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How do you solve a problem like Ozuna’s upcoming free agent contract?

How do you secure his dingers and bring them to your town?

League Championship - Atlanta Braves v Los Angeles Dodgers - Game Seven Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

The Braves’ 2020 season is kaput, and with it, their contractual hold on one of the most bizarre-but-exhilarating baseballing humans: Marcell Ozuna. In true Ozuna fashion, his pandemic-shortened season was straight nonsense, but the good kind. He set career highs in basically every rate-based offensive statistic except strikeouts (just a bit off) and put up 2.5 fWAR over 60 games and 267 PAs, matching his 2019 production over 130 games. Notably, that 2.5 fWAR came after incurring the wrath of the designated hitter penalty in WAR for much of the year; given his DRS (-2) and UZR (-2.7), as well as his OAA (-1), and the fact that he was mostly dinged for his bad arm, it’s actually possible he would’ve generated a bit more value for himself (if not for his team) if playing the field. (And then we get on the tangent of the designated hitter penalty for batters... but we’ve got stuff to get through! No time for that.)

Just like that, though, he’s leaving. Well, probably. In true Ozuna fashion, he timed his career “year” to occur right before he hits free agency, with all sorts of uncertainty swirling around:

  • How much spending money do teams even have, given said pandemic?
  • What’s the deal with the designated hitter? Is it here in the National League for good? Is it gone for a year, only to come back in the new Collective Bargaining Agreement?
  • Is the combination of a weak-seeming free agent market going to benefit him as one of its only potential prizes, or hurt him because the two bullets above will lower the overall appetite to spend?
  • And, most importantly, what are teams supposed to make of his 60-game monster truck show relative to what came before?

In recent years, the free agent market has become somewhat blasé, with ardor being stoked more by how much teams aren’t spending in that arena. After a couple of chilly stoves, things bounced back in the 2019-2020 offseason — but Ozuna didn’t quite benefit. Yes, I’ve seen all the reports about how he “bet on himself” and so on and so forth, but the reality is that it was always weird (advantageous for the Braves, but weird) that Ozuna signed a one-year, $18 million deal to play for the Braves. In past years, as well as in the same offseason, older, less-productive outfielders got more. (Let’s all take the time to prematurely laugh at the Nick Castellanos deal.) Part of that blah-ness was mostly that the zigging and zagging of baseball has moved outside of free agency. A combination of standard prices for WAR and fairly generic assumptions about how players age has resulted in (mostly) predictable deals and (generally) a lack of bidding wars. But, much like he did to baseballs during 2020, Ozuna has teamed up with the unprecedented shortened season to have a great chance to sock that whole framework around.

Let’s briefly think about that framework in a normal season. Here’s a real easy set of principles:

  • Use a market price of WAR. It has climbed from around $5 million per 1 WAR earlier in this decade up to around $10 million per 1 WAR, but the recent cold stoves may have knocked it down. You could call it $9M/WAR. It doesn’t really matter at the margin too much since trying to estimate it is a moving target; just be consistent.
  • Project the player’s next-year performance. There are lots of ways to do this, and most (all?) of them leverage the player’s somewhat-recent history, while also potentially digging a little deeper into peripherals and the like.
  • Apply a standard aging curve (whatever that means). Generally, the aging curves that end up being used are something like losing 0.5 WAR every year between age 30/31 to 34/35/36, and then losing 0.75 WAR every year after age 34/35/36.
  • Figure the contract will span the player’s reasonably-productive years and then end. No team wants to be stuck holding a bag containing only dead weight; even “frontloaded” deals that underpay for production up front aren’t necessarily designed to compensate for it by holding on to a player too long. In practical terms, I like to think of this as the deal ending before the point at which the player would cross the 2 WAR threshold.

This set of principles works pretty great, on average. There are always weirdnesses, and don’t even get me started on free agent relievers. The cost per WAR bends down as players get super-good because teams don’t want to set new contract highs except in increments, and it bends down as players are below-average because no one really wants those guys on real-money contracts anyway. For guys like Ozuna, though, it mostly makes sense (except for Ozuna himself pre-2020!).

Anyway, at this point, perhaps you can see where this is going. That framework is all well and good (I guess you could think it sucks, but what’s a better one?) — and yet, we have absolutely zero idea what to plug in for Ozuna’s performance, because his 2020 was so different than his non-2020, but it was only 60 games. We also have absolutely zero idea what’s going to happen with league finances this offseason.

So, let’s think about putting some bounds on how this whole Ozuna free agent contract thang might play out.

A pretty extreme lower bound

Here’s a thing we can do: pretend 2020 never happened. There was a pandemic, stuff was weird, Ozuna never even climbed a wall, it was only 60 games, blah blah blah. What would we expect Ozuna to get in this scenario? Note, this is very closely to what I expected him to get pre-2020, as well.

From 2017-2019, Ozuna’s annual fWAR totals were 5.0 in 2017, 2.8 in 2018, and 2.5 in 2019. Average those together and you get 3.4 WAR/season, but that seems a little obnoxious given that he was half as valuable in 2019 as in 2017. Weight the more recent years more heavily (using a 2/3/4 weighting scheme) and you come up with 3.2 WAR/season, which actually doesn’t change things too much. By comparison, pre-2020, ZiPS projected Ozuna’s 2021 at 2.8 fWAR. Let’s split the difference and just use 3.0 WAR for his hypothetical, 2020-didn’t-exist, 2021 projection. (Or use ZiPS and 2.8, that seems perfectly fine, whatever. 3.0 is just a round number.)

Ozuna turns 30 in November, so that’s our aging benchmark. The whole price of WAR thing, though, well... that’s complicated. This is a fairly extreme lower bound, though so let’s say that the market is a bit of a bloodbath — the price of WAR is $5M per. If so, we get this:

  • 2021: Ozuna is 30, at 3.0 WAR, that’s $15M.
  • 2022: Ozuna is 31, incurs 0.5 WAR of aging; at 2.5 WAR, that’s $12.5M.
  • 2023: Ozuna is 32, incurs 0.5 WAR of aging; at 2.0 WAR, that’s $10M.

Pretty extreme lower bound: $38 million, three years (poor Ozuna).

If this is what happened, Ozuna would probably be bummed about betting on himself (or whatever) in 2020. Note that if you stick hard-and-fast to ZiPS, it can get even worse — 2.8 WAR, then 2.3 WAR, and that’s it. Oof, a two-year deal.

Of course, the above scenario is silly. 2020 did happen, and Ozuna was great at it. So...

A pretty extreme upper bound

Let’s say that baseball saw Ozuna’s 2020, and it is all in on the big guy. 2.5 fWAR in 60 games is 6.8 in 162 games. We’re not doing per-600-PAs or anything, we are all in. 6.8 is a big number! We can take the straight average (2.8, 2.5, 6.8) and we get an estimate of 4.0 WAR for 2021, but again, all in. Let’s weight that recent year more heavily (using 2/3/4) and we’re at 4.5 WAR. Delicious (and outlandish? Outlandelicious).

In this scenario, Ozuna is still turning 30 soon (even though 2020 has felt like seventeen decades by itself). Since we’re being extreme(ly favorable to Ozuna’s wallet), let’s also skip right past the dollars-per-WAR being around $8 million recently, and bump it back up to $9 million. With that, we have:

  • 2021: Ozuna is 30, at 4.5 WAR, that’s $40.5M.
  • 2022: Ozuna is 31, at 4.0 WAR, that’s $36M.
  • 2023: Ozuna is 32, at 3.5 WAR, that’s $31.5M.
  • 2024: Ozuna is 33, at 3.0 WAR, that’s $27M.
  • 2025: Ozuna is 34, at 2.5 WAR, that’s $22.5M.
  • 2026: Ozuna is 35 but we are being extreme so we’re not assessing 0.75 WAR of aging, so he stays signed at 2.0 WAR, that’s $18M.

Ozuna is very happy with life upper bound: $176 million, six years.

Look, that’s all well and good, but Ozuna isn’t getting right around $30 million per year for six years. That’d put him in the top 10 for average annual salary, on the back of one partial season. Which means, we need to get a little more reasonable.

Let’s be reasonable

Here’s a very easy way to be reasonable. Let’s not pretend anything, other than 2020 being a full season. We know what Ozuna did for the first 60 games. We know what he was projected to do in general. Let’s just slam those together. He put up 2.5 fWAR in 60 games and 267 PAs. If we apply the same technique to projecting performance as we do for playing time, we get around 618 total PAs in 2020 (not 720, which was his actual 2020 pace). Since he was projected for 3.0 (or 2.8, whatever) in that many total PAs, what we get is:

[1] 2.5 fWAR in 267 PAs, plus

[2] 1.7 fWAR in 351 PAs.

[Total] 4.2 fWAR

So, now we have our “history” of 2.8, 2.5, 4.2. That comes out, using our same old weighting technique, to 3.3 WAR in 2021. And, since we’re being reasonable, let’s acknowledge that the price of WAR was around $8 million per recently, and hey, there’s a pandemic. Let’s bump it down to $7 million per.

  • 2021: Ozuna is 30, 3.3 WAR, $23.1M.
  • 2022: Ozuna is 31, 2.8 WAR, $19.6M.
  • 2023: Ozuna is 32, 2.3 WAR, $16.1M.

Certainly a very reasonable Ozuna contract, right? $59 million, three years

Note that the length of this deal isn’t any different than our lower bound, but it’s 55 percent more dollars for Ozuna.

However, this is also at least a tiny bit unsatisfying, and here’s why: coming into 2020, I would have expected Ozuna (5.0, 2.8, 2.5 —> 3.2, 2.7, 2.2) to get whatever [2.7 * price of WAR * 3] is. This is basically what this projects. In other words, being reasonable means more or less figuring Ozuna is Ozuna, his 60-game sample in 2020 be damned. After all, he already had a 5 WAR season once, and that was being baked in pre-2020 (though not by the market, apparently). So taking this approach just corrects the market.

So, there you have it. I should note that when playing with the numbers, I did a whole exploration of the track record of guys with huge xwOBAs two months into the season, and what happened to them afterwards. No real surprises here: they all regressed to the mean somewhat, with the average change between April-May xwOBA and June-September xwOBA for players in the 99th percentile of xwOBA in the April-May period was a drop of .060. Notably, applying a drop like this to Ozuna puts him right at his 2019 xwOBA for the whole season... so rather than present to you 500 words on that whole rigmarole, I’ll just leave it at, “No, we shouldn’t assume his tear would carry over if we were trying to build a reasonable contract case.”

To sum up, here’s a table that shows a hypothetical contract value at different prices of WAR on the market. The overall range is pretty wide, though that’s largely because I chose some pretty extreme bounds to begin with. Still, it’s hard to imagine a scenario where Ozuna doesn’t get at least three years... and if a team really wants to go all in on his two months of 2020, he could be in line for a hefty payday.

There are a few things this post doesn’t do, by design. One thing is to ask whether a team would be smart to give Ozuna one of these deals. Given the strange situation that every team finds themselves in these days (and what situation with Ozuna, ever, isn’t strange?), this is a hard question to answer. Given Ozuna’s performance level, it’s hard to think that a team would get particularly burned by a three-year deal; if they wanted to play it safe, sticking to two years makes sense, but that deal doesn’t seem likely to win the bidding. Still, Ozuna’s profile is consistently strange. Consider that, despite his monster two months:

  • His rate of connecting on pitches in the strike zone fell yet again, plunging below league average.
  • His rate on connecting on pitches outside the strike zone cratered yet again, while his chase rate somewhat increased.
  • Despite his gaudy, mind-bending contact quality, he watched more middle-middle pitches go by than an average hitter... despite getting considerably fewer of them than an average hitter.

In other words, Ozuna continues to have a really weird profile (and everything else). His career “year” featured him generally swinging at fewer strikes and more balls, while also making less contact — and just making very loud contact when it happened. On the flip side, he really eliminated grounders during these past two months, which boosted everything. A team can certainly be put off by the former even if they’re encouraged by the latter... but then they’re probably not going to win the bidding.

The other thing this post doesn’t do is attempt to guess at the Braves’ chances of re-signing Ozuna. Honestly, who knows? Given the breakdown above, it seems like at least one team might want to veer somewhere between the center and right columns, in which case the Braves are right out. If Ozuna’s weirdness is pervasive, and his market is defined around the left or middle column instead, they have a chance, but not much in recent history suggests they’d push their potentially pandemic-limited chips towards him. I guess we’ll find out.

Minor note: earlier in the 2020 season, Ozuna’s performance was dipping down to the point where even a three-year deal didn’t make sense. At the time, I figured a two-year deal was around the maximum that made sense (for anyone) to offer. On August 14, Ozuna had a 114 wRC+ and around 0.1 fWAR through 87 PAs. After that point, he put together a 211 wRC+ and over 2 fWAR in 180 PAs. Even if you regress that fairly heavily, as shown above, that insane level of performance really drags up future expectations to some extent, and therefore contract expectations. Still, as with all things heavily driven by a third of a season, buyer beware. It’s just that there isn’t additional recent data to go on... which of course is the crux of the Ozuna problem as he heads into free agency.

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