Marcell Ozuna Turns Things Aroundon October 16, 2020 at 4:00 pm

Marcell Ozuna Turns Things Around

On a Braves team that’s now one win away from its first trip to the World Series since 1999, Freddie Freeman has gotten the lion’s share of the attention, at least on the offensive side. This is quite understandable given his MVP-caliber season as well as the big hits he’s come up with thus far in the playoffs, including his homers in Games 1 and 2 of the NLCS against the Dodgers. While Marcell Ozuna‘s bat spoke nearly as loudly during the regular season, the 29-year-old slugger had scuffled in the postseason prior to Thursday night’s Game 4, when he snapped out of an 0-for-9 skid with a four-hit, four-RBI night that included a trio of timely extra-base hits, two of them homers.

Ozuna’s first home run came in the fourth inning at a time when the Braves trailed 1-0. Dodgers starter Clayton Kershaw had given up some loud contact to that point, but the four hard-hit balls he’d surrendered (exit velocities of 95 mph or higher) all had launch angles of 11 degrees or lower, including the 104.4-mph grounder that Ozuna hit for an inning-ending double play and a 101.1-mph Freeman liner that preceded Ozuna’s second turn at the plate. This time, Ozuna elevated a slider for a towering blast that left the bat at 108.6 mph and traveled an estimated 422 feet:

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Whew. The down-and-in slider wasn’t a horrible pitch from Kershaw; in just about every Statcast zone-based breakdown for this season, Ozuna’s actual and expected stats for that area (zone 7) were his lowest. For example:

Granted, we’re not talking about a large sample size here at all, just 30 pitches in that area this year and 11 batted ball events. Even at larger sample sizes in years past, his numbers for that spot have varied widely from season to season, including career lows in xSLG and xwOBA in 2018 (.335 and .269, respectively) and highs the very next year (.642 and .479). His numbers against sliders in that spot consistently start with .0, albeit in single-digit totals, too granular to draw any conclusions from. Even so, Ozuna did fare far worse against breaking pitches (.194 AVG, .293 xwOBA) than fastballs (.403 AVG, .488 xwOBA — more on that topic below) or offspeed pitches (.375 AVG, .383 xwOBA).

Watching Dodgers manager Dave Roberts let Kershaw — who was scratched from his Game 2 start due to back spasms — face Freeman and Ozuna again in the sixth inning was like viewing a trainwreck in slow motion given the number of times playoff games have spiraled out of control as the Dodgers have tried to eke one more inning out of their increasingly frail ace. For some reason, a 105.5-mph Freeman double that gave the Braves a 2-1 lead wasn’t enough for Roberts to go get his pitcher, and so Ozuna proceeded to hit a hanging curveball even harder, a 107.5 mph gapper:

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That opened the floodgates to a six-run inning, and while the Dodgers clawed back a run in the top of the seventh, Ozuna got it back almost instantly by demolishing reliever Dylan Floro‘s third pitch of the night:

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That’s 105.6 mph off the bat and 434 feet to center field, which was actually just five feet longer than his average home run distance this year. Indeed, Ozuna not only hit an NL-leading 18 homers, he was by far and away the distance king:

Ozuna had an MLB-high six drives of 440 feet or greater, topped by a 469-footer off the YankeesGerrit Cole on August 26 and a 468-footer off the Red Sox’s Nick Pivetta on September 27 as well. Hernandez had four such drives, while Acuna was one of eight players with three.

Entering Thursday’s game — which he finished with an eighth-inning RBI single, as if he hadn’t done enough damage — Ozuna had hit just .200/.222/.343 in 36 PA this postseason, albeit with a few very big hits. His two-run homer off the RedsRaisel Iglesias served as the coup de grace in Game 2 of the Wild Card Series, and it was punctuated by his pantomiming of a selfie as he rounded first, a move that he reprised while rounding third base on Thursday’s second homer. He drove in two runs in the Division Series opener against the Marlins, singled in the first run in a four-run rally against Sixto Sanchez in Game 3 of that series, and singled in a run off the Dodgers’ Blake Treinen in the Braves’ four-run ninth-inning rally in the NLCS opener. Amid those highlights, however, he had drawn just one walk while striking out 14 times, nine of those in a trio of three-strikeout games, the last of them in Wednesday’s Game 3 trouncing.

Prior to these postseason ups and downs, Ozuna set across-the-board career highs with a .338/.431/.636 showing for the Braves, who signed him to a one-year, $18 million deal in late January after an acceptable multiyear offer failed to materialize. He played in all 60 games and led the league in plate appearances (267), total bases (145), and RBI (56) in addition to the homers while ranking third in all three slash stats and wRC+ (179) behind Freeman and Juan Soto. Though Ozuna was within range of taking over the lead in batting average, giving him a shot at the Triple Crown, Freeman’s hot September froze him out of that race, and Soto eventually accumulated enough plate appearances to officially qualify. Ozuna’s 2.5 WAR tied for seventh in the league, suppressed by the fact that he made 39 of his 60 starts at designated hitter and had a -2.7 UZR in the 21 games he played in the outfield. He’s generally been an above-average outfielder, with a 4.1 UZR/150 even with the occasional high-profile, wall-climbing gaffe.

Ozuna’s performance was quite the step up from two modestly productive seasons with the Cardinals, during which he hit .262/.327/.451 (108 wRC+) while averaging 2.7 WAR. Though his 13.5% swinging strike rate was his highest since 2014 (up from 11.4% in his St. Louis stint), he set a career best with a 14.2% walk rate, a sign of the additional respect pitchers accorded him. Meanwhile, he set a career high in fly ball rate, and his Statcast numbers were better than ever:

Ozuna’s fly balls outnumbered groundballs for the first time, making for a sharp increase in his launch angle. His actual wOBA surpassed his expected wOBA for just the second time.

One plausible theory for Ozuna’s uptick in performance was better health. After the 2018 season, he underwent a right shoulder cleanup and conceded in April 2019 that he still wasn’t 100% as far as his throwing was concerned, even after hitting a homer with an exit velocity of 115.3 mph. When he signed with the Braves, he said that his recovery from surgery had no effect on his offensive performance, but the statistical pattern does suggest improved bat speed, not unlike what happened to Freeman after last fall’s elbow cleanup. As I pointed out in writing about Freeman, the pair were the majors’ top two hitters in destroying fastballs. The leaderboards both for four-seamers and all fastballs (including sinkers and cutters) were similar; here’s the former again:

Of the pitches that Ozuna saw on Thursday night, Kershaw threw him one four-seamer in the fourth inning while McGee threw him seven in the eighth inning, including the pitch he hit for a single. He did far more damage against breaking pitches and the sinker.

As Pitcher List’s Matt Wallach pointed out in mid-September, Ozuna’s average fly ball distance increased dramatically relative to last year. His final average of 342 feet represented a 15-foot gain over last year, his previous career high, and among all hitters, only Acuna (352 feet) outdistanced him, albeit with 27 such drives to Ozuna’s 38.

Ozuna’s performance has put him in the catbird seat, both with regards to a potential trip to the World Series and his own foray into free agency. His tepid 2018-19 numbers provided a built-in excuse for teams to be wary of him last winter, and while this year’s free agent market will probably feel the chill of the industry-wide lack of gate revenue, he’ll stand out in this year’s class as the youngest of the top outfield options, about 14 months younger than George Springer and three and a half years younger than Michael Brantley. It’s a good time to be Marcell Ozuna.

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