Marcell Ozuna signed a one-year, $18 million contract with the Braves in January, when he was a free agent for the first time. Ozuna was on the heels of a strong postseason performance in nine games for the Cardinals, after an up-and-down regular season in which he hit .241 and
He went on to put up some of the best numbers of his career in 2020 for Atlanta, setting himself up quite well for this year’s free agency period. He hit .338 with a .636 slugging percentage, putting him in outside contention for a Triple Crown entering the final day of the season. He won his second career Silver Slugger Award, received MVP consideration and in many ways looked like his 2017 self — which was the best full season of his career.
Defense has been a question with Ozuna, but the 2020 season provided the perfect solution: a DH in the National League. Ozuna did win a Gold Glove Award in ’17, but in five years of Statcast’s Outs Above Average, he’s been below-average in the outfield in all but that season. While we don’t know yet whether a DH will be in place again in the NL in 2021, there’s no question that Ozuna’s bat is worth strong consideration in free agency this winter. And, despite the difference between his ’19 and ’20 results, there’s evidence he’ll perform closer to how he did this past season moving forward.
Here’s why Ozuna is one of the top bats available on the free-agent market, and why his 2020 season wasn’t an outlier. With this in mind, there should be plenty more selfie home run celebrations to come.
He crushes the ball
Ozuna had a 54.4% hard-hit rate in 2020, which means that more than half of the contact he made had an exit velocity of at least 95 mph. While that was the highest hard-hit rate he’s had tracked by Statcast (since 2015), Ozuna has hit the ball hard in prior seasons — ranking in the top 4% of the league in hard-hit rate in ’19, top 7% in ’17 and top 10% in ’15. This wasn’t new for him.
Why is hitting the ball hard so important? The 2020 league-wide batting average in at-bats ending on hard-hit batted balls was .510. The slugging percentage was 1.064. Crushing the ball is a key component to getting good results.
Ozuna’s numbers, however, have not always matched up with the league averages on hard-hit balls. In 2019, when his rate stats were down, he had a .421 batting average and .972 slugging percentage in at-bats ending on hard-hit balls. That batting average was his lowest since ‘15 on those, but he had a .547 expected batting average on hard-hit balls, which indicates he may have been getting unlucky. Similarly, his expected slugging percentage on hard-hit balls in 2019 was 1.191, far above the .972 actual number.
In 2020, he did have success when crushing the ball, with a .593 batting average and 1.308 slugging percentage, his second-highest and highest, respectively, since ‘15. That shows that he didn’t experience the same kind of bad luck when hitting the ball hard that he did in ’19 — and that the hard-hitting Ozuna is the version we should expect moving forward, along with the associated results.
He makes quality contact
It isn’t just that Ozuna makes hard contact, but that he makes quality contact, too. For the expected stats noted above, quality of contact considers both launch angle and exit velocity. Ozuna’s average launch angle increased in 2020, to 16.4 degrees from 13.5 in ’19, and it was a meaningful increase. This year, 39.1% of the contact he made was in the launch angle sweet spot — between eight and 32 degrees — the highest such rate he’s had since ‘15, and up from 32.8% in ’19.
Much like with hard contact, we can demonstrate just how impactful sweet-spot contact can be. In 2020, batted balls in the launch angle sweet spot had a batting average of .615 and a slugging percentage of 1.149, league-wide.
Ozuna did particularly well when connecting in the sweet spot, with a .727 batting average and 1.636 slugging percentage in at-bats ending on those batted balls — both of which were the highest he’s had since ‘15. His slugging percentage on batted balls in the launch angle sweet spot ranked sixth in the Majors (minimum 100 batted balls). Not only was he hitting the ball in that range more, but he was also having more success with it.
Bad luck wasn’t as much of the story for Ozuna on batted balls with those launch angles, as he’d hit closer to or above league average on those in prior seasons, too. But similar to hard-hit batted balls, his results in 2020 aligned well with the expected stats based on contact, indicating that it wasn’t a fluke.
Putting together both elements of quality contact for Ozuna, 24.9% of his batted balls in 2020 were both hard-hit and with a sweet-spot launch angle. That ranked 12th of 194 batters with at least 100 batted balls, a list led by none other than Ozuna’s ’20 teammate and NL MVP, Freddie Freeman. It was also the highest such rate Ozuna has had since ’15, furthering the point that he made more quality contact in 2020, to go along with having better results on that contact, by rate.
Last year, Ozuna’s free-agent profile was predicated on teams looking at the underlying metrics — how he hit the ball, not what came of it. This year, the results are there to match, making him perhaps the most fearsome power hitter on the market.