The Atlanta Braves entered the 2021 season hoping that Marcell Ozuna would anchor a deep lineup full of offensive potential. Well, things didn’t quite work out that way.
The Braves originally inked Marcell Ozuna to a one-year, $18 million deal on January 21, 2020. Atlanta was hoping that Ozuna could provide right-handed power for the middle of the order after Josh Donaldson left to sign with the Minnesota Twins. He largely exceeded expectations in the shortened 2020 season, putting up a .338/.431/.636 line and a career-best 178 wRC+ with 18 home runs. He finished fourth among all hitters with 90+ PAs in both wOBA and xwOBA.
Before signing with the Braves, Ozuna rejected some modest, multi-year offers, ultimately choosing to bet on himself in 2020. That part was a resounding success, but Ozuna still went unsigned until February when Atlanta locked him up with a four-year, $65 million deal that also included an option for a fifth season that could bring the total value to $80 million. It was kind of a strange situation, as Ozuna gambled and “won,” but still got a fairly modest deal as a feverish market for his slugging services never materialized.
Expectations and Projections
The thinking coming into 2021 was that Ozuna would again provide offense from the middle of the order while slotting into left field on a full-time basis. While it was unrealistic to figure that he’d somehow replicate 2020 over a full season, the expectation was that he could provide solid power numbers as a run producer. Steamer and ZiPS saw him as an above-average, 3-4 win player (2.9 Steamer, 3.6 ZiPS), defense and all, and he had the prior-year xwOBAs to back up that assessment.
It is important to note that one of the main drivers of the Braves’ signings of Ozuna was his consistent underperformance of various advanced metrics. Ozuna’s wOBA has been less than his xwOBA in five of his seven seasons at the major league level. The two exceptions came in 2017 when he hit 37 home runs and was a 5-win player for the Marlins, and again in 2020 for Atlanta, which happened in just a 60-game span.
For all of his raking in 2020, Ozuna got off to a slow start in 2021, hitting just .202/.295/.313 in April. May wasn’t much better, and he left the field during a game in Boston after dislocating his middle and ring fingers on an attempted slide. Further examination revealed fractures to both fingers and he was expected to miss about six weeks.
Before the injury, Ozuna posted some career-worst numbers, hitting .213/.288/.356 with seven home runs in 208 plate appearances. His .284 wOBA was far less than his .345 xwOBA and his .244 BABIP was by far the lowest of his career. Given that we know that Ozuna didn’t return, that gap stands as the third-biggest in baseball for anyone with 200 or more PAs in 2021.
One day after being placed on the Injured List, Ozuna was arrested for domestic violence against his wife. His original charges included felony aggravated assault by strangulation, but prosecutors dropped the felony charge in July. He still faces charges of misdemeanor charges of family violence battery and simple assault, but those will be dismissed provided he completes all the conditions of a diversion program, which he began in September. Major League Baseball launched an investigation at the time of Ozuna’s arrest and he was placed on administrative leave by the league on September 10. The league announced in November that Ozuna had received a retroactive 20-game suspension, which would make him eligible to return immediately at the beginning of the 2021 season.
What went right? What went wrong?
Everything went wrong. Ozuna didn’t provide anything positive on the field when he was healthy, though that was all due to xwOBA underperformance, and then became a distraction with his subsequent arrest. The Braves issued the following statement after Ozuna’s retroactive suspension was announced.
“Any instance of domestic violence is unacceptable, and we fully support the decision by the Commissioner’s Office regarding Marcell. We are encouraged to know that Marcell has accepted full responsibility for his actions and is taking the necessary measures to learn and grow from the situation.”
If you had to search for any silver lining about his on-field play, it’s that the hand-wringing about his defense didn’t get validated by his tiny-sample outfield play in 2021. He somehow posted +4 DRS, including a positive arm score, in 411 outfield innings, as well as positive UZR. His OAA, which only captures range and not throwing, was neutral.
Road to the Title
Ozuna missed most of the season and all of the postseason, and his presence was limited to the version of this year’s team that really scuffled out of the gates. He racked up a brutal -0.99 WPA in under two months of playing time, with -0.62% cWPA as well. A grand slam off Erick Fedde that led to a 5-3 win over the Nationals on May 5 was likely his biggest on-field contribution of the season; of the 48 games he appeared in, he had positive WPA in only 16 of them.
Outlook for 2022
Atlanta’s outfield picture for 2022 remains unclear, and Ozuna is a big part of that haze. The Braves essentially have three options available to them. They can release him and eat the $53 million remaining on his contract. They can look to trade him, which would likely include swallowing a sizeable chunk of that $53 million. Or, they can keep him and try and deal with the attendant baggage.
Ozuna’s projections will likely take a substantial hit, now that his most recent 200 or so PAs had an xwOBA in the .340s rather than the .430s. Steamer currently figures him for an average 2.1 WAR over a full season, with an above-average batting line offset by average, and therefore value-draining, corner outfield defense.