Braves: What can Marcell Ozuna’s recent struggles be attributed to?

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It felt all winter Braves fans waited for general manager Alex Anthopoulos to make one of the easier moves this past offseason. After belting a National League-leading 18 home runs and posting a 179 wRC+ during the 2020 shortened regular season, bringing back the lineup’s primary power source seemed like a no-brainer.

So finally — this past February — Atlanta re-signed outfielder Marcell Ozuna to a four-year, $64 million contract that also came with a club option for a fifth year, valued at an affordable $16 million ($1-million buyout). At an average annual value of $16.3 million, the Braves appeared to be getting a top-tier home run hitter at an extremely team-friendly rate on into his mid-30s.

But fast-forward to the present, and now into the 2021 season — through the campaign’s first 20-ish games — we’re still waiting for the 30-year-old Ozuna to find his groove at the plate. He’s had his moments this season for sure, but when looking at his entire body of work, especially of late… Ozuna has been extremely underwhelming for Atlanta’s lineup. Heading into Monday’s series opener versus the Cubs at Truist Park, Ozuna owns a .184/.303/.224 line in 21 games this season, with his one homer being his only XBH and just 10 RBI.

Among qualified hitters this year, his overall offense has been among the 15th-worst in the majors through Sunday as Ozuna is currently producing at a level nearly 50% below average, with a 57 wRC+, much of which can be attributed to his 26 strikeouts. And his last week or so was even worse as Ozuna is hitless in his last five games through Sunday, spanning 19 PA, giving him a -11 wRC+ during the last two series. What the hell is going on?

Well, part of Ozuna’s problem and perhaps the most uncharacteristic aspect of his game right now is that he cannot hit fastballs. The righty-slugger is currently running a .170 AVG versus the heater to go with 16 of his 26 total strikeouts, and all eight of his hits against the offering have been singles. This struggle to get around to the heat is very weird for him, considering throughout his entire MLB career, Ozuna has never finished a single season with an AVG below .304 versus fastballs.

You may look at the rest of his pitch-tracking results from this season and think what about his struggles versus the breaking ball as well? And yeah, Ozuna has been dreadful against those pitches, too (.118 AVG so far), but he’s always been bad against breaking balls. It’s just that he’s always been so good hitting fastballs… that it didn’t matter.

Add the above paragraph to the fact that Ozuna is barreling the ball at a lower rate than any season except his first two in the majors (8.0 Barrel%), along with a career-low hard-hit rate (38.0 HardHit%), and you’ve got yourself an awful big league hitter… or at least a great hitter going through a poor stretch. This isn’t the same as Dansby Swanson and Ozzie Albies, two players I detailed awhile back who were in the midst of some horrible luck. It’s hard to be unlucky when you’re not even putting the ball in play; although Ozuna does wield an xwOBA currently 41 points above his actual wOBA, that’s not very significant when both are poor to begin with.

So hopefully, like the entire Braves offense, Ozuna can turn things around soon. This is wasn’t exactly what we were looking for when Atlanta re-signed the outfielder a few months ago, and I’m sure it wasn’t for Ozuna either. The 2021 season has been just as much disappointing as it’s been weird. And for the Braves, Ronald Acuna Jr. has been the only real consistent excitement coming from the lineup. However, once the Braves cleanup hitter gets this turned around, everything should start falling into place for this team.

 

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