When Josh Donaldson agreed to a multi-year deal with the Minnesota Twins, the Atlanta Braves were forced to pivot in their search for a big bat for the middle of their order. The reaction to the signing of Marcell Ozuna was lukewarm at best, but he went on to have one of the best seasons of his career and checked just about every box for the Braves in 2020.
What went right in 2020?
Ozuna put together a solid if unspectacular 2019 season for the Cardinals hitting .241/.328/.472 with 29 home runs in 130 games. He rejected the qualifying offer and reportedly received at least one multi-year offer but not for the amount of money that he was looking for. Atlanta came calling in early December and Ozuna bet himself agreeing to a one-year, $18 million deal.
Ozuna’s Statcast numbers from 2019 suggested that he was unlucky and that a big season was possible. For example, he ranked in the top 9% of the league with a 91.8 mph average exit velocity. He posted a WOBA of .336 but had an XWOBA of .387 which again was in the top 9% of the league. Sure there were defensive questions and his presence made a crowded outfield situation even more crowded, but the Braves were adding him because they needed a bat for the lineup.
Ozuna was sensational at the plate turning in one of the best 60-game stretches of his career hitting .338/.431/.636 while leading the National League in homers (18) and RBI (56). His Statcast metrics were once again excellent as he finished in the top 6% in barrel percentage and the top 4% in average exit velocity. He posted an XWOBA of .417 and a straight WOBA of .437. As this graphic from Baseball Savant shows, you could not ask for much more.
Ozuna also did not have any trouble fitting into the clubhouse and served as a mentor and partner in crime for young players like Ronald Acuña Jr. and Ozzie Albies.
What went wrong?
Honestly, not much. There were questions about Ozuna’s defense coming in and he spent the majority of the season serving as Atlanta’s DH. UZR (minus-2.7) and UZR/150 (minus-16.1) paint an ugly picture of Ozuna’s defense. He came in at minus-2 Defensive Runs Saved but was surprisingly just a minus-1 in Baseball Savant’s Outs Above Average in a small sample so maybe the defense wasn’t quite as bad as some made it out to be. Again, Ozuna was brought in before the DH was approved for the NL so the Braves were going to live with his defense provided he hit.
What to expect in 2021?
In a normal season, this is where I would say that Ozuna accomplished his goal of betting on himself and would be in line for a big multi-year deal, especially if the DH sticks around in the National League. However, there is going to be nothing normal about the 2020 offseason. The ramifications for a shortened season played without fans will likely take a toll on the free agent market. To what degree remains to be seen but it is a safe bet that Ozuna won’t receive what he would normally.
The Braves should have a lot of interest in retaining Ozuna, but as was the case with Donaldson, it will come down to the price tag.