Braves: Marcell Ozuna has been a gift at the cleanup spot

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For those of you still angry about Alex Anthopoulos’s decision to let Josh Donaldson sign with the Twins, maybe it’s time to focus your madness on something else, eh? That particular choice, or at least the one-year, $18 million deal handed out to Marcell Ozuna, is starting to look like a pure genius move. 

Sure, Donaldson was awesome for the Braves in 2019, but so far this season JD has played just seven games for Minnesota and is currently on the IL with an injured calf. Meanwhile, the Braves’ new cleanup hitter, Ozuna, is killing it, and — after a two-homer game on Friday — leads the team with seven home runs. Let’s compare shall we:

2019 Stats

  • Donaldson — 7 G, .182 AVG, 1 HR, 2 RBI
  • Ozuna — 26 G, .280 AVG, 7 HR, 17 RBI

 

Other than what looks to have been an outlier in 2017 with the Marlins — when he posted a 5-WAR season, thanks to a .312 AVG and career-best 37 home runs — for the most part Ozuna has settled in as a 2-3 WAR player in the majors. Primarily because of his lacking defense. He has always had to hit very well to keep his WAR totals up, and that must continue in 2020 as well, as Ozuna’s Def WAR was at -4.1 entering Friday’s game against the Phillies. If the guy was even half the defender he was five or six seasons ago, he’d probably be a yearly MVP candidate at this point, but it appears Ozuna’s days of flashing the glove are over. 

However, Ozuna’s shortcomings in the outfield have been forgiven over the last several seasons, thanks to an impressive batted-ball profile, highlighted by one of the game’s most powerful swings. Since the beginning of the 2018 season, Ozuna ranks 12th in the majors in Statcast’s HardHit% (46.4%) — ahead of guys like Mike Trout, Bryce Harper and Anthony Rendon. And in 2020 his profile has continued to improve as he has increased his Hard Hit% up to 50.8% so far, raised his Launch Angle from 13.5 to 16.3 degrees and improved his Barrel% from 11.8% to 12.3% — all indicators of a hot-hitting slugger. 

And for a player that absolutely loves to mash fastballs (career .316 AVG with 86 HR), Ozuna has somehow figured out a way to improve against the heater this season, managing a .348 AVG against the pitch entering Friday’s game. Seven of his 16 hits versus the fastball have been extra-base hits, entering Friday’s matchup with Philadelphia, giving him a strong .630 SLG%. 

But it’s his work against off-speed pitches this season that seems to be making a difference for Ozuna.

For his career, the 29-year-old has almost always struggled to hit the off-speed stuff (career 104 wRC+ vs. changeup), though since the start of 2019, Ozuna has made some decent strides, posting a 129 wRC+ last season, to go with a 191 wRC+ against the offering so far in 2020. In fact, despite seeing such a small sample of off-speed pitches thus far this season (only 16.7% of pitches seen), Ozuna has had the most success against that particular pitch type, hitting .357 and slugging .786. Both his average exit velocity (101.5 mph) and xWOBA (.469) are also his best rates when comparing Ozuna’s performance versus the three pitch groups (fastballs, breaking balls and off-speed), according to Baseball Savant. 

And those rates against the fastball will only increase once stat sites are updated on Saturday, given Ozuna’s two big homers from Friday came against heaters. 

His first long ball was a 94 mph fastball at the top of the zone — thrown by starter Aaron Nola — to give the Braves back-to-back homers in the 3rd inning. Ozuna crushed it 430 feet to dead center…

 

Home run no. 2 was the longest hit of the game — a 438-foot drive off reliever Cole Irvin in the 5th inning. Once again the Phillies tried to beat Ozuna up in the zone with a 94 mph heater, but he jumped all over it…

 

So all-in-all, Friday night’s performance by Ozuna was mostly just an illustration of what he has done all season: hit fastballs really hard and really far — a trademark of his for several years now. That, coupled with his newfound success against off-speed pitches have made the 2020 campaign a raging success for the veteran outfielder. 

Perhaps letting JD walk will bite the Braves one day, and maybe it already has in regards to the team’s production at third base. But as far as replacing Donaldson’s contributions at the cleanup spot in the lineup… well, I think Ozuna has worked out just fine. It will be interesting to see if he keeps it going. 

 

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