(Photo by Doug Murray/Icon Sportswire)
You may feel like you’ve been setting your lineups, sending out unrequited trade offers, and scouring your waiver wire for eons already, but believe it or not, the season has barely started. There is still plenty of time to have countless nervous breakdowns over the performance of one of my five teams (whom I love all equally.) Freddie Freeman will be dodging cowardly attempts on his wrist for another four plus months (I’m watching you, Aaron Loup; I know where you live, Holby Milner). And shudder to think, Luis Castillo can still theoretically wreck your weekly ERA like, fifteen more times. But, we’ve gotta talk about something, right? Sample sizes are getting larger and we can start to rethink our opinions on certain players.
There are three types of players from a fantasy baseball writing perspective: guys who are written up for doing something good (Hooray!), guys who are written up for doing something bad (do not pass go, do not collect $200), and guys who don’t get written up at all. The guys who don’t get written up are usually the ones who are performing most in line with our expectations of them: bad players performing poorly, or studs doing their thang. You don’t feel compelled to dig in to WHY Max Scherzer is flaying opposing hitters alive, because it’s what he has been doing since the dawn of time. You don’t question him, you just accept him as a gift from heaven and move on to more pressing matters.
Sometimes, however, guys can fly under the radar by doing juuuuust enough to evade scrutiny. It’s often prudent to just ignore slow starts from your more established guys as more often than not it’s just statistical noise. This is a skill any good fantasy player needs to have: patience. But when is a slow start more than a slow start? Identifying a brand name stud headed for a less than stellar season and shipping him off at full value can distinguish the good players from the GREAT ones. That being said, I want to discuss Marcell Ozuna, as the title of this article suggests.
Ozuna is coming off a great season, and was generally a pretty sought after commodity in drafts this spring. He usually went anywhere between the 4th and 6th rounds, depending on your league size. And why not? He was a monster for the fish last year. He may have been somewhat overshadowed by teammate Giancarlo Stanton, but his .312/.376/.548 triple-slash, 37 homers, and 124 RBI would’ve made him the bona-fide alpha dog of many other major league teams. 2018, so far, has been rather pedestrian for the slugging outfielder. After getting shipped to the Cardinals in the off-season, I was expecting a repeat but I’ve been pretty disappointed in his April. Ozuna’s .250 batting average, 9 runs and 17 RBI certainly aren’t horrible, but they aren’t special either. On top of that, he’s only left the yard TWICE! If this pace holds (which I don’t think it will), he’d struggle to crack 20 bombs after challenging forty just one season ago. I’m bummed. But for whatever reason, I’ve barely seen any digital ink spilled on Ozuna so far. He rarely gets mentioned in the PitcherList Community Slack. Is it because other players have struggled more? Is he getting a pass off last year and his name reputation? Am I just lurking around in Pro-Ozuna chat rooms, local watering holes and discotechs? Possibly. But maybe there is something more sinister at play. Did we overrate Ozuna coming into the year? Is there a smoking gun behind his early malaise? Could he be hurt? The answer, to all of these questions, is a resounding possibly. Hmmmmm….
First off, let’s take a look at Ozuna’s 2017. It was superficially fantastic, but let’s pop the hood and see how Ozuna got there. He made a few nice improvements, including posting a 9.4% BB rate that represented his best mark as a pro. He also hit the ball fairly hard, with a 90.6 MPH average exit velocity that was about four ticks better than league average. Below is a fuller complement of his batted ball profile against league average:
We already mentioned that Ozuna hits the ball hard, which is objectively good. Looking at his batted ball profile, I see some things that I like and some things that surprise me. He is pretty much right in line with league average in terms of hitting the ball on the ground, and actually beneath league average in terms of his pure fly-balls. He did his damage by being above league average on drives, both liners and high/hard drives. He was better than league average on his popups as well. This is a nice profile but ideally I’d want to see a slugger of his ilk getting just a bit more consistent loft on the ball. Let’s take a look at some more xStats showing Ozuna’s production vs. his EXPECTED production.
|Marcell Ozuna||Avg.||BABIP||BACON (mmm, yummy)||Homers|
|2017 Figure (Actual)||.312||.355||.406||39|
We can see now that Ozuna may have gotten a tad bit lucky, outperforming his Avg., BABIP, and BACON by about 30 points apiece and bagging a few extra homers that he maybe didn’t deserve. Below is a table of Ozuna’s career HR/FB, and we can see that 2017 may have been a bit of an outlier:
If his 2018 number for HR/FB were to hold, it’d be lower than any figure since his abbreviated 2013. Expect that to go up to at least the mid-teens, giving him some power improvement as the season goes on. But his 23.4% figure from 2017 is the other clear outlier. Ozuna hit the ball hard last year, but he’s ALWAYS hit the ball hard. That 23.4 looks a bit flukey and was likely the driving factor behind his career high 39 bombs. I think we have a really good hitter here in Ozuna, but 2017 looks like it could’ve been a career year as well. Not entirely a fluke, per se, but on the high end of the spectrum for Ozuna’s expected outcomes. If he’s really a .280 hitting 25/30 homer guy, that’s an excellent hitter but one that was likely a tad over-drafted this this Spring.
But, Ozuna HASN’T been a .280 hitting 25/30 homer guy. He’s been a punch-less, soggy blanket. So, has he gotten UN-lucky so far or has there been some sort of appreciable change? Has his batted ball profile changed? Let’s throw down another chart, because I know you’re dying for one:
|Marcell Ozuna||BIP||Exit Velo||Angle||DB (%)||GB (%)||LD (%)||HD (%)||FB (%)||PU (%)|
Nothing too alarming here. We do see a sharp increase in grounders, but much of that has come at the expense of his dribblers so that’s not the reason for the power outage. Fly balls are up slightly, liners and hard drivers are DOWN slightly, but nothing is so out of whack to suggest that we have found the catalyst for Ozuna’s lack of thump thus far. He’s even hitting the ball HARDER than he did last year.
Let’s keep digging. Upon further examination, there are two main issues I have found. For one, Ozuna has almost completely stopped walking. He has given back his plate discipline gains from last year and then some. Ozuna posted a 6.1% BB rate in 2015, bumped it up to 7.1% the following year, and then continued to make strides in posting a 9.4% in 2017. So far in ’18, that plate discipline has cratered. His 2.7% BB rate and 24.1% K rate would represent his worst and 2nd worst marks at the MLB level, respectively. Ozuna is falling behind in the count frequently (67% first pitch strike rate after 63.2 and 62.9 marks last two years) and whiffing more often (13.4% SwStrk would be worst mark since 2014.) His chase rate is up as well, up at 36.1% after posting marks around 33% the last two years. Perhaps Ozuna is pressing a little, trying to do to much and impress new teammates and fans in St. Louis. If this is just a plate discipline issue, he may be able to turn it around with just some time in the video room.
There’s another issue at hand as well: Ozuna’s performance against fastballs. He has been a veritable fastball hunter over the past several seasons, generating double-digit pVal scores against four-seamers in 3 of the past four seasons including a career high 17.0 in 2017. So far in ’18, that figure is -1.5. Ozuna has never hit beneath .300 against four-seamers in his MLB career through 2017, so his current .261 mark stands out – especially when compared to his .354 mark from a year ago. Pitchers are taking notice, serving him more fastballs than ever (37.5% of pitches seen are four-seamers, per Fangraphs.)
So, Ozuna’s plate discipline is faltering, he’s struggling against what used to be his bread and butter pitch and he’s getting more of them than ever before. This could be an issue that corrects itself with time, but I would be remiss if I didn’t raise the question: Could Ozuna be injured? Sometimes players are good enough to take the field even when they are far less than 100% – playing through injuries is just a part of the game. And I can’t help but remember this incident from the season’s first series:
I mean, really! What the hell is Pham doing over there? Here were some of Pham’s comments from after the game:
“I remembered Marcell had told me earlier that he had Luis Castillo in his fantasy lineup. He’s my boy, so I was just rushing over to tell him to make sure to not start Castillo. Like ever. Literally. Against any team. Man, my grandma could smack Castillo around. I remember reading PitcherList before the season started and thinking what a joke it was how much they love Castillo. He garbage! For real, dude couldn’t strike out to sea. His stuff is flat! And what’s with that velocity dip? Homie needs to hang ’em up. Get a new hobby, Castillo! Stamp collecting can be fun. Hit me up I’ve got a guy who can get you started.”
Just kidding. He didn’t say that. He said something more along the lines of (and I’m paraphrasing), “With Marcell’s arm the way it is, I thought I had a better chance to make the throw. If he’s healthy, no way do I do that.”
Yeesh. That spooked me. We hadn’t heard much about an injury before then, and we haven’t heard much since, but if Ozuna is having shoulder troubles, that could help explain some of his early struggles. I asked our injury guru Jeff Davis to weigh in:
“It’s not inconceivable that if he’s dealing with some sort of inflammation injury, similar to a mild bursitis or tendinitis, that he’d be conscious of that during a swing, which could be causing him to start slow or just miss his target. For the most part, during a swing, the back arm works similar to the guiding hand when shooting a basketball – it’s not applying a lot of force, but the joint is still moving through a range of motion, and helping to guide the swing through the point of contact.
We just don’t have anything definitive to talk about with that shoulder – you’d think if it was an inflammation-based condition that the Cards would opt to rest him this early in the year.”
This is all speculative, since we’ve barely heard anything about Ozuna’s shoulder since that odd incident back on March 31st. But it’s definitely worth mentioning.
So, in summation, here are my thoughts. We have a good player coming off an AMAZING year in which he may have slightly over-performed. He’s struggling with a pitch that he normally clobbers. His numbers aren’t so awful as to go into a full blown panic, but he’s well beneath prior year’s pace in almost every discernible way, and some of last year’s concrete improvements in plate discipline have gone in completely the wrong direction. We have also heard grumblings of an injury that have manifested themselves on the field but have yet to really be mentioned in any sort of detail on paper. I think Ozuna should bounce back to some extent but if you could sell a potential trade partner on a FULL bounce-back to last year’s numbers and get draft day value, that’s something I’d strongly, strongly consider.