The Miami Marlins have the best outfield in baseball, and the components of that top outfield are all elite in their own way. Giancarlo Stanton is an elite bopper and the owner of the richest contract in American sports history. Christian Yelich is a Gold Glove winner in left field, a hitter with an excellent approach, and someone who seems destined to do all the little things decently well. Finally, we have Marcell Ozuna, who may be the highest-variance player of the three.
Both Yelich and Ozuna came to the league at around the same time, having both debuted in 2013, and had a similar amount of work that year. So why is Yelich considered a solid part of the new Marlins core like Jose Fernandez, who has more than proven himself, and Ozuna is being considered a key to success and a wild card for the 2015 season? As we discuss our first 2015 Marlins Key to Success, it is all about Ozuna's variance.
Ozuna and Yelich were similarly valued last season, but they did it in different ways. Ozuna manufactured his value from power and from his reasonable defense played in center field. In 2013, he failed to flash the pop that got him recognition as a top prospect in the years past. In 2010, he caught eyes by hitting 21 bombs in less than 300 plate appearances in the New York Penn League. In 2011 and 2012, he essentially repeated performances in Low- and High-A despite drastically different run-scoring environments. He blasted nearly identical home run counts in both season, reaching 23 and 24 homers those years. After just three homers in 291 plate appearances in the bigs in 2013, the Marlins had to be a little concerned about his power.
But he alleviated all of those concerns by reaching the 23-homer mark again last season. Ozuna hit homers and fly balls at an excellent distance for a power hitter and found a way to sustain a decent batting average despite his warts. He crushed line drives at fierce speeds despite getting fewer of them last year than the year before. His production was 14 percent better than the league average.
However, Ozuna still faces significant issues. He is still free swinging his way into a lot of strikeouts. After appearing to make decent contact in 2013, he regressed to his expected high strikeout totals. Ozuna also swings at too many pitches out of the strike zone and has difficulty discerning balls from strikes. For a player who has issues with contact, that could be something pitchers exploit.
The Optimistic View
Ozuna has had a full season in the majors to adjust to the game. He showed improvement in terms of at least swinging at fewer pitches last season, which may lead to better selectivity going forward. Stanton had the same contact and selectivity issues in the past. After his rookie season, he maintained a rate of swings on pitches in the zone at above 60 percent, but dropped his out-of-zone swing percentage to at or below 30 percent in the last two seasons, his age-23 and 24 campaigns. If pitchers try to attack Ozuna in a similar fashion as they did to Stanton, throwing more junk out of the zone, Ozuna has a friendly face to his left in the outfield everyday with whom to discuss this approach.
You could maybe see Ozuna's contact improve slightly if his selectivity takes a turn for the better. But even if that does not happen significantly (Stanton still strikes out at a huge rate now), an uptick in power might solve all of these problems. Ozuna may still be developing and growing his strength, but a simple tip from Stanton may help there too. If Ozuna can decrease his early high grounder rates as Stanton started doing since 2011, when he topped out at 45 percent, he may be able to coax a bit more power and home runs out of his swing.
Ozuna likely will never reach Stanton's power levels, but his raw strength could coax out a 30-homer campaign sometime in his career. Could a Nelson Cruz (.266/.327/.497, .355 wOBA since 2012) or Adam Jones (.284/.321/.489, .350 wOBA) be a possibility for Ozuna as soon as next season? With his glove in center field, that would be a strong weapon for Miami.
The Pessimist View
On the other hand, could Ozuna struggle to find the strike zone and decline instead of advancing? There are large swaths of players who got chances to bat in the majors because of power and position but who could not figure out how to manage the strike zone. J.P. Arencibia hit 49 home runs in 1091 plate appearances over the last three years (22 per 500 plate appearances) but could not stay on the field because of a mammoth 29 percent strikeout rate. Dayan Viciedo is a power-laden left fielder with a .175 ISO and 60 homers in 1579 plate appearances since 2012, but he was designated for assignment this offseason due to a bad overall line of .250/.294/.425 (.313 wOBA).
Ozuna can even discuss this with a current teammate in Michael Morse, who almost fell out of the league entirely due to this exact problem. Morse is an extreme hacker with a career 52 percent swing rate, he hits a lot of grounders for a power-based hitter, and he had a horrific season in 2013 that could have cost him a regular job in the majors. The Giants gave him a chance and he rebounded, but with his high strikeout and low walk rates, he is a bad BABIP season from falling completely out of favor.
Can Ozuna keep up his BABIP, particularly on grounders, like Morse has in the past? Is Ozuna hitting them harder than most or has he been more fortuitous in the last two years? Those are questions he has to answer in 2015. He put up a great 2014 year, and he looks poised to become the next outfield star in Miami. But unlike the disciplined Yelich, who has a better chance to repeat his work at the plate and on the field because of his tremendous approach, Ozuna remains a wild card. If he can pump his game up, he can be a player on the caliber of Adam Jones. If not, his batting line might suffer and he will depend more on his defense in center field.