Next step for Marcell Ozuna: Cut down on the strike-outs

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Coming into the 2014 season, outfielder Marcell Ozuna was somewhat of an enigma to the Miami Marlins and fans alike. A brief audition with the club in 2013 provided the Marlins with enough of a window to award the then 23-year-old with the starting center field job the next year, but a lack of experience above A-Ball left many wondering how he would respond.

He did so with a bang.

To say the Ozuna broke out in 2014 would be an understatement. The young outfielder put up a solid 3.7 win season with a wRC+ of 114, a .269/.317/.455 slash-line, 23 home runs, and 85 RBI. Additionally he graded out well in center field, accounting for 10 DFS (Defensive Runs Saved) and 8 rPM (Plus/Minus Runs Saved Above Average), even if his UZR/150 was average at 0.8.

In terms of sheer value, Ozuna provided the Marlins with a cheap, efficient outfielder. Playing on a rookie contract that netted him all of $505,000 in 2014, FanGraphs has Ozuna’s 2014 season worth quite a bit more, converting his 3.7 fWAR to $20.1 million in his first full season of work.

Needless to say, Ozuna exceeded the meager expectations that he went into the season with. The question that remains though is if he can sustain it. There were a few things that went into that break-out campaign that may lend credence to a bit of a decline in 2015 barring improvements.

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In 2014, Marcell Ozuna put up an amazing Batting Average on Balls in Play of .337 which ranked 25th in baseball among batter with a minimum of 500 plate appearances last season. However, the league average was .299, meaning that Ozuna was 38 points better than league average. Of those that ranked ahead of Ozuna in BaBIP in 2014, only four (Christian Yelich, Dexter Fowler, Chris Johnson, and Marlon Byrd0 had a larger disparity between BaBIP and his actual batting average than Ozuna’s difference of .068. As that levels out a bit, there is a chance that Ozuna’s production at the plate dips a bit.

However there is a way to offset that. Simply put, he just needs to put more balls into play.

Marcell Ozuna put up a K% of 26.8% in 2014, a 7.2% increase over his 2013 debut. In relation to the rest of the league, that was 6.4% higher than league average and ranked him 10th in baseball in the category. Of course, teammate and team MVP Giancarlo Stanton ranked 12 with a mark of 26.6%, but he offset it with a walk rate of 14.7% compared to Ozuna’s meager rate of 6.7%. A high strike-out rate with a high walk rate is the portend of a more patient hitter, whereas the opposite is indicative of a bigger issue.

For Marcell Ozuna, that issue was contact. At 70.6%, Ozuna had the 8th lowest contact rate among hitters with a minimum of 500 plate appearances. This time around, Stanton actually ranked worse with a 69.6% contact rate, but since we’re focused on Ozuna we’ll stay on that path for a bit. Basically put, pitchers adjusted to Ozuna and it showed in his second half production as he was unable to make similar adjustments.

SplitGPARH2B3BHRRBIBBSOBAOBPSLGOPS
1st Half92365459314215532599.276.323.463.786
2nd Half6124727591238321665.259.308.443.751

Pitchers were able to dial in a very specific hot zone for Ozuna and rightfully found a very distinct weakness. As you can see by the following heat maps, pitchers realized that Ozuna’s strengths lay on pitches middle-in, where his compact swing could generate more power. However, when they made that swing longer and worked him on the outside of the plate, Ozuna struggled with his timing. Needless to say, pitchers started pounding down and away.

For Marcell Ozuna to make the next step, and continue to be the offensive threat he set himself up as in 2014, he’ll need to make adjustments in his swing and learn to protect the outside of the plate. With pitchers increasing their use of sliders (19.8% in 2014) against Ozuna, he’ll need to learn to be more patient at the plate and lay off those pitches.

That all said, there should be no discounting what Marcell Ozuna accomplished this past season, nor should there currently be doubt that he’ll find a way to improve again in 2015. However, the path remains clear as to what he needs to accomplish in order to get there.

He just needs to step onto it.

Next: Are attempts to trade Dan Haren coming up empty?

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