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The Ozuna Conundrum, part 2

A little more than a week ago, I posted part 1 of my attempt to solve the Ozuna conundrum – to figure out why he could hit the ball basically as well in 2018 as he did in 2017 but have such comparably terrible results, especially if his shoulder was supposed to injured. It didn’t make sense. I’ll refer you to that post if you haven’t already read it but the only real thing that I could initially find to distinguish the 2 seasons was that the average distance of every batted ball in the 5 gameday zones in which he did the most damage in the 2 seasons was 11 feet farther in 2018 than in 2017. Launch angle was basically the same. Exit velocity was basically the same. Still, he didn’t hit the ball nearly as far which, to me, indicates that the shoulder injury he suffered from all season did, in fact, limit his offensive prowess. It made sense that it would, and those 11 extra feet could have turned homers and doubles into fly balls.

As it turns out, when I isolate those batted balls and just look at fly balls, the difference between 2018 and 2017 is much more pronounced. Thanks to a tip from the great Zach Gifford, I found that the average exit velocity was 3 mph faster on pulled fly balls in 2018 than it was in 2017. Similarly, those pulled fly balls traveled an average of 22 feet further in 2017 than they did in 2018. It certainly stands to reason that the 22 foot decrease in those fly balls could be a result of the shoulder problems he suffered from all season. What makes this all the more important is that Ozuna is the consummate pull hitter, with only 1 HR hit to right field in 2018 and only 5 out of 37 to right field in 2017.

In part 1, I also found that pitchers were much less afraid of Ozuna in 2018 than they were in 2017. Not only did he walk less last season but the pitches he faced were concentrated much more in the center of the zone in 2018 than in 2017 which pretty clearly indicates that he was a much less feared hitter in his first season in St. Louis. Considering his problems pulling balls last season, it’s no wonder that pitchers were less afraid to go directly at him.

All that considered, it’s confounding then that his average exit velocity last season was basically the same as it was in 2017 and also that his ground ball rate last season was identical to 2017. But if his exit velocity on pulled fly balls was 3 mph faster in 2018 than in 2017, that gap has to be made up somewhere else. Thanks to a tip from the always fabulous @cardinalsgifs, I looked at Ozuna’s exit velocities on all fly balls, grounders, and line drives. Guess what I found?

And look at that, just as @cardinalsgifs predicted (he doesn’t just do great gifs!), Ozuna hit line drives and fly balls harder in 2017 but hit grounders harder in 2018. The extra velocity in 2017 on fly balls and line drives was much more likely to turn outs and singles into extra base hits whereas the extra velocity on grounders in 2018 would’ve just turned outs into singles or hard ground ball outs. He had the extra velocity where he needed it in 2017. Thus, he was a much more feared hitter.

Because of the pretty noticeable difference between his exit velocities and average distance on fly balls in 2017 versus 2018, I had @cardinalsgifs pull a couple gifs of Ozuna from the last 2 years. You can see them below. The gif on the left shows Ozuna in 2017 hitting a home run and the gif in 2018 shows him hitting a ground ball.

Since both gifs are from Busch Stadium, they’re both using the same camera angle so you can more easily compare the 2. In many respects, the 2 swings look very similar but there does seem to be 1 noticeable difference between the 2. Notice in the gif on the right – the one with him as a Cardinal – it appears as though he seems to be throwing his hips open much more dramatically than in the gif on the left. Both pitches are about knee high over the plate, but on the right those hips seem to fly open pretty quickly whereas he appears to stay behind the ball a little longer in the gif on the left.

So what does that mean? It could mean that he’s trying to cheat a little in 2018 knowing that his strength is reduced and he needs a little extra help getting those balls in the air and over the fence. It looks as though he doesn’t feel confident in his strength given the condition of his shoulder and he’s trying to throw those hips open to generate a little more strength. Since he’s not staying behind the ball as well, that could explain why those grounders are hit harder in 2018 than in 2017 but balls he lifts are not hit as hard.

All that, of course, is speculation on my part. I do feel pretty comfortable in saying that his hips are more open in the gif on the right than the one on the left, and it’s clear from the data that he hit fly balls and line drives harder – and farther – in 2017 than in 2018. He “made up” for it by hitting grounders harder last year. Unfortunately, hard ground balls just aren’t nearly as useful as hard fly balls and line drives are.

The bottom line is that, though a cursory look at the data doesn’t show a lot of difference between 2017 and 2018, there’s quite a bit to unpack from the 2 seasons. The key is that the shoulder injury Ozuna suffered from last season helped to reduce the exit velocity and distance on the fly balls and line drives he hit last season, particularly those that he pulled, thus greatly reducing his power in 2018. As a result, pitchers didn’t fear him as much and gave him more meatball pitches to hit, which also reduced his walks and contributed to him reaching base less often. Consequently, his slugging percentage, on-base percentage, and batting average went down in 2018. It's further possible that the shoulder injury he suffered led him to sometimes alter his swing to try to generate more power to compensate for the lack of strength in the shoulder.

In his end of the season press conference, John Mozeliak seemed to call Ozuna out for not taking care of his shoulder last offseason and placed the burden on Ozuna to do what he needs to do this offseason to see that he’s ready for the 2019 season. In speaking about Ozuna, Mozeliak said

We can show you where the water is, but we can’t make you drink. “I think in his case, he’s going to have to take that very seriously. … If he’s diligent and puts himself in position to prepare and have himself in a place where his shoulder is not preventing him from playing at his full potential, then I think the sky’s the limit.

In doing so, Mozeliak questioned Ozuna’s commitment and his work ethic. Hopefully Ozuna will heed his GM’s admonition. My guess is that, considering 2019 is Ozuna’s walk year, his agent also had a similar admonition. If he gets that shoulder healthy, it’s reasonable to conclude that Ozuna may become the middle of the order hitter the Cardinals thought they were acquiring when they gave up 3 solid prospects to get him prior to last season. (That doesn’t mean they don’t need Bryce Harper. Don’t put words in my mouth!)

Thanks of course to fangraphs and baseball savant for the data.

Thanks to Zach Gifford and @cardinalsgifs for the guidance and also to gifs for the great, you know, gifs.

Thanks to the fantastic @nchill17 for the cover art.

Thanks to you all for reading.


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