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When he was dealt to St. Louis, Marcell Ozuna’s deal perhaps received the most support from the public of all of Derek Jeter’s early moves. At the very least, the deal was less disappointing than the Giancarlo Stanton and Dee Gordon moves, which netted little to no organizational talent on the cusp of helping the major league team. Ozuna seemed to at least bring back players that fans could envision patrolling Marlins Park.

Look to the return piece by piece: Sandy Alcantara, a flamethrower who might not stick in the rotation moving forward, but a top relief arm carries a ton of value for the rebuilding Marlins. Magneuris Sierra, or the younger Jarrod Dyson, might never be the All-Star that Ozuna was, but again, a nice piece mixing speed and defense should help the team. Zac Gallen and Daniel Castano offer interesting lottery ticket pitching arms, still, while not something to celebrate on their own, offer some upside with good numbers in the minors so far. A decent, deep return for a top player that shot up fantasy draft boards.

Enough with the prospect talk. The trade only helps fantasy owners knowing that Cardinals gave up real pieces, and thought highly of Ozuna to match fantasy excitement. so then how has it panned out? So far in 2018, Ozuna is slashing .250/.284/.338 with only three homers. Not the player that the front office thought they were getting when they made the deal.  Already forty games into the season, the Cardinals and owners are asking what is up with Ozuna? Let's dive into the numbers. (As one quick note, all of the pitch and swing rate stats come from Brooks Baseball via Fangraphs.)

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What is Wrong with Ozuna?

To begin, refresh yourself on the 2017 numbers that shot Ozuna up draft boards. 159 games, 37 homers, and a slash of .312/.376/.548 made Ozuna a dark horse MVP candidate ranking at the top of outfielders in the game. Also, with close to 100 runs and 124 RBI, Ozuna made up for a 21.2 K% with the rest of the profile and put in one of the most dominant seasons in the bigs.

Ozuna’s 2017 K% sits right at league average, meaning that he has never been known as the typical power hitting profile. Making up for that with pop implies that even with this year’s increase in strikeouts to 23.1% the profile should still be healthy. The most significant changes in the core metrics are how often Ozuna is walking. Last season Ozuna walked 9.4% of the time, and this year that rate has been almost cut in half to 4.7%. With a career average of 7%, perhaps there will be some movement up, but owners cannot rely on that.

A few other fundamental changes are also occurring. First, Ozuna is pulling more balls than he has so far in his career at a 42.6% clip. Last season a 38.6% rate fits right with the career average, meaning this year’s change is all the more noticeable. Besides, he is hitting the ball hard at a 50% rate this year, up almost 13%. What does this mean? Hard contact is not everything, especially when some of that comes from the pull rate and better contact without production. The ground ball rate is the same as last year, with a slight decrease in FB% and an increase in LD%. Again, the profile looks much the same, expect that Ozuna is making better contact. So more strikeouts and more contact.

Looking at pitches faced might offer another compelling narrative to add to Ozuna’s profile. Since moving to St. Louis he has seen more fastballs (48.8% to 53.2%) and cutters (4% to 7.8%), but fewer curveballs (11.1% to 8.7%) and sliders (22.4% to 20.7%). What does this mean for the profile? First, it shows that at the very last Ozuna is facing different pitchers even when staying in the same league. Even if pitchers are approaching him the same, the pitching combinations he is seeing has created the difference. So far this year, the Cardinals have only met one opponent from the NL East, the Mets twice. Combine that with eight series vs. the NL Central and the pitching opponents have just been different. Gone are Julio Tehran and Max Scherzer, and in are John Lester and Chad Kuhl. Different pitchers mean different pitches, and different pitches mean different plate appearances.

 

A Changing Approach from the Mound

With different pitches, a few ideas emerge to help contextualize this season. First, perhaps Ozuna is just a better breaking ball hitter and seeing less has affected his approach more than expected? Add to this that he is both swinging more and seeing fewer pitches in the zone. While these metrics are only moving in the wrong direction by a point or two, the worrying trend is there. At the very least, when seeing more fastballs, Ozuna is chasing a bit more. The most crystallizing number is his O-swing rate at 38%. This is up 3.6% from last year, and almost 4% on the career average. Swing rate is up, and contact rate is down. Perhaps Ozuna just cannot lay off that out of the zone fastball? The other option is that with more fastballs, Ozuna is chasing those breaking pitches that he was not in Miami. Pitchers are using the fastball to set-up the other pitches in a way that is keeping him off balance.

The second option is that Ozuna is taking longer to adapt to different pitchers and approaches. While this is most often a concern with hitters moving leagues, as opposed to divisions, the change in opponents has given this season a different feel for Ozuna. What does stand out is that Ozuna was a much better hitter at home last year with a 121 tOPS+ in Miami as opposed to an 81 tOPS+ on the road. To play along with the stats, every game this season has been an away game for Ozuna (away from Miami), meaning that the numbers align well with the 2017 numbers. On the road, he struck out more (94 to 50) and walked less (34-30). Was Ozuna’s line that reliant on playing in Miami? That seems to make more sense than other soft factors like line-up context to explain the drops so far. At the very least, if helps explain why even with great contact Ozuna is falling short on production.

 

Moving Forward

So then what should owners do regarding Ozuna and their team? First, a personal note. I try not to talk about my teams as there is confirmation bias at play, but in this instance, Ozuna was recently added to a team I co-manage in an NL-only league. In that situation we needed RBI, and Ozuna offered a source if he can regress a bit to the career line of around 80. I'm not expecting the 124 number, but would be happy with somewhere in between. I say this since the numbers do not look good, and the outlook is less than rosy for a top pick, but there is enough value in the profile to think about adding. If this article is wrong, it is my funeral as well. Also, with any player, if a team needs a stat and a player might offer more than you have the other numbers do not really matter. Our team is good on runs and average but desperate for RBI. Even if he does not improve in those two categories, the RBI should help out overall numbers.

Even more, looking to reach concerns listed above there are reasons to have hope still. First, the pitch mix. Ozuna is making better contact with all of these fastballs, and even if they are giving him some issues with the chase, there is no reason to doubt that he can make the necessary changes to take advantage. If the Hard% was way down this would be a different story, but good contact is good contact. The skills are there, and a few more balls in the air at the line looks completely different.  Also, it seems an owner would rather him need to adapt to the fastball as opposed to a slider if there needs to be a risk factor.

Second, the changes in opponent and park factors. The nice thing is that Ozuna will get to face the NL East more moving forward meaning if there is something there the sample size will improve. Trips to Washington, Atlanta, Philadelphia, and beloved Miami should give owners some exciting data. Also, consider that players often struggle with new situations and then break out of them. If this continues all year, then drop Ozuna in draft lists next year. At the same time expect a better second half.

Finally, what if he just is not 2017 Ozuna and is more like 2015 Ozuna? In that case, the draft was a bust, but the player in the outfield is still an above-average bat to own. Owners sitting on Ozuna should ride the downs and be ready for some highs when those numbers change. If you do not own him, shoot over some offers with slight savings from draft day. If owners are sick of waiting, already there is surplus value to be had. His value will only get better from here, and a chance to buy low will be a huge boon. Remember you are just trading for production moving forward so let other owners sit with the bad first 40 games and you will take the good last 120.

 

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