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Marcell Ozuna Has a Slice

This article was originally published at Birds on the Black, a St. Louis Cardinals blog. You can find the blog (@birdsontheblack), author (@zjgifford), and artist (@cardinalsgifs) on Twitter.

Back in November, the FanGraphs staff ranked Marcell Ozuna as the seventh-best available free agent. In that article, Kiley McDaniel and the FanGraphs crowd both expected Ozuna would receive a four-year deal, with the median crowdsource estimate coming in at $64 million ($16 million per year) while McDaniel was a little higher at $70 million ($17.5 million per year). Teams could dream on Ozuna’s potential and a return to his 2017 production with relatively minimal risk — since his 2013 debut, Ozuna has consistently produced as an average or better player. Coming into this offseason, he had produced more than 2 WAR in four straight seasons dating back to 2016. Free agents are never a sure bet, but Ozuna seemed pretty close to one at a reasonable price.

Ozuna ended up betting on himself by taking a one-year deal with Atlanta, which was a bit of a surprise. With that context, I wanted to see what happened during his breakout 2017 campaign and what might be holding him back from tapping back into that potential. We’ll start with some numbers: Read the rest of this entry »

Francisco Cervelli Finds his OPS in the Air


Heading into the season, the NL Central was expected to be a one horse race. The Chicago Cubs were projected to win 96 games, nine games better than the second-place-projected Cardinals. The Cardinals, for their part, were projected seven games better than the Brewers (79 wins) and eleven better than the Pirates (76 wins).

Fast forward to this writing and the NL Central mix is much cloudier. The Brewers sit atop the division at 37-24. If we only knew about the projections, they’d be the biggest surprise in the division. However, we do know more about the Brewers than the projections, such as the fact that they won 86 games in 2017 before adding very good players in Christian Yelich and Lorenzo Cain. The projection algorithms didn’t buy the Brewers as a threat, but I’d bet most people did.

The Pirates, on the other hand, won only 75 games last year. Then they got rid of staff ace Gerrit Cole and best-player Andrew McCutchen. They didn’t sign a single major league free agent. The only established major league player they acquired was Corey Dickerson after he was DFA’ed by the Rays following a dismal second half of 2017. Frankly, the Pirates were supposed to suck. Instead, their playoff odds have thus far peaked at 30% and currently sit at 11%. The Pirates were  the NL Central’s biggest early surprise before a recent cold spell.

During their 2013 to 2015 run as one of the NL’s best teams, the Pirates ranked fourth in the majors by ERA- while giving up the third fewest total runs. This time around, the Pirates staff is basically OK, with a slightly better-than-average FIP- and a below average ERA-.

Instead, the Pirates are riding an offense (excluding pitchers) that ranks eighth in the MLB by wRC+. Not unrelated, here is the Pirates ground ball rate by year since 2013:

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That’s a drop-off-a-cliff drop. In 2017, the Pirates had the fifth-highest ground ball rate in the Majors. In 2018, they have the second-lowest. The Pirates have a chance to hit more fly balls than ground balls, which they’ve never done this century. It was a trend that Alex Stumpf noted a month ago for the Point of Pittsburgh and revisited again last month. For a team whose manager told his players that their OPS is in the air, the Pirates were late to the fly ball revolution. And yet, here they are.

At risk of oversimplifying Alex’s findings, nearly everyone on the Pirates is hitting less grounders, and nearly everyone on the Pirates is putting more of their hard contact in the air. Hard hit balls in the air are good. Trying to lift the ball more often is a tradeoff that can lead to more strikeouts, but the Pirates are doing it without striking out more than before. The Pirates have a recipe for success.

The change in approach hasn’t benefitted anyone more than Francisco Cervelli. Looking at the 240 players with at least 100 plate appearances in both 2017 and 2018, Cervelli has the second largest decrease in ground ball rate, down to 31.3% from 52.3%, and he’s also decreased his strikeout rate by several points. The Pittsburgh catcher owns a 152 wRC+, which represents a 59 point increase over last year, the eighth largest gain, and more than doubled his isolated slugging. And he’s doing it with a .308 BABIP, which is both perfectly normal and below his .333 career BABIP.

Francisco Cervelli is driving the ball in the air, and he’s doing it without making less contact. There isn’t one right way to accomplish that goal, and Cervelli’s success is probably a combination of several factors. Alex suggested to me that Cervelli appears to have lowered his hands, and it does look like he starts them lower in 2018 than he did in 2017. Lower hands often puts a hitter in a better position to drive the ball in the air, and Cervelli has gained 3.2 mph of exit velocity on line drives and fly balls – the 11th biggest gain in baseball (min. 50 LD/FB in 2017 and 2018).

Cervelli has improved his plate discipline, too. According to Pitch Info, Cervelli’s chase rate of 24.9% last season was his highest since 2013. This year, he’s lowered it to a career low 19.2% while continuing to swing at strikes at approximately his career rate.

While it’s good to know Cervelli is swinging at the same rate of strikes, we also know all strikes aren’t created equal. It’s just as important, and perhaps more so, to know what kind of strikes a player is swinging at. Here, we see significant change through late May:

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Last year, Cervelli’s swing core is toward the low-outside corner. This year, he’s swinging at pitches up and over the heart of the plate. According to Statcast, the vertical pitch location when Cervelli swings is up from 2.20 feet to 2.40 feet – that’s the largest height increase among 226 players with 200+ swings in 2017 and 2018. Jason Heyward is second at an increase of 0.19 feet, and Alex Bregman is third at 0.13 feet. Cervelli is identifying better pitches to hit and he’s now driving them with authority.

Francisco Cervelli spent most of his career behind the dish as an unspectacular, solid hitting catcher. By reinventing himself in his age-32 season, he’s become a force at the dish for the surprise Pirates.

A big thank you to Fangraphs, Baseball Reference, and Baseball Savant for the data used in this post.

Marcell Ozuna has Changed, Again

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.

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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.