This free agent's red-hot postseason is no fluke

October 9th, 2019

Marcell Ozuna is red-hot in a postseason that just so happens to be his last free-agency showcase.

Ozuna has multiple hits for the Cardinals in every game of the National League Division Series entering Wednesday's winner-take-all Game 5 in Atlanta. He crushed two home runs in the Cards' series-extending win in Game 4. He's batting .471 with a 1.500 OPS.

And here's the thing: Even though the 28-year-old Ozuna hasn't posted the gaudy numbers in St. Louis that he did in his last year in Miami, free-agent suitors shouldn't think he's tricking them with some 11th-hour power display.

Ozuna can still really hit. His postseason success actually reflects the way he ripped the ball for most of the year. You might have lost sight of that because he slumped in September, or because of his midsummer finger fracture, or because he got a ton of bad luck along the way. But take note: If your team needs a right-handed heavy hitter in its lineup, Ozuna is one of the best available.

Here's why his bat is worth buying this offseason.

Ozuna's hard-hit skill is elite

Even with his September slowdown, Ozuna made hard contact on nearly half of all the balls he hit this season. Ozuna's 49.3% hard-hit rate -- that just means how often he hit the ball 95 mph or harder, which is Statcast's exit velocity baseline for hard contact -- ranked seventh in the Majors, out of 225 hitters who had at least 250 batted balls in 2019. He was just ahead of former teammate Christian Yelich.

Highest hard-hit rate in 2019
Min. 250 batted balls (225 hitters)

  1. Nelson Cruz (MIN): 51.5%
  2. Kyle Schwarber (CHC): 51.2%
  3. Franmil Reyes (CLE): 51.0%
  4. Matt Olson (OAK): 50.3%
  5. Josh Donaldson (ATL): 50.0%
  6. Jorge Soler (KC): 49.9%

7) Marcell Ozuna (STL): 49.3%
8) Christian Yelich (MIL): 49.1%
9) Shin-Soo Choo (TEX): 49.0%
10) Matt Chapman (OAK): 48.7%

Ozuna's 115.3 mph home run on April 8 is still the Cardinals' hardest-hit ball of the year. Actually, he has all of St. Louis' top seven hardest-hit balls.

Hitting the ball hard, as you might imagine, is good. Really good. It's probably the first thing to focus on as a hitter. Overall across MLB, 95-plus mph contact resulted in a .541 batting average this season; contact under 95 mph produced a .223 average. You go from getting a hit over half the time to getting a hit under a quarter of the time.

And it's not like Ozuna's 2019 was some crazy outlier season. His hard-hit ability has always been top-tier. Over the five seasons of Statcast tracking, 2015-19, Ozuna's overall hard-hit rate is an even 45%. There are 246 hitters with at least 1,000 batted balls in that time period. Ozuna ranks 17th of those 246 in hard-hit rate, better than 93% of the league.

He's squaring it up more than ever

The level beyond even a hard-hit ball is what Statcast calls a barrel. A barrel doesn't just have ideal exit velocity; it has ideal launch angle, too. Batted balls that qualify as barrels are likely to be either home runs or extra-base hits. They're the best kind of contact.

Back to Ozuna. His barrel rate has increased in every season of Statcast tracking. In 2015, it was 6%, just a little over league average. In his star 2017 season with the Marlins, it was 9.3%. In 2019, it was 12.6%, his first time in double digits.

Ozuna's 2019 barrel rate ranked 25th of the 225 hitters with 250 or more batted balls. He was better than nearly 90% of the league in that respect.

So don't be surprised when you see him square up on a 107.4 mph, 29-degree, 439-foot home run and a 103.6 mph, 28-degree, 429-foot home run off Dallas Keuchel in a playoff game. Ozuna's been barreling the ball all year.

His contact quality was great ...

This stems from all the aforementioned hard-hit balls and barrels. Statcast generates a set of "expected" metrics for every hitter, based on their quality of contact -- the exit velocity and launch angle of every ball they hit -- coupled with their walks and strikeouts.

Every hitter gets an expected batting average, an expected slugging percentage and the all-encompassing expected weighted on-base average (wOBA) -- which is like on-base percentage except it includes everything a hitter does and it weighs the more important things more heavily (e.g. a homer is worth more than a single).

Ozuna ranked near the top of the league in all three of those expected metrics this season. His xBA was .284, placing him in the 88th percentile of hitters. His xSLG was .523, in the 90th percentile of hitters. And his xwOBA was .379, in the 91st percentile.

Your average MLB hitter had a .324 wOBA in 2019. Ozuna, judged by his quality of contact, was 55 points better than average.

That's star-caliber hitting, on the level of hitters like DJ LeMahieu, Alex Bregman and Pete Alonso -- who all ranked just below Ozuna on the 2019 xwOBA leaderboard.

... But his luck was terrible

Now here's what didn't match up: Ozuna's actual stat line. His expected metrics were a lot better than his actual numbers.

In fact, going by the size of the gap between his expected and actual stats, Ozuna was one of the unluckiest hitters in baseball this season, across the board.

His stats were good as is. But he was hitting the ball even better than they showed, and he just didn't get the results to match.

Ozuna's "unlucky" gaps in 2019
Min. 450 PA (169 hitters)
xBA - BA: 43 pts (.284 - .241) -- Largest
xSLG - SLG: 51 pts (.523 - .472) -- 3rd-largest
xwOBA - wOBA: 39 pts (.379 - .340) -- 2nd-largest

Hopefully teams see through to the quality of contact this winter. Because Ozuna impacts the ball at a level few other MLB hitters do -- and even fewer impending free agents.