, probably because of his above average exit velocity. This is where we’re seeing his hard hit groundballs manifest themselves. In that -5 to -10 range, he’s hitting .364 with a .182 ISO and a .383 wOBA, compared to league averages of a .215 batting average, .022 ISO, and a .196 wOBA. It becomes problematic when you consider that the -5 to -10 degree spike has replaced the 25 to 30 degree spike. Last year, in that 25 to 30 degree angle, he hit .654 (.470 league-wide) with a 1.731 ISO (.960 league-wide) and a 1.207 wOBA (.745). That’s a terrible tradeoff.

More troubling is the giant gray swath in the -10 to -20 range, which didn’t exist in 2017. He has a wOBA of .092 on those batted balls, and he’s hitting a ton more of them this season. If you want to know where Marcell Ozuna’s production has gone, that’s where it is. He’s planting it underground. That, my friends, is precisely how a 142 wRC+ hitter becomes a 77 wRC+ hitter when nothing else about said hitter changes.

I want to take a look at one final set of items. Specifically, let’s take a peek at his in-zone stats using Fangraphs heat maps and their 5 x 5 zone grid setting. We’ve identified that he’s hitting with a decreased launch angle, leading to diminished production. By looking inside the strike zone, we can identify which locations specifically are bedeviling him. I’ve taken Fangraphs’ 2017 and 2018 heat maps for Ozuna’s ISO/P and GB/P to calculate the difference between last year and this year, and then graphed them out by strike zone section. Or put another way, this is my own custom-made heat map of where Ozuna is falling short in isolated slugging compared to last season, and where he’s hitting more groundballs.

His ISO is pretty much down everywhere except for pitches dead center in the upper third of the zone, and two mild fangs hanging down below the corners of the strike zone. His ISO collapse is most pronounced on the inner third of the strike zone. In particular, up and in inside the strike zone has been a nightmare for him. And sure enough, the inner third has produced his largest spikes in groundballs.

If you want to see all of this in action, here’s a 28 degree launch angle shot from Ozuna in 2017, on a pitch up and in:

And here’s how it looks this season, where he hammered a similarly located pitch with comparable velocity into the ground with a launch angle of -20:

Sadly, these are fairly typical events for each individual season. Ozuna is already at 10 batted balls on the inner third, with a launch angle of -5 or less, this season. Last year, he had 16 such batted balls all year.

And finally, is there anything in the way pitchers are approaching him this year that might explain these new developments? Here is the same graph as above, but this time with the change in percentage of fastballs (all fastballs) and offspeed (all offspeed- breaking balls and changeups) from 2017 to 2018. This time, it’s broken down using Baseball Savant’s gameday zones, which are a little less detailed outside the strike zone than Fangraphs’ 5 x 5 zones.

This is through Monday’s games. The area with the biggest change is low and away, outside the zone. Pitchers are throwing a lot more waste pitches- specifically waste fastballs- to Ozuna out there. However, taken in combination with the drop in offspeed pitches out there, it’s not specifically that he’s seeing a lot more pitches out there. It’s that he’s seeing a few more pitches out there, and most of those pitches are fastballs. Other folks here, smarter than me, can verify what I’m about to say next. My hunch is that pitchers are trying to reset his eye level, and get him diving out over the plate more, by wasting a fastball low and away first before coming back inside. That ultimately would set him up for some jam-shot queso on the inner third, neutralizing the ability to mash on the inner third like he did last season. And if that was the case, it would dovetail nicely with his dip in effectiveness on the inner third this season.

Other than low and away out of the zone, there’s no one specific zone that jumps out. Rather, it’s two overall trends that stand out. First, he’s getting challenged more in the zone with fastballs, particularly center cut- dead center of the zone and center away. Second, he’s seeing a lot more fastballs in general, all over the zone. A 5.5% increase in all fastballs is significant, even if it manifests itself in incremental gains throughout the strike zone. And if you refer back to the GB/P chart by 5x5 zone, you can see that he’s hitting more groundballs on those center cut pitches. His inability to cause damage within the zone when challenged means that pitchers don’t have to make him chase to get him out. They can throw the outer corner fastball to reset the eye level to set him up to falter on the inner third. And since pitchers aren’t afraid to challenge him with hard stuff inside the zone, it has sapped Ozuna of his BB rate.

There’s a chicken or the egg component to all of this. Which came first- his decline in ability to do damage on fastballs in the strike zone? Or was it the different approach by pitchers that exposed the decline? Either way, the very good exit velocity combined with the cratering launch angles gives a strong implication that something specific has changed about his approach. In the aforementioned Zach Gifford article, he postulates that it could be related to a toe tap and a little more of a crouch during the trigger phase of his swing. Considering how much even subtle changes like that can throw off a hitter’s timing, it would seem very plausible. His contact rates are the same as they ever were, as are his Statcast components, so it’s clearly not a physical issue or even a pitch recognition issue. There’s also a question of swing path, which seems like the most obvious place to look. A video crash course on his 2017 swing and approach is in order. There’s still an enormously productive hitter trapped in there, screaming to be let out.