The Ozuna Conundrum, part 1


Let’s play a little game. Take a look at the table below and see if you can identify the 2 players.



If you’re a Cardinals’ fan – and I know you are – and you have a functioning cerebral cortex then by now you’re aware that Player A is Marcell Ozuna, circa 2017 with the Marlins and Player B is Marcell Ozuna, circa 2018 with the Cardinals. Obviously the Cardinals gave up 3 pretty good prospects and an opportunity to trade instead for Christian Yelich so that Ozuna would perform much more like Player A than Player B so the team was disappointed to see that he hit more like Marcel Marceau than the 2017 version of Marcell Ozuna.


Now take a look at the following table and see if you can identify these 2 players.



This one probably isn’t as obvious but, again, Player A is the 2017 version of Ozuna and Player B is the 2018 version. Though the results in the 2 years were quite different, the underlying peripherals were quite similar. What’s more, everyone who’s been at all lucid for the last 9 months or so is aware that Ozuna spent the entire season battling a shoulder injury. The whole situation is quite confounding. It would make sense that he was quite a bit worse in 2018 than in 2017 if it was due to his shoulder injury but if you look at those underlying peripherals, he hit the ball just as well last season as he did the season before. How is it possible that he could hit the ball so well and yet end up with such relatively terrible results? And if he had that shoulder injury all season long and it caused him to have such comparatively poor results, why was he able to continue hitting the ball as hard as in 2017? Why was his hard hit % the same with the bad shoulder as it was with the healthy shoulder? None of this makes any sense.


The fact that Ozuna hit the ball as hard in 2018 as he did in 2017 and yet had so much less to show for it has also mystified those such as The Athletic’s Bernie Miklasz and MLB’s Mike Petriello. Over the course of this 2-part series, we’re going to see if we can solve this dilemma. Since he had such a bad shoulder, why were Ozuna’s underlying batting peripherals basically as good in 2018 as they were in 2017? And, can we attribute those relatively poor results to the shoulder?


When you look at his other numbers from the 2 years, there’s not a lot that really stands out but there is one obvious difference. In 2017, Ozuna’s walk rate was a solid 9.4% but that fell to just 6.1% last season. The 2018 walk rate was actually much more in line with his career numbers. On the other hand, his strikeout rate also fell in 2018 from 21.2% to 17.5%. So he walked less often – that helps to explain the decline in OBP (along with a 30 point drop in his batting average) – but he also put more balls in play. Shouldn’t that have, all things being equal, increased his batting average? His BABIP did also fall from .355 to .309 so maybe he just got a lot less lucky in 2018, especially considering it seems as though he struck the ball equally well in both years. Maybe that’s enough. But that doesn’t explain an 84 point drop in his ISO. It wasn’t just that fewer balls managed to find holes; he did a lot less damage on the balls he put in play in 2018 than in 2017.


Maybe this can be explained by the fact that he hit more popups in 2018. Maybe. His popup rate did go up a little from 8.2% to 10.2%. But really, that’s only 4 more popups over the course of the season and that doesn’t address the fact that his exit velo and hard hit % were about the same in the 2 years. Nobody hits hard popups.


Maybe he hit a lot more balls on the ground in 2018. Batters are much more likely to do damage on line drives and fly balls than on grounders, so a substantial increase in his ground ball rate could maybe explain what’s going on here. Guess what, though…his ground ball rates (47.1%) were identical in 2017 and 2018. What the heck is going on then?


We’ve got a guy who seems to have hit the ball equally well in 2 years despite the fact that he was apparently dealing with a season-long shoulder injury. Even though he hit the ball equally well in those 2 years, the results were wildly different. In the first, he slugged the crap out of the ball, becoming one of the most feared hitters in the National League. In the 2nd, he hit the ball like a pretty good middle infielder. Yeah, his walk rate was lower in year 2 but so what? So was his K rate! And it’s not like he went from hitting line drives and deep flies to grounders either.


The only noticeable difference in his plate discipline numbers is that he went from 3.78 pitches per plate appearance in 2017 to 3.70 in 2018. He was, thus, a little less patient in 2018. That probably helps to explain the drop in both his BB rate and his K rate but it doesn’t sound very conclusive to me.


Let’s see if we can see anything in the way he was pitched in the 2 years. The first 2 heatmaps below show his pitch percentages in each zone in 2017 and 2018. On the left is 2017 and on the right is 2018. Now I think we’re starting to see something.




Let’s look at the 2 heatmaps a little differently and see if anything stands out. Again, 2017 is on the left and 2018 on the right.



Ok, now I think we’re on to something. It’s obvious here by looking at the heatmaps from the 2 years that he was clearly pitched differently in 2018 from 2017. Pitchers clearly tried harder in 2017 to avoid giving him meatball pitches right down the middle whereas in 2018, he got a lot more pitches in the center of the zone. Clearly pitchers were much more afraid of him in 2017 than in 2018. That makes sense; he was much better in 2017 than in 2018. This probably also helps to explain why his walk rate and strikeout rate were much lower in 2018 than in 2017. He’s not going to walk – and he’s much less likely to strike out – on pitches right down the middle.


This probably also helps to explain why there’s such a difference between the results in the 2 years and his contact quality in the 2 years. If his shoulder was truly in bad shape, we would expect him to be much worse in 2018. The fact that he hit the ball as hard in 2018 seems to be counter-intuitive. However, maybe he hit the ball as hard in 2018 as he did in 2017 not because he was as healthy, but because he just got a lot more fat, meatball pitches to hit in 2018 than he did in 2017. In other words, Ozuna hit the ball as hard in 2017 as he did in 2018 despite facing a lot tougher pitching. Pitchers tried to avoid giving him good pitches to hit in 2017 and he still hit the ball really hard. It’s much less difficult to do that when he’s getting pitches right down the middle. This certainly isn’t definitive, but it does provide us a solid data point to indicate that his shoulder may have been the reason why his results were so much worse in 2018 than in 2017.


Let’s now look at 1 more thing. Let’s see how he hit the ball within those zones. The 2 heatmaps below show Ozuna’s ISO/P – basically, how much damage Ozuna did on every pitch thrown in those zones – in the last 2 years. Again, 2017 is on the left and 2018 is on the right.




Obviously, there’s a lot more red in the 2017 heatmap than the 2018 heatmap. That’s not surprising. Notice also that the numbers – his ISO/P – are much higher in every zone in 2017 than in 2018. Again, not surprising. What does stand out, however, is how much more damage he did on pitches on the inner half in 2017 than in 2018. He absolutely mauled pitches on the inner half of the zone and right down the middle in his last season in Miami and, while he was OK on those same pitches in his first season under the Arch, he wasn’t nearly as good. One, this helps to explain why pitchers tries so hard to stay away from him in 2017 and why they weren’t that concerned about it in 2018. Also, though, it could say something about his shoulder. I would think that it would be easier to rip that bat through the zone to get to pitches on the inner half with a healthy shoulder than with one that’s barking all year long. Ozuna was able to barrel up basically the same percentage of pitches in 2018 as in 2017 but maybe that’s because the pitches he was barreling in 2018 were all middle-away as opposed to middle-in. He’s probably going to get a lot different results on pitches he barrels up that are on the outer half than those on the inner half and maybe that explains why he could do so much more damage in 2017 than in 2018.


The table below shows the results of Ozuna’s average exit velocity, launch angle, and average batted ball distance for pitches in the 5 gameday zones from the middle of the zone to the “down and in” zone in both years – the 5 zones where Ozuna did the most damage in 2017.



I’m pretty surprised that the exit velocities are essentially identical. I just didn’t expect that. The launch angles are nearly identical as well. The only difference between his performance on pitches in those 5 zones – at least the ones he put in play – in 2018 and 2017 is that in 2017 he hit those balls an average of 11 feet farther. That’s got to be the shoulder, right? For some reason he was just a lot stronger in 2017 than in 2018. Maybe balls that were off the left field wall in 2017 were F7s in 2018. Eleven feet per batted ball is substantial.


So I think we’ve made some progress in figuring out why Ozuna’s results in 2018 were so vastly different than in 2017 when his batted ball quality seems to have been about the same. In part 2 we’re going to dig a little deeper into those batted balls to see if they can tell us anything more. Hopefully, we’ll be able to conclude that it was the shoulder that caused Ozuna to be so much worse at the plate last season than he was the previous season. More importantly, if the shoulder is the reason he was so much worse then hopefully that indicates that by cleaning it up this offseason, he can have another big year in 2019 for the Cardinals.

Heatmaps and stats come courtesy of Fangraphs, Baseball Savant, and Baseball-reference – my 3 go-tos for baseball data.


Thanks to the fabulous @nchill17 for the great Ozuna pic.


Thanks to you all for reading. Please come back for part 2.