Marcell Ozuna is a free agent outfielder who FanGraphs ranked as #7 of the Top 50 2020 free agents. Should the Blue Jays have Ozuna on their radar?
With the likes of Randal Grichuk, Lourdes Gurriel Jr., Teoscar Hernandez, Billy McKinney, and others, the Blue Jays have more than enough bodies to fill the various outfield spots in 2020. However, what if Ozuna (aka The Big Bear) was acquired to play left field in 2020? What would his signing mean for Gurriel Jr., who is slotted to play left in 2020? For these heady topics regarding the impact of an Ozuna signing on Gurriel Jr., I will leave that to colleague Jim Scott to address in a follow-up article. I will concentrate on whether Ozuna is an attractive target.
I recall a review of the third movie in the Star Trek franchise, The Search for Spock. Contained in the film’s critique, the reviewer provided a spoiler alert before asking a simple question: you didn’t really think that the crew of the Enterprise would fail to find Spock, did you? Similarly, in order for Jim to follow with his Gurriel Jr. article, I better conclude that Ozuna is a worthwhile target. Spoiler alert: I will.
Ozuna debuted with the Marlins on April 30, 2013, at the age of 22. In the 2013-2016 period, he produced a 104 wRC+ and a 10.0 fWAR. The Big Bear exploded in 2017 with a 143 wRC+ and a 5.0 fWAR. Ozuna was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals on December 14, 2017; he did not replicate his excellent 2017 for the Cards. Ozuna posted a 2.8 fWAR and a 107 wRC+ in 2018; in 2019, he followed that up with a 2.6 fWAR and a 110 wRC+. Compared to his breakout 2017 campaign, Ozuna’s stint as a Cardinal was solid but disappointing.
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After the conclusion of the 2019 post-season, the Cardinals made a $17.8 million Qualifying Offer to Ozuna, which he declined to accept. If he signs with a team other than the Cardinals, Ozuna’s signing is subject to the draft-pick compensation rules.
Table 1 presents some measures of offense; fWAR is also included in the data. The highlights are as follows:
- In 2017, Ozuna was no worse than 91st percentile in terms of OBP, wRC+, wOBA, and fWAR
- His OBP in 2018 and 2019 were 59th and 60th percentile, respectively
- In 2018 and 2019, Ozuna’s wRC+ fell from 2017’s mark to 65th and 69th percentile, respectively
- His wOBA was 64th percentile in 2018 and 68th in 2017
On the surface, Ozuna’s 2018 and 2019 campaigns do not suggest that he should be on the Blue Jays radar. However, Expected Weighted On-base Average (“xwOBA”) is the factor that tips the scales in favour of Ozuna’s attractiveness as a free agent target.
xwOBA review time
"Expected Weighted On-base Average (xwOBA) is formulated using exit velocity, launch angle and, on certain types of batted balls, Sprint Speed.Knowing the expected outcomes of each individual batted ball from a particular player over the course of a season — with a player’s real-world data used for factors such as walks, strikeouts and times hit by a pitch — allows for the formation of said player’s xwOBA based on the quality of contact, instead of the actual outcomes.xwOBA is more indicative of a player’s skill than regular wOBA, as xwOBA removes defense from the equation. Hitters, and likewise pitchers, are able to influence exit velocity and launch angle but have no control over what happens to a batted ball once it is put into play.Statcast"
Ozuna’s wOBA and xwOBA
In 2017, 2018, and 2019, Ozuna’s xwOBA placed him in the 89th, 89th, and 94th percentile of all Major League hitters, respectively. However, only in 2017 did The Big Bear’s wOBA approach the level of his xwOBA. In 2018 and 2019, Ozuna was in the top decile in terms of his xwOBA exceeding his wOBA. During those two seasons, his batted balls had the exit velocity and launch angle (together with the other xwOBA factors) to place him among the best in the Majors. However, due to luck, karma, the excellence of defenders and/or other reasons, his wOBA lagged his xwOBA by a large margin. Starting in 2017, Ozuna has hit the ball well enough to be in, or very near, the top decile of all hitters. I expect that Ozuna’s wOBA rebounds from its 2018-2019 level and moves towards his 2017 mark.
Table 2 contains information that affirms the view that Ozuna is one of the better hitters when it comes to making solid contact. His 12.6% Barrel% is much better than the MLB average mark of 6.3%; The Big Bear’s 2019 Hard Hit % was 49.2%, which is superior to the 34.5% MLB average. Also, his Line Drive % was 26.3%, which topped the MLB average of 25.5%. It should be noted that all three of these metrics (Barrel %, Hard Hit %, and Line Drive %) were higher in 2019 than their comparable 2017 marks.
Person 1: What do they call the designated hitter in the National League?
Person 2: The left fielder.
In terms of defense (see Table 2), Ozuna does not fare well in terms of Outs Above Average despite his 63rd percentile sprint speed. His outfielder jump ranks in the 35th percentile. However, DRS, UZR, and UZR/150 show him to be better than average. Overall, I think Ozuna’s defense plays well enough in left field given his batting skills.
Why is Ozuna a fit for the Blue Jays?
If you assume that Ozuna’s xwOBA will be similar to his 2017-2019 mark, and a wOBA that approximates his xwOBA, he will post better numbers next season. Both Depth Charts and Steamer project a 119 wRC+ for The Big Bear in 2020. Add his approximately average defense to the equation and the acquisition of Ozuna would improve the Blue Jays outfield. Table 3 illustrates that Ozuna’s 2019 was better than those of Gurriel Jr., Hernandez, and Grichuk in almost all metrics. Also, there is not a large age difference between Ozuna and the listed Blue Jays. Using June 30 as the cut-off date, Ozuna would be the oldest of these four players in 2020: Ozuna – 29; Gurriel Jr. – 26; Hernandez – 27; and Grichuk – 28.
The contract analysis has three steps:
- Determine a non-Blue Jays specific contract value for Ozuna
- Address Blue Jays-specific issues
- Evaluate compensation draft pick and the reduction of international signing bonus pool money (“Bonus Pool”) ramifications
For a detailed analysis of the three steps noted, please refer to Schedule A.
A summary of these steps is as follows:
- Before considering Steps 2 or 3, a rational, non-Blue Jays specific contract for Ozuna would be a 4-year, $70 million deal (see Table 4)
- Assuming that the Blue Jays have to pay a 20%-premium to attract free agents (taxes and other factors), a 4-year, $84.0 million contract would be reasonable
- The estimated dollar value of the forfeited draft pick is $6.6 million
- The dollar value of the Bonus Pool reduction is approximately $3 million
It is important to note that a reasonable contract value falls within a range of other reasonable contract values; call it a zone of reasonableness. There is not a precise number for a contract; it is not like going to the grocery store to buy broccoli. For example, my upper-end for a 4-year deal for Ozuna would be a $90-million deal. I could justify that with a projected 11.3 fWAR over that term.
The last word
Ozuna is a player that would improve the outfield of the Blue Jays. His ability to make hard contact on pitches is markedly above average. The Big Bear’s superior ball-striking talent in 2018 and 2019 were affected by bad fortune and other factors. Also, based upon projected contract terms, it appears that he could be signed to a reasonable deal. While Ozuna’s signing would have ramifications for the incumbent left fielder (Gurriel Jr.), Ozuna is a worthwhile free-agent target for the Blue Jays.