The Cincinnati Reds are reportedly among several teams that are pursuing outfielder Marcell Ozuna as they gear up for free agency that will follow the World Series. Maybe. The information initially caught my attention when it was retweeted be Hector Gomez who is the sports director at Z101 Digital in the Dominican Republic. Here’s the tweet he sent out:
According to Dominican sports journalist @Adanlesther OF Marcell Ozuna could get a 160M$/7 years contract. Reds, White Sox, Marlins, Blue Jays, Cardinals, Royals, Athletics and Mariners on pursuit as of now.@z101digital @ZDeportes https://t.co/UtUPe8lcRJ
— Héctor Gómez (@hgomez27) October 21, 2019
The contract numbers are what caught my eye, even more so than the inclusion of the Reds being mentioned. What gets interesting here, and does make me a bit skeptical of what’s going on here is that as far as I can tell, Adan Lesther isn’t a sports journalist. I had to use google translate for his twitter profile, but it notes “Event animator and Masters of Ceremony. Marcell Ozuna PR,” and that doesn’t exactly tell me that he’s a journalist. That doesn’t mean he’s not right on the teams that could be interested in Marcell Ozuna, though. But that he literally listed Marcell Ozuna PR in his bio, and nearly all of his tweets in the last week are talking about Ozuna and why he’s underrated certainly is something.
But let’s ignore that whole 6-years and $170M contract for now. That’s just one that doesn’t seem to hold up in today’s unfortunate standard of not paying players anything like they used to. Instead, let’s look at Marcell Ozuna and see if he’s a good fit for the Cincinnati Reds at a contract that seems far more likely to be offered (and we’ll not really get into what that is, because honestly who knows at this point?).
It’s fair to say that everyone believes that the Cincinnati Reds will be exploring outfield options this offseason. As noted on these pages multiple times already since the season ended, the Reds need to add offense, and plenty of it if they plan to contend for the playoffs. On that front, Marcell Ozuna fits. He’s not a difference maker in the middle of the lineup, and shot of an outlier 2017 season, he’s never been that. But he has been an above-average hitter in five of the last six years, with the one year he wasn’t coming back in 2015. In the last two seasons since being traded to St. Louis he’s posted a 106 and 107 OPS+.
This season with the juiced baseball he hit .241/.328/.472. That’s the lowest average of his career, and it’s not really close. But it also came with an also career low and it’s not close BABIP of just .259. For his career his BABIP has been .315 – so he was very likely very unlucky during the season and should rebound quite well from that, assuming his other numbers and peripherals start the same.
We mention the juiced baseball because it matters. There’s no information out there about which baseball we’re going to see in 2020. The one used in the regular season in 2019 was very different than an already juiced baseball that was used in 2017 and 2018. But in the playoffs the 2019 baseball isn’t acting at all like the same one that was used in the regular season. That’s being brought up because Marcell Ozuna posted a .231 Isolated Power in 2019 – the second best mark he’s ever had, and nearly 50 points better than his third best season. He missed some time this season, playing in 130 games but still had 23 doubles, a triple, and hit 29 home runs.
There were two areas in 2019 where Marcell Ozuna was clearly better than he’d ever been before. On the bases he stole 12 bases in 14 attempts. He entered the 2019 season with 14 career stolen bases. With that said, his “baserunning” stat at Fangraphs was just 1.6 – tied for the second best of his career, but far below the 4.4 he posted in 2018.
The other area, and a far more important one that Marcell Ozuna stood out in 2019 was his walk rate. Entering the 2019 season his career walk rate was just 6.9%, with a career best rate of 9.4% coming back in 2017. But in the most recent season that rate jumped to 11.3%, making his on-base percentage far less reliant on his ability to hit for a solid or high average. Despite the lowest average of his career, thanks to a big increase in walks, his on-base percentage of .330 was still the second best mark of his career.
The Reds had a problem getting on base in 2019. That was one of the larger issues at play when it came to scoring runs – they simply lacked opportunities. On one hand, Marcell Ozuna’s increased walk rate is good to see. But if it’s a blip on the radar rather than a true improvement, and his BABIP doesn’t quite rebound like expected, that could be a problem. Diving into his plate discipline stats at Fangraphs we do see some small improvements in many areas. He swung a little less out of the zone. His swing rate in the zone was down from the previous two seasons, but right in line with his career mark. He did see the lowest rate of pitches in the zone during 2019 for his career. Overall, he was swinging less at both strikes and non-strikes than the last two seasons. There may actually be a small improvement in skillset here, rather than just randomness in how pitchers were attacking him.
Another interesting thing to note is that for most of the season, Marcell Ozuna was a very good, well above-average hitter. At the end of August he was hitting .265/.343/.509. And then he went into a huge slump. In the final 29 games of the year he hit an abysmal .135/.256/.297, going 15-111 with 5 home runs and 18 walks. His BABIP in that span was somehow .130. It tanked the strong season he was having, leaving him as simply an above-average hitter on the year.
All of that to say, that yes, Marcell Ozuna would help the Reds offense improve. But there are some questions about just how much improvement that would be. There are multiple reasons to think that the 2020 season for Ozuna should be an improvement over the one he had in both 2018 and 2019. Between the low BABIP and the improvement in his plate discipline numbers, the reasonable expectation would be that the offensive output would go up. And at 29-years-old in 2020, there’s no reason to expect a decline in production due to age.
Enough about the offense, though. Defense matters too, even if it’s not talked about as much. The numbers don’t exactly tell a strong story. At least for 2019. There are a lot of different numbers, and ways that defense is measured today. And every last one of them is questionable for their own reason. Baseball-Reference rated him out at -0.4 in their defensive WAR for the season. He had been slightly above-average the previous two years, but negative in the two years before that.
Fangraphs rated out Marcell Ozuna as a 0.0 defensive WAR player. On the surface that doesn’t sound good. But when comparing him to the other 16 qualified left fielders, that was actually the third best mark in baseball. His UZR/150 is tops among the left fielder group.
But then there’s the Statcast numbers. There were 92 qualified outfielders in 2019. Marcell Ozuna rated 83rd out of that group at 8 outs below-average. That was right there with Ian Desmond, Ryan Braun, and Jesse Winker. That said, in 2018 he rated 54th out of 87 at -1. That’s a pretty big difference.
When there are situations where the defensive metrics aren’t all in agreement, that’s when you want to lean on your scouts. And it’s also highly likely that the teams have better statistical data to work with, too. That data just isn’t available publicly. The public data has a rather wide variety of just how good or bad Marcell Ozuna is. If the internal data is more precise, more accurate – it could make a big difference. Rating out as a solid, or even good defender changes a lot of the overall value if the other side is the -8 that the Statcast Outs Above Average says. But if that -8 is more accurate, and the UZR/150 that has him at the top of the left fielders group is wrong, that’s a rather big swing in value, too.
Spending money to upgrade the team feels better than trading players and also spending money. In one scenario the Reds are losing players and dollars. In the other it’s just the dollars that are leaving. As noted above, it just feels unlikely that in today’s market that Marcell Ozuna would get $160M and 7 years. But there’s probably a set of years and dollars that makes sense for Cincinnati and Ozuna. And unlike some other proposed acquisitions, this would be for multiple years.