Last night, none of the Miami Marlins' position players did a good job of hitting as the team was shut out by, of all pitchers, Jeff Locke of the Pittsburgh Pirates. That includes Marcell Ozuna, whose on-base streak ended as he was trying to wrap up one of the best months in Marlins history. A few weeks ago, we were raving about Christian Yelich's on-base streak and how well he was playing, but even if you only count his starts and ignore his random pinch-hit plate appearance in late April, his streak only ran 31 games. Such a mark was tied for the 13th-longest streak of games started with at least one time on base.
Marcell Ozuna one-upped the perennial on-base titan with a 36-game on-base streak, 38 games if you count only starts!
In some ways, the fact that Ozuna did this is surprising. Yelich's presence on there is intuitive. He has a knack for drawing walks, he avoids pop-ups well and has a sky-high BABIP as a result. Ozuna, on the other hand, is a conundrum on this list. He strikes out a lot, does not have an objectively strong approach at the plate, and while he has gotten high BABIPs in his career, there is not an obvious reason why. How did Ozuna do this?
Any stretch of this kind of play is going to have good fortune involved. Ozuna hit .388/.441/.680 during that time frame between April 18 and May 29 when his starter-based times on base streak ended. He struck out in 19.2 percent of those plate appearances, a small bit below his usual 21 percent rate. Similarly, he walked 8.6 percent of the time, a smidge above his usual rate.
Most of the good play came from his .449 BABIP. When you hit that well on balls in play, part of that is going to be getting a few balls to sneak past when you don't expect them to. A few balls get by on a shift in the other way, a defender stumbles on a ball that might have otherwise been fielded, and you can keep a streak alive. But part of that success also came on where those balls eventually ended up landing. According to StatCast data, Ozuna hit a lot of balls in a specific place only singles live.
Ozuna has been wearing out the middle of the field with line drive base hits that are just out of reach of outfielders. He's hitting a ton of balls up the middle rather than to the left side of the infield, where he lived a lot more last season. A lot of those balls are either sneaky grounders that get by, hard-hit grounders that are guaranteed singles, or liners that are landing in front of where outfielders usually stand. Either way, going up the middle is a great way to ensure getting hits.
Compare this to Yelich's 31-game streak.
Despite the fact that both hitters were nailing the baseball at velocities around 93 mph, Yelich's game was far more dependent on ground balls. He hit a lot of shots up the middle with some line drive success to the left field side, the opposite way. Ozuna lined the ball up the middle and seemed to hit it deeper overall as well, with more balls close to the wall.
That is the other advantage that Ozuna has that Yelich simply does not. While Yelich's growth is showing in terms of angling the ball better, especially if he catches the inside fastball and turns on it, Ozuna has taken that a step further. Ozuna's average launch angle on his batted balls reached nearly 10 degrees on his streak, whereas Yelich's streak had an average mark of 2.4 degrees. Ozuna had twice as many batted balls in the recognized "sweet spot" of launch angle between 22 and 28 degrees, where balls most often become liners for extra-base hits and home runs, as Yelich did in his run. Hitting more balls at the sort of velocities that these two are producing is conducive to extra-base success and is one of the reasons Marlins fans want to see Yelich hit it more on a line.
Ozuna and Yelich are distinctly different players who do things differently. Yelich, for his part, is a player with unyielding consistency. He has an established skillset, and even as that skillset is growing, it was a prediction that many Marlins fans had already made. Ozuna has always been a wild card, which made this incredible run to the top of the hitting charts in baseball one of the most intriguing. Is it just one hot month? Has he learned something different? Is that approach ever really changing? Does it need to? Even when Ozuna is giving us a glimpse of greatness, we still have so many questions to ask about his future? It seems to me that track is still open to interpretation.