The mysterious case of Marcell Ozuna

Why does the free-agent slugger underperform his metrics?

November 9th, 2019

Marcell Ozuna would seem to be in a pretty decent position in free agency this winter. He'll turn only 29 on Tuesday, so he's still young, and as a two-time All-Star who cost the Cardinals a big prospect haul two winters ago, he's an accomplished name. While he did receive a qualifying offer, he's also arguably the best outfielder in a relatively weak outfield class, with only Nicholas Castellanos and Yasiel Puig in the conversation with him.

Those are all good things, because he's a good player. But interested teams are going to have to figure out a way to answer the question of why, in his two years with the Cardinals, he's often seemed to be less than the sum of his parts. By which we mean, there are two Ozunas:

Ozuna is an elite hitter!

This past year, his 49.2 percent hard-hit rate was in the 96th percentile, top dozen in baseball, as hard as Christian Yelich or Yordan Alvarez. Over his two years in St. Louis, he's been one of the 25 best hitters in the game based on Statcast's quality-of-contact metrics. In 2019, he even had baseball's largest walk rate increase -- up from 6.1 percent to 11.3 -- and dropped his ground-ball rate by six points, too. His 20.8 percent strikeout rate is slightly better than the Major League average. These are all great signs, or at least they should be.

Ozuna is an ... OK hitter.

In 2018, he had a 106 OPS+, making him a few ticks above league average. In '19, he had a 107 OPS+, making him, once again, a few ticks above average. Over his two seasons with the Cardinals, he's hit .262/.327/.451, a 106 OPS+ that's about the same as Mitch Moreland or Derek Dietrich. That's not bad, but it's not terribly exciting, either.

So, how do we square those two opposing facts, that for two straight years Ozuna has severely underperformed his expected outcomes based on how hard and how often he hits the ball? He hits the ball hard, in the air, with a lower-than-average strikeout rate ... and he's just not getting that much out of it.

The answer to that, if there is one, is one of the most crucial questions of the offseason. Let's see if we can help find out.

1) How much is he underperforming by?

One way we can get to this is to look at the difference between his Weighted On-base Average (basically On-base Percentage if it gave more credit for extra-base hits than singles) and his Expected Weighted On-base Average, a Statcast metric that looks at quality of contact and amount of contact in an attempt to strip out defense, ballpark, and luck. As you can see, in each of the last two years, Ozuna hasn't quite lived up to expectations.

Ozuna, 2018 // .327 wOBA, .359 xwOBA // 32-point deficit

Ozuna, 2019 // .340 wOBA, .380 xwOBA // 40-point deficit

Those are big gaps. Forty points of wOBA, for example, was the difference between DJ LeMahieu (.379) and Jonathan Villar (.339) in 2019. Going back to '15, Ozuna's '19 is the third-largest negative deficit on record from a righty hitter with 500 plate appearances, and his '18 was the 14th largest.

This happens, sometimes. One year's a fluke. Big deal. But two years of this in a row? Surely there must be other examples of this, except that ... there aren't. We were going to do the work on this ourselves, except FanGraphs just did it for us:

"It stands to reason that if there are some repeat overperformers, that there are some repeat underperformers as well. In this pool of hitters, there have been 13 instances of someone underachieving their xwOBA by at least 20 points on multiple occasions. Joe Mauer (2015-18) and Alex Gordon (2016-18) were the only players to do so more than twice. The only hitter to underachieve in both 2018 and 2019 was Marcell Ozuna."

So whatever's happening here, it's relatively specific to Ozuna. The evidence is clearly showing that he's missing some value. Let's keep going.

2) Is it merely bad luck?

This is the first thing you think of, right? How do you crush the ball that hard and not be a very good hitter? "Bad luck" is the easy answer, but it's not always the right one.

There are always examples you can point to. If you want to take this path, here he is smashing a 104.4-mph liner ... directly to Milwaukee shortstop Orlando Arcia on April 16.

Here's Kyle Schwarber robbing him with a nice diving play on Sept. 22:

But every hitter can point to plays like that. Does it make Ozuna unluckier than most? If it was just a one-year fluke, maybe. Two years in a row, though? It's probably not that. We'll need to dig further.

Here's what we're going to do: We're going to split it into balls hit out of the park, and balls that stayed in the park.

3) Did he miss out on some homers he should have otherwise had?

Not really. Maybe a little in 2018. But this isn't it. We'll go through this one quickly, because the answer is "no." Ozuna hit 52 homers in his two years in St. Louis, which is about 13 percent of his fly balls and liners, higher than the Major League average of 10 percent. If we're just looking at hard-hit flies and liners, he's had 21 percent of those turn into homers, and the Major League average is ... 21 percent. He had a homer in 6 percent of his at-bats this year, and he had a homer in 6 percent of his at-bats when he crushed 37 homers as a Marlin in '17.

If we go a little more advanced to look at barrels, which are the perfect combination of exit velocity and launch angle, we'll find that 60 percent of all barrels this year went for homers. For Ozuna this year, 62 percent of his barrels went for homers. He maybe got shorted a few in 2018, but for the most part, Ozuna got the dingers he deserved.

4) Did he miss out on some productivity on non-homer batted balls?

Hoooo boy yes, you'd better believe it. It's too bad we don't have a blinking red typeface we can use for this point, because this is it right here. Let's eliminate homers. Let's just look at the balls that stayed in the park, so the ones that fielders have a chance to make a play on. If we look at the expected batting average on those balls, absolutely nothing has changed ...

2017 -- .337

2018 -- .333

2019 -- .337

... and if we look at the actual average on those balls, he's completely collapsed.

2017 -- .356

2018 -- .312

2019 -- .257

Two years ago, he had one of the highest marks of any righty hitter. This year, it's one of the lowest. This is almost all of the story, right here. But why?

Let's break that down further into different kinds of batted balls.

• It's not line drives.

Ozuna's expected average on liners was .642 this year. His actual average was .637. Nothing to see here.

• It's a lot about grounders.

Ozuna had a .270 expected average on grounders, and he actually hit .160. That's the largest gap between actual and expected by a righty in 2019. Over the five years of Statcast, only one righty hitter has had a larger gap in a season, and that was the slow-footed Gary Sanchez in '18.

• It's a ton about fly balls.

A similar story here -- his .213 expected average on non-homer flies is far above his .074 actual average, and that's the second-largest gap of any righty hitter this year.

5) OK, but why?

You might think this is where the bad luck comes in, except that this might be a problem of Ozuna's own doing. Let's talk about those ground balls for a second -- not that you ever expect slugging on grounders, but his average has dropped from .338 to .295 to .160 over the last three years.

On a completely related note, Ozuna has pulled more of his grounders over the last three years, from 37 percent to 49 to 55, and if you prefer to see that in visual form, here it is. (This image shows all balls that go 200 feet or shorter, so it's not entirely grounders, but the point stands.)

In his great year of 2017, he hit most of his shorter batted balls up the middle. That changed a little in '18 -- then in '19, he started hitting a ton of these balls basically right at the shortstop. Not only that, fewer of the ground balls he hit this year were hit hard. If he's being so predictable, then he might be making it a lot easier for teams to position against him. Put another way: In '17, he pulled 37 percent of grounders, hit hard 36 percent of the time. In '19, he pulled 55 percent of grounders, hit hard 33 percent of the time. That's ... worse.

Ozuna, for what it's worth, saw a shift 12 percent of the time in 2019, up from under 4 percent in '17.

But what's going on with those fly balls? His hard-hit rate on fly balls was actually way up this year, even if we remove the homers. That said, this might not matter much. Fly balls that aren't home runs just don't turn into hits that often. Over the last three years, Ozuna has had all of 22 hits on those kind of balls. This isn't helping, but it isn't it, either.

6) Is there anything more to it?

Maybe it's health. In June, Ozuna fractured two of his fingers diving back to first base on a pickoff throw in San Diego. He missed more than a month, returning in early August.

“After I got hurt, [I] had a lot of things going in my head," Ozuna told in October." I said, ‘Let’s get recovered and come back and do the best for my team.’ That’s all I can do.”

It's true that Ozuna was a much more productive hitter before the injury than after. In 326 plate appearances through the injured list trip, he'd hit .259/.331/.515, an .847 OPS. In 223 plate appearances after coming back, he hit only .219/.327/.411, a far lesser .739 mark, though he did end up mashing the ball in the NLDS.

Ozuna, pre-injury // .355 wOBA, .384 Expected wOBA // 29-point deficit

Ozuna, post-injury // .318 wOBA, .373 Expected wOBA // 55-point deficit

So he underperformed a little before the injury, and a lot after it -- more than any nearly other player in the game. It's possible that this had an effect, similar to how his shoulder likely did in 2018.

7) Wait, what about that ballpark?

There's one more thing to get to, and that's Busch Stadium. In 2019, Ozuna slugged 47 points higher away from home (.498 vs. .451) and hit 16 of his 29 homers on the road. It wasn't just him. Busch has always been something of a pitchers' park, but in '19, it seemed to be so to an extreme level. (Adam Wainwright, for example, had a 2.56 ERA at home and a 6.22 ERA on the road. Miles Mikolas was 3.01 at home and 5.40 on the road; Jack Flaherty was 2.37 at home and 3.13 on the road.)

Busch had 584 hard-hit flies and liners from righties, an average number (14th most). But on those high-value batted balls, it had just the 28th-highest slugging (1.362, ahead of San Francisco and Kansas City) and the 23rd-most home runs (115). Comparing expected outcomes on flies and liners to actual, righty hitters at Busch underperformed the quality of their contact more than at any other park.

If we look at Ozuna's 10 highest-value batted balls that became outs, nine of them came at home, even though he actually had a better hard-hit rate at Busch (51 percent to 47) and a lower strikeout rate there.

Ozuna, home // .327 wOBA, .385 Expected wOBA // 58-point deficit

Ozuna, road // .353 wOBA, .374 Expected wOBA // 21-point deficit

It's hard to say why this is, because it wasn't actually true for Ozuna in 2018, when he slugged better at home.

8) So what about 2020 for Ozuna?

Right. This is all anyone cares about: What does it mean for 2020? The Steamer projections see a .276/.344/.502 season with 33 homers, worth about 3 WAR. (That's a somewhat above-average season, which sounds right; we haven't even touched his below-average defense.)

Some team might see Ozuna's elite hard-hit rate and underlying metrics and bet that it's the one who can get the most out of him, and it might be right. After all, we saw how good he was capable of being in 2017. But this wasn't just "bad luck," and in the same way that '18 .359 xwOBA didn't predict what he'd do in '19, it shouldn't be expected that his .382 mark in '19 will predict his 2020.

It might, however, give you some hope that there's more in there than the just-OK version we've seen in St. Louis. After all, you'd rather get to a just-OK season with some possibility of more, rather than getting there by overperforming. It's a bet some team will have to make.