Tempering expectations for Marcell Ozuna


Last week, the St. Louis Cardinals officially inked their biggest offseason acquisition by signing Marcell Ozuna to a one year, $9 million deal. While it was always just a matter of time before he was officially signed, it’s a relief that the Cardinals won’t be taking their new star to an arbitration hearing.


Since his acquisition on 14 December, its been a near certainty that Marcell Ozuna will occupy the cleanup spot in the 2018 Cardinals lineup. Coming off a season in which he mashed 37 home runs, drove in 124 RBI, hit .356 with runners in scoring position, and had a 142 wRC+, he fits everyone’s definition of what a cleanup hitter should be. The $9 million dollar question for the Cardinals, of course, is whether he can do it again.


To examine how repeatable Marcell Ozuna’s performance was, we should first examine whether he “earned” his production. While Statcast has their own expected wOBA metric (xwOBA), we can use the available data to create our own metrics that provide even more information. While I’ve previously developed my own xwOBA based upon batted ball data and plate discipline statistics, I haven’t had time to update my model. Instead, I’ll rely on Andrew Perpetua’s xOBA hosted on xstats.org (his work is infinitely more thorough than anything I’d have put together anyways).


According to Perpetua’s calculations, Marcell Ozuna posted an xOBA of .362, compared to his wOBA of .388. A wOBA of .362 still would have been good, of course, but it would have dropped Ozuna from the 16th best qualified hitter down to a tie for 38th. At .362, Ozuna would have been one point better than Matt Carpenter, three points better than Paul DeJong, and four points better than Dexter Fowler. Good, but not great.


Digging a little deeper, we find that Ozuna produced barrels, by far the best category of contact according to Statcast, in 6.5% of his 2017 plate appearances. That rate ranked only 70th among hitters with at least 100 batted balls, sandwiching the Cardinals slugger between Hanley Ramirez and George Springer. It is encouraging, though, that he raised his barrel rate for the second year in a row, up from 5.8% in 2016 after sitting at only 4.3% in 2015. While year-to-year contact correlations can be noisy, at least Ozuna has shown consistent improvement.


Looking at FanGraphs batted ball statistics, we see a similar trend. Ozuna’s hard-contact rate increased from 34.5% in 2015 to 37.4% in 2016, and again to 39.1% in 2017; that 39.1% hard-contact rate ranked 36th among players with at least 300 plate appearances. Unfortunately, though, Ozuna also generated soft-contact at a career high rate of 18.3% in 2017, and his gains in hard-contact have come primarily at the expense of medium-contact. Essentially, what that means is that Ozuna has been hitting the balls he squares up a little better while still generating a relatively high level of weak batted balls.


Marcell Ozuna’s non-contact offensive profile doesn’t reveal signs of a sustainable breakout, either. While he walked at a career high rate of 9.4% and had a strikeout rate slightly below his career average, his plate discipline was almost identical to his career averages. According to Pitch Info, Ozuna swung at 34.4% of pitches outside the strike zone (career average of 33.9%), 69.7% of pitches inside the strike zone (65.0%), made contact on 74.5% of his swings (73.9%), and saw almost the exact same rate of first pitch strikes. There’s no obvious reason to believe that Ozuna’s non-contact profile has improved and, as a result, we would expect his walk and strikeout rates to regress back toward his career averages.


Looking at the available projections for 2018, Steamer sees Ozuna posting a .367 wOBA (almost exactly in line with his 2017 xwOBA) while ZiPS estimates a .349 wOBA. If pressed, I’d lean towards the ZiPS projection, as it more heavily regresses his contact quality, walk rate, and strikeout rate. However, even down at .349, ZiPS still sees Marcell Ozuna as the Cardinals second-best hitter – whether that’s a compliment to Ozuna, a testament to ZiPS conservative nature, or an indictment on the Cardinals roster remains to be seen.


So, what should the Cardinals expect from Marcell Ozuna? Those expecting an MVP-candidate, even a down ballot candidacy like he earned last year, will very likely be disappointed. Those expecting a 30 HR, 100 RBI guy will probably be disappointed. Even those who expect Ozuna to be one of the Cardinals three best hitters may find themselves disappointed.


Marcell Ozuna is a good player. He makes the Cardinals a better team, and he’s probably a 2-win upgrade over former St. Louis corner outfielder Stephen Piscotty. But he’s is not an elite player, and there’s a good chance he won’t be the Cardinals best player. He doesn’t change the landscape of the NL Central this year or next, and simply adding Ozuna doesn’t make the Cardinals clear favorites for the wild card.


Marcell Ozuna is a good player, and he gives the Cardinals one of the better outfields in the National League. Unfortunately, though, it appears St. Louis is still missing its big piece.