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Turnaround: Marcell Ozuna Is Changing His Hitting Patterns, and It’s Working

Marcell Ozuna had a blast over the weekend. His wife and three kids arrived from Miami for a two-month stay in St. Louis. This is happy news; at least for a while there will be no more empty nights spent home alone, brooding over slumps.

As Ozuna told reporters, “When my family is here, I play really, really different.”

The gregarious left fielder activated his power bat, cracking his first two homers at Busch Stadium including a first-inning grand slam on Sunday.  Ozuna’s shots to the ozone layer helped the Cardinals win three of four games from Pittsburgh. Ozuna went 5 for 10 against the Pirates with the two homers, five RBIs, three walks, and three runs scored.

The Cardinals and their fans have been keeping a watchful eye on The Big Bear, to see when he’d emerge to do some serious damage. And what Ozuna did to the Pirates qualifies as an official bear sighting.

Was this a matter of mauling a flat sinker for a Saturday homer, then following up by attacking a hanging sider for the Sunday slam? Or was this a season relaunch?

Hmm.

I’m inclined to go with the latter.  But before I explain why, let me issue a warning … to myself .

Ozuna seems to be in the process of rectifying flaws in his hitting approach, and that will lead  to power production. But one bad trend remains; he’s still hitting too many ground balls.

According to Inside Edge, Ozuna has a ground ball rate of 58.8 percent over the last 14 days (12 games), tied for the 7th-highest percentage in MLB over that time. The league average for GB rate is 42.7%. Even higher are Ozuna’s ground ball percentages against fastballs (59.1%), and starting pitchers (61.5%) over the last two weeks. And higher still (66.7%) against pitches thrown 94 mph or faster.

The only difference is the kiss of good luck on batted ground balls. Over the last 14 days Ozuna has eight hits in 20 at-bats (.400) when drilling a grounder. That’s substantially higher than the league average of .245 on ground balls. And if Ozuna keeps skimming hard-hit ground balls, his luck will turn back the other way … and bring down his batting average. That’s just the way it works.

Still, Ozuna is stirring. In his last 21 games and 83 plate appearances dating back to May 10, Ozuna is batting .319 with a .402 onbase percentage and .458 slugging pct. for an .861 OPS. More indicative is his park adjusted runs created (wRC+) of 143 that puts him 43% above league average offensively during this bounce-back stretch.

We’ve explained Ozuna’s early hitting-related struggles a couple of times tis season.

To briefly recap:

  • Too jumpy at the plate; not taking enough walks.
  • A high volume of hard contact, largely wasted by the inflated ground-ball rate.
  • A significant increase in pull rate, a deviation from last season’s disciplined hit-to-all-fields philosophy in Miami. The smart approach helped Ozuna crank 37 homers, drive in 124 runs, and slug .548.
  • Losing the battle against fastballs … in large part because Ozuna was off balance in lunging to pull pitches.

OK, so other than the ground ball rate which is still a problem …

What’s changed for Ozuna?

Plenty. Take a look…

1. The plate discipline is returning. Ozuna has a 12% walk rate (very good!) and 8.4% strikeout rate since May 10. According to Inside Edge, Ozuna has only two strikeouts in his last 42 plate appearances (4.8%.). The league strikeout rate over the last two weeks is 21%. And over the past seven days, Ozuna’s “chase” rate on pitches out of the strike zone was 5.9%, tied for the lowest in the majors. The league average: 28.5%.

2. Ozuna’s pull-party madness has cooled:  Over the last 21 games Ozuna has a pull rate of 32%, has hit the ball to the center-middle 43% of the time, and has gone opposite (right) field at a rate of 25%. Over the last 30 days Ozuna has pulled only 19% of the fastballs he’s put in play, the third-lowest rate by a MLB hitter over that time. And over the past two weeks, his pull rate on fastballs is even lower at 13.6%. Against all pitches, Ozuna has pulled just 26.5% of balls he’s put into play over the last 14 days; that’s tied for the lowest pull rate in MLB over that time and is well below the league average of 46.2%.

2a. On the opposite side of this (pun intended), Ozuna has hit to the opposite field with 38.7% of the balls he’s put into play when facing a right-handed pitcher over the last 14 days.  Over the same time frame, his opposite field rate against fastballs on balls in play is 54.5%.

3. Go ahead and throw him a fastball. Not only is Ozuna batting .476 (10 for 21) on fastballs over the last 14 days, tied for 5th best among MLB hitters over that time, but here’s a lot of good stuff from Inside Edge:

Ozuna has put 64.7% of his swings in play on fastballs over the last 14 days; 4th highest in MLB.

He’s put 100% of his swings in play (10/10) on low fastballs over the last 14 days; the highest among MLB hitters. And he hasn’t missed in 12 swings on fastballs away over the last 14 days; that’s tied for best among MLB hitters.

Ozuna has put 66.7% of his swings in play on fastballs away over the last 14 days; 5th highest among hitters. He’s swung and missed only twice on the last 34 fastballs pitched to him. j

Ozuna is batting .417 (5-for-12) and slugging .750 on pitches 94 mph or greater over the last 14 days.

Now, just wait until Ozuna starts turning some of those grounders into fly balls that travel far. And then we’ll know the Big Bear is all the way back.

Thanks for reading …

–Bernie

More – Randy’s Cardinals Report Card: They’re not Great and They’re Not Terrible