Marcell Ozuna: Better?

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.

ozunahr

(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):

ozuna13

ozuna14

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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Jack Weiland is not just a pretty face. He resides in Boston with his wife and family (they're dogs) and watches the Cubs at levels not approved for public consumption. He likes chatting on twitter, too: @jackweiland.


20 Responses to “Marcell Ozuna: Better?”

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  1. Mike Carlogian says:

    H2H points – Smoak or Ozuna at UTIL spot?

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    • Jack Weiland says:

      Tough one. I will say Smoak, for now, by a hair. But Ozuna probably has more upside (and more risk).

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    • tylersnotes says:

      i’d say it depends on general roster construction. Do you have a CI spot, or 5 OF? If you’ve got 5 OF spots, I’d keep Ozuna because he is a better injury replacement if something happens and you need to slot him in, and you can fill the util spot pretty easily off of waivers in that case.

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      • Jack Weiland says:
        FanGraphs Supporting Member

        Agreed, it very much depends on league specific rules and the makeup of your team. For a true util where position doesn’t matter at all, I think I’d still lean Smoak right now. Otherwise, I’d give the edge to Ozuna.

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  2. rg29 says:

    I still cannot grasp the reasoning behind his callup. “Hey there is a nicely talented prospect who is going to help us in a year or two. Let’s call him up now, so he has it harder to become better”?

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    • tylersnotes says:

      Mike Newman had an interesting theory behind Jose Fernandez’s callup, that might apply here a little too. Basically, that the Miami market is likely to respond favorably to players like Fernandez (as a young Cuban), and calling him up was a way to smooth over the massive paydump. Ozuna isn’t Cuban, but if they were on the fence about who to call up, judging how the market might respond to him as a player (and how he might be able to interact with that market) could have played a part.

      I’m probably really stretching things to apply this to a Dominican, but Newman’s column about it for Fernandez was very persuasive and obviously, last year especially, Miami needed as much PR help as possible in their market

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      • Emcee Peepants says:

        It’s also just how the Marlins roll. Fernandez straight from A-ball, Yelich from AA, Marisnick from AA, Stanton from AA, and probably Heaney pretty soon from AA.

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  3. Matt Guerra says:

    Looking at both Ozuna and Viciedo as an upside 5th OF/U. Would have gone Ozuna yesterday, but Viciedo’s increased ABs has me second guessing. Which way would you go? H2H points.

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    • Jack Weiland says:
      FanGraphs Supporting Member

      Interesting question, because they’re pretty similar players. I’m going to say Ozuna, because I believe in his upside more than I do with Viciedo. It’s very close, though.

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  4. Roger says:

    Trying to decide between starting Ozuna or Junior Lake tonight for the last spot in my lineup. (Oh how I wish Taveras and Polanco would hurry to the majors.) Lake vs Kelly seems like the more favorable pitching matchup, but Ozuna at Philly is tempting.

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    • Jack Weiland says:
      FanGraphs Supporting Member

      Ozuna, because I think his PT is more of a guarantee. Lake has played in every game, and the Cubs seem committed to finding out what they have there, but they also have lots and lots of OF options.

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  5. Adam says:

    Realistically what is Ozuna’s ceiling for counting stats?

    Just a guess
    .280/20hr/70rbi/60runs/10steals

    Not bad I guess for a 5th outfielder.

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    • Dan Ugglas Forearm says:

      And a glove that should make sure he stays on the field. I went from being terrified that Marisnick would push him out of the lineup to cautiously optimistic about Ozuna’s future.

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  6. Pepsi says:

    Drop Michael Morse for Ozuna?

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    • Jack Weiland says:
      FanGraphs Supporting Member

      I wouldn’t. Morse has been really good (albeit lucky), plays in a better offense, and has a higher realistic power ceiling for this season.

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  7. Bobby Bonilla's Mother says:

    Dynasty Keeper league… Ive got George Springer in the wings waiting his time. In the meantime, I’m using Dexter Fowler in my 4th OF spot. I like what I see in Ozuna. This is a H2H points league. Drop Fowler for Ozuna?

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    • Jay29 says:

      No. Houston offense isn’t as awful as it used to be and Fowler gets on base, so he could score 80+ runs along with 10+ HR and 20+ SB.

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      • Jack Weiland says:
        FanGraphs Supporting Member

        Yeah, but h2h points the steals have less value than they would in roto. I think it’s close enough that the makeup of that scoring system could be instructive here. If power is weighted heavily, you might think about adding Ozuna, although Fowler has some pop as well. If it leans OBP, I would definitely stick with Fowler.

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  8. Jeff Lapir says:

    I’m looking at adding Gregory Polanco and stashing him until his call up date. I;m considering dropping Ozuna to grab Polanco. Is this a terrible idea?

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