• Cast your Esurance All-Star ballot for Ozuna and other #ASGWorthy players
Ozuna has been so good that, along with Christian Yelich and Ichiro Suzuki, the Marlins' outfield has been baseball's best -- and while they've been in that conversation for a few years, realize that such a statement sounds a lot more impressive when you realize how deep of a slump Giancarlo Stanton has been stuck in for weeks. He's been so good that he earned a spot in the Statcast™ Podcast's National League All-Star starting lineup:
Yet it's unavoidable to think back to last summer, when a struggling Ozuna had lost his job and was sent down to Triple-A in early July. All offseason, we heard rumors that Ozuna was on the trading block, though obviously no deal was completed. How did he go from that to this?
As we noted last fall, Ozuna hits the ball hard, and that's a big deal. Of the 372 players who had at least 100 batted balls in 2015, Ozuna's exit velocity was in the top five percent. But he was the only one of the top 20 players to turn those hard-hit balls into below-average production, measured by the advanced stat Weighted Runs Created Plus, which adjusts for ballpark and sets 100 as league average:
Needless to say, it's very difficult to hit the ball that hard and not succeed, unless you're striking out a ton and not making contact at all -- which was not Ozuna's problem. What was his problem was that he was hitting those hard-hit balls into the ground, at least before he was demoted. Ozuna's grounder rate was over 55 percent before his trip to the Minors and 39 percent after he returned.
Ozuna has actually improved his contact skills, striking out 20 percent of the time as compared to last year's 22 percent of the time, and while he's not hitting the ball harder -- still equally as hard -- he's maintained his ability to keep the ball off the ground and in the "line drive zone."
Consider this: Last year, Ozuna hit 38 percent of his batted balls at 10 degrees launch angle or higher, which is the rough dividing line between a grounder or a line drive. This year, that's over 47 percent. That's a big deal; over the past two years, he's slugged .905 on balls at 10 degrees or higher, and slugged .410 on balls hit nine degrees or lower. (Which stands for most hitters, since it's very hard to hit ground ball home runs.) So he's hitting a higher percentage of his batted balls at an angle that's more conducive to power, which is great, and since he's striking out slightly less, there are more of those batted balls to begin with.
From there, the equation is easy. Similar velocity that's not being hit into the ground adds distance. In Ozuna's case, he's added nearly 35 feet on his average batted ball, and that's among the best in baseball:
Most average batted ball distance added, in feet, 2015-16
1. Adam Rosales 36.1
2. Leonys Martin 34.3
3. Ozuna, 34.1
4. Bobby Wilson 33.6
5. Salvador Perez 30.9
Minimum 50 balls in play, both seasons
That list makes sense -- in addition to Ozuna, Perez is having by far his best year, and Martin has already more than doubled last year's homer total in more than 100 fewer plate apperances. But remember, we're trying to explain why Ozuna's good season was foreseeable, so it's not even about 2015 vs. '16. It's about pre- and post-demotion 2015 vs. '16. Before he was sent down, he really was struggling, hitting the ball an average of 188.7 feet, and hitting just 35.7 percent of his balls above 10 degrees. After Ozuna returned, that jumped to 219.5 feet, and 42.8 percent of batted balls over 10 degrees.
Obviously, Ozuna has taken another step forward this year, and with a new coaching staff including hitting legends Don Mattingly and Barry Bonds around, it's easy to point to their influence. It doesn't say here that they haven't helped Ozuna, who appears to have worked well with Bonds. But it does say here that this didn't come out of nowhere, not entirely. Ozuna had a good season in 2014, and a good recovery late in '15. Hitting the ball hard tends to lead to good things. So far for Ozuna, it's led to great things.