Hard-hitting Ozuna should be highly sought after in trade
Improved OPS by 150 points following return from Minor Leagues
Marcell Ozuna's second full season was a considerable disappointment, thanks to an embarrassing mid-summer demotion to Triple-A and non-stop rumors that the Marlins would badly like to find him a new home this winter. It's not exactly what anyone expected a year ago, when Ozuna's impressive first full season inspired questions about whether Ozuna, Giancarlo Stanton and Christian Yelich made up baseball's best young outfield trio.
Now, Ozuna is apparently on the trading block, and interested teams attempting to put together reasonable offers have to figure out exactly what he really is. Is he the player who at age 23 in 2014 had a nearly identical slugging percentage to Josh Donaldson while playing a capable center field, making him a borderline star? Or is Ozuna the player who was unable to back it up in such a spectacular way that he lost his job, even though the team was already short-handed in the outfield without the injured Stanton?
If you're a fan of a team rumored to be interested in Ozuna and you're worried about the talent your team may have to give up, fear not: There's far more reasons to want Ozuna on the roster than to want to avoid him.
Let's start with this: Even in what was indisputably a poor season, Ozuna still hit the ball hard, impressively so. Let's check in on the Statcast™ exit velocity leaderboards and find something fascinating -- two things, really. First, of the 372 players who had at least 100 tracked batted balls, Ozuna's average exit velocity of 93.1 mph was 19th, putting him in the top five percent. That's outstanding.
Yet interestingly enough, Ozuna didn't get much in return for those hard-hit balls. Hitting the ball hard usually correlates pretty well with success, at least for most hitters, but it didn't happen here. An easy way to show hitting success is with Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+), which adjusts for ballpark and era and is set to 100 as league average, meaning any number above (or below) can be read as "percent better (or below) league average."
Let's show the top 20 batted ball velocity leaders, from Stanton to Pedro Alvarez, and show their wRC+ marks. As you'd expect, they're overwhelmingly considerably better than average. Except, of course, for one:
Ozuna was the only one not to be above average, and it stands out. Normally, when a player is hitting the ball hard and not finding results, the first thing you'd look at is strikeout rate, which is to say, sometimes it doesn't matter how hard the ball is hit when it's not actually being hit at all. But that doesn't apply here, not when Ozuna's 2015 strikeout rate of 22.3 percent is only slightly higher than the MLB average (20.4 percent) and lower than it was in his solid 2014 season (26.8 percent).
So, what was Ozuna's problem? How did someone who hit the ball so hard run into such difficulty? It's because of the way those balls came off the bat:
Ozuna's average launch angle of 4.2 degrees -- meaning the vertical angle at which the ball leaves the bat after contact -- was the lowest of any of the top 20 exit-velocity hitters, and as you can see, most of them averaged higher than 10 degrees, which is our dividing line between grounders and liners. For most of these stars, their average batted ball was a line drive, which of course leads to excellent production.
In fact, Ozuna's launch angle was so low that when you go back to the exit velocity leaderboards, you have to go all the way down to Yelich at No. 40 to find a lower one, and all Yelich did was put up the highest ground-ball season since Ben Revere in 2012.
We've established that Ozuna hits the ball very hard, but at low angles, which means they're either going to infielders or not becoming extra-base hits, which is a large part of how 23 homers in 2014 became just 10 in 2015. So, how we can we say that 2015 is the outlier, and not 2014?
Well, we don't have launch angle for 2014, but we do have three different season parts to look at -- 2014 as a whole, 2015 before the demotion, and 2015 afterward. Which one looks off?
2014, full season: 115 wRC+, 48.6% grounder rate
2015 before demotion: 75 wRC+, 55.3% grounder rate
2015 after demotion: 115 wRC+, 38.9% grounder rate
It should stand out that Ozuna's performance from his Aug. 15 recall through the end of the season was identical (15 percent above average) to his breakout 2014, but with fewer grounders. Even his rough start to 2015 doesn't look as bad when you realize he was hitting slightly better than league average through the second week of July, before a brutal three-week stretch where he had only nine hits in his final 20 pre-demotion games torpedoed his seasonal stat line, dropping his average from .289 on June 12 to .249 on July 5.
Ozuna only turned 25 in November, and he's under team control for four additional seasons. He hits the ball hard, he's a good enough defensive center fielder -- he was, after all, one of only eight members of the first "Statcast™ Five Tool Players" team -- and he's shown real evidence of changing his approach late in the season to think that the productive player we saw in 2014 and late '15 is more real than the disappointment we saw in early '15. Some team is going to take the risk to find out. The outlook here says that club won't be disappointed.