Writing about Marcell Ozuna has become a sort of an annual early-summer tradition. Back in 2016 on May 20th, Craig Edwards wondered if Marcell Ozuna, then 25 years old, was breaking out. That hot streak didn’t last, as Ozuna saw his 132 wRC+ pre-Edwards article drop to 97 post-Edwards article.
Just over a year later in June of 2017, Craig revisited another Ozuna hot streak. That one lasted the rest of the season, and qualified as a breakout in most minds.
Now, nearly a year after that second article, some things have changed. Ozuna is no longer a Marlin. He’s a Cardinal! He’s the Cardinals cleanup hitter. And, through May 20th, Ozuna has been the St. Louis Cardinals worst hitter.
Among the twelve Cardinals with at least 25 plate appearances so far, Ozuna’s 63 wRC+ ranks twelfth. Last. Worse than Matt Carpenter, whose recent hot streak lifted his mark from 60 to 89. Worse than Dexter Fowler. Worse than Francisco Pena. Last. Dead last.
Compounding the issue, or at least the prevalence of the issue, is that every single one of Ozuna’s plate appearances have come from the cleanup spot in the batting order. Individually, he’s been the second-worst cleanup hitter with at least 75 plate appearances in that spot. He’s dragged the Cardinals as a team down to the third-worst cleanup hitter production.
Of course, we know players go through slumps. Early season slumps tend to stick in our heads more because they’re more noticeable. Even still, this has been Ozuna’s third-worst slump of his career. He’s only had a powerless stretch this long once before. And yet, it doesn’t appear that the Cardinals have an alternative for his lineup spot. Ozuna is, or was supposed to be, the Big Bat.
On the surface, it seems like there’s hope for a bounce back. While I haven’t been as adamant as I was for Carpenter, I’ve noticed plenty of bad luck plaguing the St. Louis slugger.
According to Baseball Savant, his average exit velocity is at a personal Statcast-era best of 92.6 mph, up nearly 2 mph over last year and in the top 30 across the MLB. His average launch angle is up a half degree from last year and in line with his career norms. And with the tenth worst gap between his expected wOBA and actual wOBA so far, we can attribute much of his slump to luck.
Luck doesn’t explain all of the difference between this year and last, though. Even if Ozuna’s actual wOBA was in line with his expected, he’d own a .339 wOBA and a wRC+ similar to that of Harrison Bader. Don’t get me wrong, a wRC+ around 115 is good – it’s 15% better than league average – but it’s not what we wanted from the Cardinals biggest offseason acquisition and it’s not what we expected from a guy who just least season broke out to mash 37 home runs while hitting .312 en route to a career best 142 wRC+.
Two paragraphs ago, I cited Ozuna’s average exit velocity and average launch angle. In my opinion, that’s the most common fallacy in the widespread use of Statcast data. Neither of those metrics are best thought of as averages. Ozuna’s average exit velocity is up, but what if he’s hitting every ball 92 mph or one ball 112 mph and another 72 mph? What if he’s hitting them into the ground where that exit velocity will do less damage?
To answer that, I compared Ozuna’s average exit velocity on line drives and fly balls to his exit velocity on grounders over the last three years. To tease out some luck, good or bad, impacting his production, I used expected wOBA instead of actual wOBA.
In 2016, Marcell Ozuna hit his line drives and fly balls only 2 mph harder than his grounders. In 2017, he sacrificed exit velocity on his ground balls to increase his exit velocity on line drives and fly balls. So far in 2018, he’s back to a near-even exit velocity between his grounders and line drives or flies.
Sometimes a gain in air ball exit velocity at the expense of ground ball exit velocity is indicative of an uppercut. Sometimes it might indicate a player has lowered their hands. Maybe they’re selecting better pitches to drive. Usually, it means a player’s swing is directed more ‘upward’ than it used to be.
On the other hand, when a player gains ground ball velocity as the expense of air ball velocity, the opposite is likely true. A swing that’s flatter or on a more downward plane will generate harder hit ground balls at the expense of harder hit line drives and fly balls.
Going off the above, it looks like Ozuna had a downward swing in 2016. It looks like he had a more upward swing in 2017. Now, it looks like Ozuna is back to a downward swing.
I went to the video room to see if I could identify any difference between Ozuna’s swing this year and last. While I couldn’t find anything noticeably different in the swing, there are significant differences in his set up and trigger. I’m going to show you two pitches. He didn’t swing at either. There are still big differences.
First, a take from 2018:
Next, one from 2017:
And here’s a still side-by-side of his stance, below.
Don’t make anything of the bat placement. He moves it around, and I didn’t take care to match that up. But look at his feet. His back foot is a little closer to the plate and his front foot is a little more towards third base. I don’t know how much of a difference that makes, and whether it’s good or bad. But it’s different.
Then there’s this:
Now that’s something. Ozuna has a toe tap. He had a toe tap last year, and he had one the year before that. Last year, after tapping his toe, his stance was slightly closed. This year, it’s dead straight. Last year, he had a bend in both legs during his tap. This year, his front leg is straight. Last year, his butt looks a little lower than this it does this year – he used to attack the ball from a slightly lower position. All together, in 2017, Ozuna looked more like a tightly coiled spring. He was in a more powerful and explosive position.
Next, compare his 2016 toe tap (far right), when his air ball / ground ball exit velocity splits were nearly identical to what we’ve seen so far in 2018.
It’s not identical, but it’s really close. In 2016, Ozuna used a stiffer front leg. It looks like 2018 Ozuna, following his monster 2017 season, has gone back to his 2016, pre-breakout toe tap.
The obvious follow-up question: why? Why change what wasn’t broken? It hasn’t helped his plate discipline. It hasn’t improved his contact quality. It’s made him, essentially, the same hitter he was back in 2016. Was it a coach’s decision? Ozuna’s? An accident? In any case, despite breaking out in 2017, Marcell Ozuna isn’t the same hitter he was a year ago.
The St. Louis Cardinals, riddled thus far with injuries, are desperate for someone to step-up offensively. They might start by taking a closer look at his toe tap.