Much of the talk around the Atlanta Braves during the 2023 season was about their historic offensive production. While multiple more notable names had MVP-caliber seasons in the Atlanta lineup, it took a complete effort to achieve historic results. Among the biggest surprises and most substantial contributors for the Atlanta offense was Marcell Ozuna, who bounced back from subpar on-field production.
Nearly four years ago, in late January of 2020 and right before the pandemic began, the Braves signed Ozuna to a one-year, $18 million deal. That deal came late in the offseason as Ozuna seemingly fell through the cracks despite not even heading into his 30s, perhaps because he had a down 2019 season driven by, in part, his worst enemy: xwOBA undperformance. Ozuna ended up proving to be one of the best hitters in the baseball during the 60-game 2020 season, leading the league in home runs, RBIs, and total bases while producing a .338/.431/.636 batting line — an absurd 178 wRC+ with (surprisingly) a slight xwOBA outperformance. He finished sixth in the National League MVP voting while finishing in the top 10 among position players in fWAR, with the third-best batting line by outputs and the fourth-best by inputs.
On the heels of that campaign, Ozuna signed a new contact with the Braves before the 2021 season for four years and $64 million, with an option for a fifth year. He is in the last guaranteed year of this contract, though Atlanta does have a $16M team option for 2025 with a $1 million buyout.
What were the expectations?
Heading into 2021, there were many reasons to feel great about Ozuna and the Braves reuniting on a longer-term deal. First, there was the obvious: his blitz of the league during the 2020 sprint. But, considering the Braves managed to snag him on a not-overly-long, below market-ish deal, it seemed like the good times would keep rolling.
Except, they didn’t. Much of the positivity from Ozuna’s debut season with the Braves quickly disappeared once the 2021 season started. Ozuna dealt with injuries, severe xwOBA underperformance, poor play, and multiple problematic off-field issues. On the field, Ozuna’s 2021 consisted of just 208 PAs in which he posted -0.3 fWAR despite a .347 xwOBA, because of how badly he underhit it. 2022 was even worse, because his xwOBA fell to .337 and the Braves kept running him out there despite a -0.5 fWAR campaign, giving him 507 PAs in total.
Ozuna remained in the lineup for much of 2022, but ended up getting benched in mid-August until factoring back in on around a half-time basis in September. There were multiple reports that the Braves had looked into potential trade opportunities regarding Ozuna, both at the 2022 Trade Deadline and during the 2022-2023 offseason. However, nothing materialized, and with multiple years and over $30 million left on his contract, along with going 0-for-2 on providing even replacement-level production, Ozuna remained on the roster heading into 2023.
Projecting Ozuna heading into 2023 was all about whether you bought into his hitting inputs, or his outputs. His inputs in 2021-2022 were not great for a guy that was going to be used as a full-time designated hitter, but nowhere near as bad as his dreadful outputs. There was debate about whether he had a “slice” in his batted balls, among other things, but that didn’t change the numbers on the ground. As the 2023 season approached, the ZIPS projections for Ozuna split the difference a bit, projecting 1.2 WAR and a wOBA in the high .320s — unexciting numbers, but way better than what he gave the team outputs-wise in the past two seasons.
As for his status with the team, all indications pointed to Ozuna being a part of the Opening Day roster and a frequent member of the lineup.
“Far better than anyone could have imagined” may be an understatement when it comes to Ozone’s 2023 performance at the plate. Instead of words, perhaps an illustration will do it justice:
Ozuna’s 2023 production compared to the field of baseball regulars in percentile form:
That is a lot of red, which in this case, means a lot of good happened. Ozuna produced a .274/.346/.558 batting line along with a 139 wRC+, .906 OPS, and a .381 wOBA. He hit 40 home home runs, and also produced 100 RBIs, 296 total bases, and 3.3 fWAR. The even more impressive feat was that Ozuna produced .581 xSLG and .396 xwOBA marks — in other words, he again underhit his xwOBA, but this time his xwOBA was monstrous, and the underperformance was at least smaller. Safe to say, discussions about whether he had a slice became a lot less pertinent when even his wOBA was in the .380s.
As for his production in the field, Ozuna played only 14 innings in the outfield as he was the primary DH for the Braves. That ate into his value, but someone’s gotta DH for every team now, so the Braves will gladly live with what he was able to produce even with the defensive limitations.
He even finished with positive WPA, which is pretty impressive considering his leverage splits.
What went right?
The big key to Ozuna’s bounceback season was going back to crushing fastballs. He posted a .454 xwOBA against them in 2023, after two seasons of average-y, .375ish xwOBA production. Beyond that, there’s not much to point to in terms of a dramatic turnaround — there were no huge changes in his swing or contact rates relative to his struggle seasons. He actually made more contact in the zone, not too much overall, but something somewhat contrary to what you’d expect given how the Braves have found success. Instead, he just went back to hitting the ball even harder than before, and that seems to have made much of the difference.
Ozuna had the best barrel rate of his Statcast era career, and tied his previous high in average exit velocity. That’ll do it, and that’s how you get to be a top-ten bat, xwOBA-wise... even if his consistent xwOBA underperformance pushed him into “just” the top 15 wOBA-wise.
Interestingly, Ozuna’s walk rate jumped up despite not much there to support it in the more granular plate discipline stats.
As for the best offensive moments of Ozuna’s year, his most valuable home run (based off WPA) occurred late in the in the season as he tied the game against the Cubs in the bottom of the 9th inning:
Marcell Ozuna tied this game in the ninth inning.— Justin Toscano (@JustinCToscano) September 28, 2023
The Braves are relentless. pic.twitter.com/WyQ0qa0L3U
Kind of a wild 3-0 pitch to throw in that situation, honestly.
Of course, there were also the fun occurrence in which Ozuna just decided to clear all three bases himself:
Marcell Ozuna: 404 feet, 111.6 mph.— Justin Toscano (@JustinCToscano) May 3, 2023
He needed this. pic.twitter.com/eeq2qIQ352
Without a doubt, and compared the previous two seasons, Ozuna’s 2023 campaign, was an unexpected but highly successful season.
What went wrong?
The crazy thing about Ozuna’s 2023 performance was that it started off looking as if Ozuna had hit rock bottom when it came to his performance at the plate. In April, it was starting to look like the Braves were going to get a Useless Ozuna threepeat, since he had a 10 wRC+ and, what’s more, while he was underhitting his xwOBA again (duh), his xwOBA itself was sub-.300. It kind of looked like, well, not the beginning of the end... but the end of the end, really. But, you know how that ended, and it wasn’t wrongly. Even as soon as May, Ozuna was xwOBAing and wOBAing above .400, and aside from a dip in July, did so in every other month as well.
Like his teammates, he did little in the postseason, with a couple of singles and a couple of walks in 15 PAs, but there’s plenty of “what went wrong” to go around there.
While he did have some rough games, they were few and far between after April. There was a game in August against the Pirates that, while the Braves ended up winning in the end, was particularly brutal — Ozuna went 1-for-5 in a close game and hit into a fielder’s choice out at the plate with the tying run on third and one out.
He also struck out against Brusdal Graterol with the tying run on base to deny the Braves a sweep of the Dodgers in Los Angeles, but again, fairly small potatoes in the grand scheme of things.
So the big question for many regarding Marcell Ozuna in 2024 is simple:
If the indicators in 2023 suggest his production was legitimate, how likely is it that he will be able to repeat the performance in 2024?
The simple answer is, well, not very likely — because repeating a .400 xwOBA, especially in your 30s, is pretty hard. But, the projected results are still encouraging. Steamer basically projects Ozuna to deliver 80 percent of his 2023 production in 2024. In numbers form, ZIPS is projecting a .255/.323./.484 batting line with 32 home runs, a 114 wRC+, .344 wOBA, and 1.5 fWAR. ZiPS is basically the same, if slightly more optimistic. Honestly, this seems logical with how streaky Ozuna can be... but it’s also heavily regressing his offensive output, which again, is probably deserved.
Ozuna will be entering the final guaranteed year of his contract. Though, as mentioned above, the Braves do have a club option for his 2025 services, Ozuna will have to once again provide meaty value at the plate for the Braves to consider picking it up. Regardless of what the future holds, one clear truth is that Ozuna will have plenty of incentive to repeat his big comeback performance from 2023 once again in 2024.