Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Ozuna: Why Clubs Should Avoid Marcell Ozuna This Winter

With the season over and free agency now underway, all eyes in the baseball world have shifted to this year’s free agent pool, and where the class will end up in 2021. While this year’s crop is extremely deep, standouts like Trevor Bauer, George Springer, Marcell Ozuna, JT Realmuto, and more headline the group and are sure to generate a lot of interest over the next few months. With all of the aforementioned names looking for over twenty million dollars a year, most clubs will be pressed to go for more than one top of the line free agent. While this trend would be typical, the need for teams to hit on those signings has been further magnified by the financial impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The Covid-19 Pandemic has created a very difficult financial situation for big league clubs

According to Team Marketing Report’s financial breakdown for the 2021 season (as cited by Business Journals), the league lost over five billion dollars in revenue, with teams losing hundreds of millions individually. This has led most to believe that there will be less money spent in free agency this offseason as a whole — the amount of club options on players denied already backs this logic as well. Brad Hand, one of the top left handed relievers in the game (all star 2016-19, led MLB in saves in 2020) had his ten million dollar club option declined. Similarly, Brandon Kintzler, who was second in the National League in saves this year (tied for 1st including his one postseason save) also had his four million dollar club option declined. This has created a scenario where a team may be able to get a relative deal on a star (if they are willing to invest significantly). While this is critical in assessing what the market or bidding wars may be on players, it needs to be reiterated that a substantial financial investment, particularly during these uncertain times, needs to be as safe a bet as possible. 

The best way to accurately predict future output is by breaking down the data on individual players over the last few seasons, assessing what they are both physically doing (swing path data, exit velocities, approach angles, extension, release height, movement characteristics), and what their output has been (BABIP, xwOBA, Barrel %, xERA, etc). After breaking down the swing data on some of the highest profile free agents this year, it is extremely clear that Marcell Ozuna is the highest risk free agent. He is poised to struggle in making his 2020 production a status quo, and will likely see a regression in performance quality.

Despite his monster 2020, the data (and his history) tells us that Marcell Ozuna is not the type of guy a club will want to invest 100+ million

Ozuna had a monster season, hitting career high marks in important stats such as Barrel %, xBA, xSLG, xWOBA, hard hit percentage, and more. However, multiple variables suggest that he will struggle to replicate his fantastic performance. The first issue with Ozuna is that he is a hitter that relies on backspin — the long ball is a critical dimension of his game. While this alone is obviously not an issue, his swing traits mimic those of guys like Alex Bregman, who hunts pitches up in the zone, utilizing backspin to hit more home runs. This is a major problem. Like Bregman, Ozuna showcases a very flat swing (28.2 degree vertical bat angle on pitches middle/middle per SwingGraphs). While this works in the favor of Bregman (high ball hitter), it does the opposite for Ozuna, who is a low ball hitter. Ozuna’s affinity for pitches in the lower quadrant of the zone is extremely counterproductive for a flat swing. When a swing is flat, the vertical bat angles of the hitter do not line up well to the vertical approach angles of low pitches. In other words, the barrel of the bat will not reliably meet the ball head on — this will lead to less consistent hard contact, and a lot more whiffs. Ozuna’s subpar strikeout rate (22% per Statcast) demonstrates this thought process as well.

Bregman, above, hunts pitches up in the zone — what is considered ideal in helping players with flat swings generate more backspin, and loft on the ball. Ozuna hunts low pitches, which is counterproductive for his swing traits

The flat swing and tendency to hunt low balls is especially troubling since flat swings usually correlate to large launch angle ranges and standard deviations (27.4 degrees in 2019, 28 degrees for Ozuna in 2020). These numbers should immediately set alarm bells off in the head of any GM considering Ozuna. Why? It is very difficult to sustain an elite BABIP with numbers like Ozuna’s because it is tough to project how the ball will jump off of his bat. With slightly steeper vertical bat angles (which correlates to more ideal launch angles), and a lower launch angle standard deviation, a club can more accurately project how balls will leave the bat. It should lead to a much higher average BABIP from year to year due to a bump in consistency (launch angle standard deviation) and bat angles that line up better with pitchers’ vertical approach angles. The bottom line is that guys with swing characteristics like Ozuna’s almost never sustain the success he had in the 60 game season over a full 162.

To further magnify why Ozuna’s swing traits are a red flag, one needs to look no further than Cody Bellinger. In 2019, Bellinger won the National League MVP award with a launch angle standard deviation of 25.9 degrees (.305 BA, 47 HR with a vba of 34.7 degrees on pitches middle/middle). The narrower launch angle standard deviation helped contribute to Bellinger’s outstanding BABIP of .302, only 3 points lower than his actual batting average on the year. Additionally, Bellinger’s average vertical bat angle on pitches middle/middle was 34.7 degrees, significantly more than Ozuna’s (28.2 degrees). The combination of the steeper vertical bat angles and more consistency (narrow launch angle sd) played a major part in Bellinger’s continued success throughout his MVP campaign. In 2020 however, Bellinger had bat path issues — his bat angles flattened out drastically. Unsurprisingly, Bellinger’s launch angle standard deviation rose to 28 degrees (the same as Ozuna’s this year). The result? A .239 batting average with a .245 BABIP. Why is that? As described earlier, flat swings make it very difficult to sustain a high BABIP due to the unpredictable nature of how balls leave the bat — the contrast of Bellinger and Ozuna’s 2020 numbers showcase exactly this. 

Over the last four years, Ozuna’s launch angle standard deviation has remained between 27 and 28 degrees (bat angles have remained relatively constant as well). What has come from this? Well, the results speak for themselves — a baseball equivalent to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. In 2019 alone, Ozuna’s launch angle standard deviation was only 0.6 degrees lower than 2020 (very similar), yet he hit .241 (97 points lower than 2020). This change in output is nearly identical to the above comparison between Ozuna’s 2020, and that of Cody Bellinger (who shared the same steep launch angle sd). With Ozuna’s 2016 (.266 ba, 23 hr), 2017 (.312 ba, 37 hr), and 2018 (.280 ba, 23 hr) data splits looking similar, it is clear that his flat swing is unpredictable, making him prime for inconsistency. The 2020 season was only 60 games, which was not long enough for a typical regression to take place — anyone can get hot for two months. While Ozuna is extremely talented (power numbers alone tell us this), the volatility of the flat swing makes him a massive liability as a long term, big money investment. 

Bellinger (Blue) and Ozuna (Red)’s 2019 swing paths on pitches middle/middle. As seen in the visual, Bellinger’s bat angles are slightly steeper than those of Ozuna. The steeper bat angles (Bellinger) correlate to a higher BABIP due to their lining up with the vertical approach angles of pitches better than flatter bat angles (Ozuna)

This alone is not where the issues with Ozuna’s flat swing ends. One of the traits associated with flat swings is that they are typically successful exclusively against flat pitches. While this is a plus for Ozuna facing many of the high spin, low vertical approach angled fastball heavy pitchers of today, it also means he will struggle mightily with adjusting to offspeed pitches — particularly those associated with heavy vertical break. Some of the best hitters in the league, such as Bellinger and Mike Trout, set their bat angles for pitch height, flattening their swings while facing fastballs (in order to get on plane), and keeping them steeper on breaking pitches. Ozuna, who has a much flatter natural swing than the two superstars, does not make this adjustment, keeping his vertical bat angles flat on all offerings. The data on Ozuna showcases the anticipated struggles that would come from this. While he is extremely successful against fastballs (2019: .303 ba, 17.9% whiff; 2020: .402 ba, 17.3% whiff per statcast), Ozuna literally cannot hit breaking balls and changeups. In 2020, Ozuna whiffed on 49.4 percent of breaking balls thrown to him, and 39.1 percent on other offspeeds. The statistics for 2019 is extremely similar, with Ozuna whiffing on 40.1 percent of breaking balls, and 33.5 percent on other offspeeds. Teams with solid advanced scouting departments have taken advantage of this mightily (as seen by the Dodgers in the 2020 NLCS), and Ozuna’s struggles against anything other than fastballs lower his value even further on the free agent market.  

Marcell Ozuna cannot hit breaking balls. Examples A and B above showcase how difficult a time Ozuna has adjusting to pitches showcasing heavy vertical break

Prior to the 2020 season, Ozuna signed a one year, eighteen million dollar contract with Atlanta. This was coming off of his .241, 29 home run campaign. Going off of that market value, and his fantastic 2020, it would not be surprising to see him ask for twenty-five million AAV. While twenty million a year is a safer estimate, he is twenty-nine years old — in the thick of his prime, and will look for more money as a result. If teams want to justify paying for him, they will need to do everything in their power to try and make him more consistent. A good first step to accomplish this goal would be to steepen his average vertical bat angle. This would likely lead to a positive change in consistent launch angle standard deviation, barrel rate, and other important statistics. Additionally, Ozuna can afford to add to his implicit loft. Another major free agent on the market this year, George Springer, had a very similar, volatile launch angle standard deviation in 2020 (28.1 degrees to Ozuna’s 28). Springer also shared a nearly identical average vertical bat angle on pitches middle/middle (28.3 degrees to Ozuna’s 28.2 per Swing Graphs). However, what sets him apart from Ozuna outside of approach (Springer’s is much better) is the implicit loft he gets on his swings (10.5 degrees for Springer, 7.8 for Ozuna). Implicit loft is created via a combination of vertical and horizontal bat angles, meaning a bump in vba, and slight changes to the tilt of the bat via horizontal bat angles could lead to a jump in potential output. While these changes would obviously help improve Ozuna’s consistency, the holes are too great to justify paying over one hundred million dollars over a five plus year time period.

As described above, a progressive club may try and make adjustments to help optimize him. However, as a seasoned veteran with multiple all star appearances, the odds of him making a total change are likely low. Taking all of the aforementioned into account, including the volatile nature of his current swing (as backed by data), it makes offering him a long term deal, especially in these difficult times, nearly impossible to justify. Thus, the smart play this winter would be to look beyond Ozuna, seeking consistent, high level production elsewhere.

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