Two things are undeniable about the Braves’ current designated hitter. The first is by any estimation, his four-year contract, which seemed more than fine at the time, has been a unmitigated disaster by production and from an optics standpoint. The second is that he had an excellent week, especially versus the Marlins, clubbing four home runs and drawing comparisons to Manny Machado from local beat writers. So was Marcell Ozuna’s big week a mirage or something to build on? In my opinion, he is making an effort to correct some of his troubles fromthe last two years. I did some research to see what has changed.
His xwOBA underperformance* has been mentioned often when considering his production. Ivan did some great work here to catalog the causes for this back when the Braves first signed him.
Here’s Ben Clemens/Fangraphs. He refers to the “slice” theory...
...covered by Zach Gifford/Birds on the Black. Do you find this compelling? Or is it fitting an explanation onto something fairly noisy and prone to have something like this happen to someone in a two-year (or five-year, to a lesser extent) period? It’s notable, for example, that Ozuna didn’t show up in this examination of spin effects on (a lack of) fly ball distance though said examination is dated at this point.
And here’s Mike Petriello/MLB.com. There’s a lot of great stuff here, which indicates that unlike Culberson’s voodoo, the real story for Ozuna is that his grounders are really easy to defend, and drag down his batting line more than someone with an average assortment of grounders.
*xwOBA is a measurement of how well a hitter is striking the ball. An underperformance can reflect that his hitting numbers are lower than what you would expect due to bad luck, defense, and other factors. You know how announcers (used to/sometimes still) say “he’s been hitting the ball really hard lately but they just aren’t falling”? When you compare a player’s xwOBA to their wOBA, that’s just math that shows this.
Working from that bit of history, it’s a known possible issue that the weird spin he puts on fly balls saps the distance from them. Have a look at the dance that this ball takes.
Look at Sanchez sprint back toward the wall. That’s because this ball had an exit velocity of 106 mph. Fly balls or line drives that fly off the bat at 105-110 mph go for home runs a third of the time and yield an average 1.187 wOBA. Instead, though, Sanchez stops his sprint, hooks back, sprints to his left and grabs it forty feet from the wall. I think Ozuna is aware of this happening by now. However, one of his remedies has been bizarre.
On the left is 2020, the right is 2023. I won’t comment on the waistline and focus on his stance. The 2020 stance that helped earn him the contract appears balanced and comfortable. Today it looks the opposite. The front leg is pushed further away from the plate and he points his front shoulder across and away from the pitcher. Maybe he believes this creates a coiled swing action? That it helps him stay on the ball and remove the spin? It does appear that on a few instances the spin was removed. Have a look at this only double of the 2023 season.
You can’t really see it with this replay, but this ball had a ton of topspin and made a beeline for the left field corner. So this worked out, but it has come at the expense of a lot of ground balls, which as mentioned before, are easier to defend. So I don’t exactly understand the approach, but maybe he just trying to iron out the spin. The last week’s changes make more sense, however, and perhaps point the light forward.
The results from the week of 4/30 to 5/6 are way up, but the underlying xwOBA is way up to .510 from .294. He has become much more discerning since last Sunday.
Swing percentage is down across the board. Contact numbers are up. He had three swings and misses in the zone in those games. Looking at every where he swings is here:
The left is before, the right after. Before is a hot mess of fuglyness, after is much more controlled. There are many more swings inside the power cross as well. Let’s look at swings from last week before two strikes and with two strikes .
Looking at these charts, the gameplan seem pretty clear.
- Look for pitches waist-high, low-middle, and low-away, particularly non-fastballs.
- Ignore the high fastball.
- With two strikes, protect the plate with foul balls and hand on for dear life.
When you see his stance, I don’t know how he hits high fastballs anyway. The low pitches are ripe for his uppercut swing. Cutting down on swings is also a probably a good idea if you think you’re cursed and most contact is going to get gobbled up and become an out — only hack at things you can crush that (probably) won’t be caught. This seems to be a good start, but it might be only that. Plate discipline is a good skill to have, and if he were in Double-A or Triple-A I would really be pleased with the production. But he’s 32 now and in year three of a four-year free-agent contract.
One big problem is that this adjustment pretty easy to defend or defeat once opponents catch on. A pitcher could just go with two high fastballs and one low and away. And this is exactly what Austin Voth did to him on Sunday, getting a 55 MPH duck on a flailing swing versus an away curveball on strike two.
Ozuna has a lot going against him. Last week was a start. Let’s hope he will continue to adjust and contribute. Because after last week, he may have bought himself another month.