Marcell Ozuna put together a lackluster season on the field for the Atlanta Braves and was again a distraction off the field. The Braves reportedly shopped him at the Trade Deadline and will likely do so again this offseason to move part of the $37 million that he is owed.
Atlanta originally signed Ozuna to a one-year deal in January of 2020. After a big year in that shortened season, he later signed a four-year, $64 million deal that included a $16 million option for a fifth season in February 2021.
The expectations for Ozuna were complicated coming into the 2022 season. Ozuna was absent during the Braves’ run to a World Series championship after he was arrested in a domestic assault incident against his wife. The incident happened right after Ozuna was placed on the Injured List with two broken fingers that he suffered on a slide into third base in Boston. He remained on the Injured List throughout the summer and was placed on administrative leave by the club on September 10. The commissioner’s office levied a 20-game suspension retroactively, which essentially cleared him to play in all of the 2022 season.
Ozuna put up career-best numbers during the shortened 60-game 2020 season. The first 48 games of his 2021 season were underwhelming as he posted just a 74 wRC+ in 208 plate appearances before the injury.
With that as the backdrop, the expectations were kind of split on Ozuna for 2022. On one hand, no one expected him to be as bad as his 48-game sample in 2021, especially considering that his xwOBA was much better than his wOBA in that sample. On the other, there were legitimate questions as to whether he should be on the roster at all after what happened the previous season.
The expectations probably averaged out to something akin to a fourth outfielder — someone without enough value to overcome his defensive shortcomings, but probably not a lost cause offensively considering the quality of contact he managed even while his results were bad.
The 2022 results were not good. Ozuna hit .226/.274/.413 in 507 plate appearances. While he did connect for 23 home runs, he produced an 88 wRC+.
In addition, due to an injury to Ronald Acuña Jr., to start the season, Ozuna saw a significant amount of playing time in left field, where he is a subpar defender, and accordingly turned in subpar defensive production.
Despite the 23 home runs, Ozuna was worth -0.6 fWAR. He once again substantially underhit his xwOBA, and his value would’ve been higher had his outputs matched his inputs, but still not particularly high. His .337 xwOBA was good-not-great, and the lowest mark he posted, relative to league average, since 2016.
What went right? What went wrong?
Again, not much. Ozuna began the season playing every day at DH and in left field. He hit .221/.278/.407 with an 89 wRC+. He started to lose at-bats and playing time in the second half.
To further complicate matters, Ozuna was arrested on August 19 for driving under the influence. He later expressed remorse for the incident through a statement and apologized to his teammates. From August 14 through September 1, Ozuna appeared in just one game with the Braves essentially playing with a 25-man roster.
He saw sporadic opportunities the rest of the way and put together a .321/.368/.585 line with five doubles and three homers in his final 57 plate appearances of the regular season.
Earlier this offseason, Sam Peebles took a closer look into Ozuna’s struggles at the plate. Ozuna again underperformed a lot of his expected metrics in 2022, but there are some underlying issues that could be cause for concern.
His 24.1 percent strikeout rate in 2021 was the second highest of his career. Conversely his walk-rate fell to 6.1 percent, which is a far cry from the 14.2 percent mark he posted in 2020.
While he did rate well in some Statcast metrics, his hard-hit rate was just 43.8 percent, which again is far from the 53.8 percent mark of 2020. He chased pitches out of the zone 33.4 percent of the time which was also a career high. As Sam noted in the link above, Ozuna hasn’t been able to punish fastballs at the same rate the last two seasons.
While some of his expected stats might suggest that a turnaround is possible, he is going to need to regain the plate discipline that he showed earlier in his career, and actually having the outputs match the inputs is going to matter a lot in his case.
Somewhat fittingly for a guy whose lack of positive performance didn’t really factor into the Braves’ thrilling season, Ozuna’s highest WPA game of the year came on October 5, the meaningless final game of the season after the Braves wrapped up the division. Ozuna went 3-for-5 with a double, a homer, and a strikeout in the game. His homer was a three-run shot that turned a two-run deficit into a one-run lead; later in the game, he hit a two-out double to put the tying runs in scoring position (but they were stranded and the Braves ended up losing the meaningless game).
In terms of more-meaningful output, there was this game-tying homer back in May:
This homer was part of a four-batter sequence where the Braves scored three times with four batters coming to the plate (RBI single, homer, HBP, double) to turn a 5-2 deficit into a 6-5 win.
That said, Ozuna had way more awful games. One was the Braves’ eventual extra-winning game at Coors Field on June 3, which was the game where Max Fried dominated the Rockies. Ozuna’s game was just a nightmare — he flew out in the first with two on and none out, struck out in the third with one on and none out, hit into a double play with one on and none out in the sixth, singled with two out, one on in the eighth, and then struck out with runners on second and third and one out in the tenth, after the Braves finally broke the scoreless tie.
As with much of the rest of the season, the Braves didn’t need his contribution to succeed, and he just flailed away. There was a lot of stuff like this, which was Ozuna’s worst single WPA play of the year:
Two batters later, the Braves made the final out, and snapped their 14-game winning streak.
Since signing his extension prior to the 2021 season, Marcell Ozuna has appeared in 172 games for the Braves and accumulated 715 plate appearances. During that span, he has hit .222/.278/.397 with 30 home runs and an 84 wRC+. Per FanGraphs, he has been worth -0.9 fWAR. He is owed $37 million over the next two seasons including the $1 million buyout on his 2025 option. Factor in the off the field stuff and it looks even worse.
The Braves might point to his expected stats and think that a turnaround is possible, but they also reportedly tried to trade him to Washington at the trade deadline in a deal for Patrick Corbin. (There were also rumors of an attempted swap for the Marlins’ Avisail Garcia.) If you are keeping score, Corbin has statistically been one of the worst pitchers in the majors over the last several seasons and is owed around $59 million.
The expectation is that Alex Anthopoulos will again look to unload Ozuna this offseason if he can find a club to take on any part of the money owed to him. If unsuccessful, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Ozuna slotted in as the DH on Opening Day in hopes that he can replenish some of his lost value.