It’s time we talked about Marcell Ozuna. This is partly because of what he did to Stephen Strasburg last night and because I wanted everyone to start their Friday with some gratuitous baseball porn. But it is also because Ozuna represents an intriguing breakout candidate this season, and we may be witnessing his development before our very eyes.
(GIF by David Temple, who rules. Full video here. Also let’s not kid ourselves I mostly just wanted to post that GIF.)
Our own Scott Strandberg covered Ozuna’s 2013 in fine detail here. A synopsis: it was weird.
After a turbulent offseason, the stripped-down Marlins entered last year with little more than Giancarlo Stanton, who then hurt his hamstring and landed on the disabled list in late April. The team unexpectedly called up Ozuna, a highly regarded prospect with only 47 plate appearances above High A to his name. The 22-year-old had missed time himself that spring, breaking a bone in his left hand during spring training. Then 10 Double A games into the season Ozuna was tasked with replacing a superstar in the Marlins outfield.
It, uh … didn’t quite work out like that.
Ozuna hit well in May, faded in June, and was awful in July before he suffered a thumb injury that ultimately ended his season. His final triple slash: .265/.303/.389 in 291 plate appearances.
It’s early, but there are positive signs from the first week and a half of the 2014 season. Namely, he’s walking more, striking out less, and hitting for more power.
Ozuna walked at just a 4.5% clip last season, and struck out 19.6% of the time. This season, those numbers are 8.6% and 17.1%, respectively. We’re talking about 13 walks last season, and just three this season, but it’s encouraging nonetheless. He’s also hitting for more power, as his .229 ISO is more than a hundred points higher than 2013’s .124 mark. Nine games into the season he’s one home run shy of last year’s total.
On a visceral level, this looks like progress, but is it? Despite his increased walk rate, Ozuna’s surface-level PitchFx numbers don’t support a vastly improved approach. He’s still swinging at virtually everything, and he hasn’t improved his contact rates (both in and out of the zone).
Ozuna is actually swinging at more pitches outside of the zone (36.5% vs. 35.1%) and swinging and missing more, too (17.7% vs. 12.2%). This might point us towards concluding that he has made very little (if any) progress on the approach issues that hampered his numbers last season, but before we put that nail in the coffin, consider two things.
First, these heat maps for Ozuna’s swing rates from the 2013 and 2014 seasons (click to embiggen):
He got eaten alive on balls in the dirt last season, swinging at more than half of the pitches he saw below the strike zone. Not surprisingly, he had a poor success rate on those swings, something that is still the case this year. He is cutting down the number of times he chases low, however, and that can only help his overall walk and contact rates.
Also consider this interesting quote from a mid-March post by FOX Sports Florida’s Christina De Nicola in which Ozuna talked about his hitting approach:
“Sometimes I try to do too much and be a hero. Hit it out of the building. Everybody says, ‘You’re strong, you don’t need to do too much.’ “
He may have been rushed to the major leagues, and it is clear he was not entirely ready for that challenge, but this sounds like a hitter learning to adjust. The heat maps above look like evidence that he is doing so. It’s easy to forget we are talking about a 23-year-old who played exactly 10 games in the upper minors before the Miami front office thrust him into the spotlight.
It’s early, of course, and a few bad plate appearances could wash away what looks like progress nine games into the season. It’s also possible that these trends are real, that Ozuna has refined his approach and learned even the tiniest bit of discretion. He still has the power that made scouts perk up. He is still only 23 years old. It might not be time to buy just yet, but that time is not far off.
Be ready to pounce like the big Dominican did on Strasburg’s inside fastball last night.
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