Trying To Figure The True Value of Marcell Ozuna

ALSO: UNDERRATED MAX FRIED KEEPS MAKING HIS MARK IN MAJORS

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Pregame Pepper

Did you know ...

Mets manager Casey Stengel to struggling pitcher Tracy Stallard in 1963: “After this season, they’re going to tear down this place (the Polo Grounds) but the way you’re going, the right-field stands will be gone already.”

Johnny Holliday, who did pre- and post-game shows for the Washington Nationals, was the last deejay before New York’s WINS switched to an all-news format more than 50 years ago . . .

Mike Lum traveled with live doves for his magic act . . .

Sandy Koufax threw a no-hitter and got a save in the same season three times: 1962, 1964, and 1965.

Leading Off

Marcell Ozuna: Hurricane Or Just A Little Rain?

By Adam C. MacKinnon

It’s like a gathering storm. As the pitcher winds, the bat waggles quickly in a tight motion. The ball is released, and the leg kick begins. It’s like a combination of Chipper Jones toe-tap and Mike Trout step at the same time. As the ball barrels toward the plate, the majesty that is Marcell Ozuna’s swing begins. Through the television you can almost feel the wind as the bat seems to lumber through the zone, a wood-colored torpedo that found its target more often than not in 2020. Who wouldn’t want to see this poetry in motion wearing their home team’s laundry this coming season?

Possibly this guy.

That isn’t to say that Marcell Ozuna isn’t a good hitter nor to invalidate the fantastic season that he managed to put together for the Atlanta Braves this past season. In his new role as DH for the Braves, his intangible “clubhouse” impact was unmistakably positive, and there’s reasonable enough evidence to believe that his presence in the lineup was a contributing factor for Freddie Freeman’s emergence as the league’s MVP. He was a masterpiece at the plate, even if his fielding work was a lot like listening to jazz (you’re not exactly sure where things will end up, but you’re pretty sure it’ll get there). This is more to say that we’ve seen this movie before, and it’s like they keep re-casting the sequels.

Rewind the clock to 2017. It was a simpler time, when we could, ya know, go to public places and the World Series was won without the aid of trash cans. Up to that point, Marcell Ozuna’s offensive output had been fine, producing a .265/.316/.749 triple slash over three full seasons, but fans were still really waiting for that breakout.

Then, he delivered:

At just 26 years old, Ozuna seemed to have put it together, and was primed to be a perennial all-star, and someone who could be in MVP discussions. Unfortunately, it would seem that what many thought was fire seemed to be more of a flicker and the next two seasons – even after moving his talents to St. Louis – he never seemed to quite live up to that one season, his triple slash falling back to .262/.327/.777 and his OPS+ dipping back to 106.

Then, like so many other things, 2020 happened.

Ozuna seemed to have found the match and the fire was back in full display, and continued all the way through the postseason, where he created his signature moment, taking a “selfie” up the first base line after hitting a decisive home run against the Reds in the Wild Card round. He had arrived…. Again.

All of this in a year where Ozuna took a one year “show me” contract with the Braves, hoping to improve his stock entering free agency in a very thin year, where if he could put it all together, he would emerge as one of the best options. He did everything he set out to do and now is looking to reap the benefits. Fangraphs’ Craig Edwards has him projected to do exactly that, projecting him to get a deal resembling four years and $70M in total. I think he could get well north of that if a bidding war sets in between teams looking for a power bat in a free-agent market that otherwise is very lacking.

At roughly $17.5M per year, that would seem like a bargain if he can mimic his 2017 or 2020 performances, right?

Let’s take a closer look…

When you have a player like Ozuna, who has had two outlier seasons, you look for something to explain what drove those results. If you look at just those two years, then compare them to his other less-impressive campaigns, there’s actually not a lot to point to. Strikeout rate is virtually the same, wOBA has a pretty high variation, but given the difference in sample size between 2017 and 2020, one would think that would even out as well (.444 in 2020 vs. .388 in 2017). The one true standout number between the two seasons could be the most concerning:

Notice those two high points on the graph? This tells us that a lot of his success comes from the ball finding gaps, a trait that could easily be taken from a batter in today’s analytically-driven world, where shifts and data can put a damper on otherwise hard-hit baseballs. Ozuna posted a .355 BABIP in 2017, and a .391 mark in 2020, while the league average hovered right around .295 during those years. Many would argue BABIP is a “luck” stat, and I wouldn’t necessarily say they’re wrong, but if you’re bid up to the neighborhood of $20M a year for four years, are you sure you’re wanting to pin that contract to the hopes that he produces enough luck that translates to 60-70 points above average?

Marcell Ozuna has earned whatever deal he gets, no doubt about it, and calls from Braves fans to re-sign him have been loud and clear. Should he produce the way he showed in 2017 or 2020, then he’d be worth every penny. If he doesn’t, he’s about a league-average batter that you really don’t want to put in the field.

Sometimes, the difference between a hurricane and rainstorm is luck.

Adam C. MacKinnon is founder and senior writer at RomanticAboutBaseball.com, former contributor for Baseball Almanac and Call to the Pen. His first book, Baseball for Kids: A Young Fans Guide to the History of the Game is available now at all major retailers.

Cleaning Up

Unheralded Max Fried Makes Most Of Chance To Copy Idol Koufax (Or At Least Kershaw’s Curve)

By Dan Schlossberg

Think fast! Name two Jewish lefties from Los Angeles.

Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax, a native of Brooklyn who played for the Dodgers on both coasts, comes to mind immediately. But how about Max Fried – the most underrated star pitcher in Major League Baseball?

Thrust into the role of Atlanta ace after Mike Soroka suffered an early-season Achilles injury in 2020, Fried responded with a near-perfect season.

He not only went 7-0 but kept his earned run average under 2.00 until his final start, when he surrendered back-to-back home runs (his first of 2020) in the first inning against the usually-meek Miami Marlins. That happened immediately after the lefty tweaked his ankle while fielding a bunt.

Fried, who earlier spent time on the injured list while recuperating from muscle spasms in his back, finished the year with a 2.25 ERA but, with 56 innings pitched, was four frames short of qualifying for the list of league leaders.

The soft-spoken southpaw has fashioned a fine 24-6 record since his August 2017 arrival in the majors. The only lefty with more wins during that span is Gerrit Cole, who has posted a 27-8 record. Fried’s career ERA now stands at 3.57 but is sinking as he gains experience.

He has also gained confidence – especially in a roundhouse curve that he copied from the playbook of his idol Sandy Koufax (with a few Clayton Kershaw variations). He doesn’t have the speed of Koufax but he does throw a four-seam fastball, slider, and sinker to complement the curve.

Fried, who turns 27 in January, had the curve on full display during the playoffs, which the Braves came within a whisker of winning. He made four starts, dueling Trevor Bauer to a scoreless tie in the first game of the Wild-Card Series and defeating the powerful Dodgers in the opener of the Championship Series. In Game 6, however, he was victimized by a three-run homer as Los Angeles scratched back from a 3-1 deficit in the best-of-seven match.

Fried often found his defense was his best friend. He won his first Gold Glove, ending a six-year run by Zack Greinke, and the Fielding Bible award given annually to the best-fielding pitcher in the majors.

He has 14 pickoffs, tied for most in the majors since his August 2017 arrival in Atlanta.

Fried can hit and run too, though the extension of the designated hitter to the National League deprived him of the batting advantage he would have over most opponents.

“Max does everything,” Atlanta manager Brian Snitker said after a July 30 start at Tampa Bay, when Fried limited Tampa Bay to three hits and a run in 6 2/3. He also added a pickoff of Mike Brosseau at first base. “He can handle the bat, he can field his position, and the pick-off move is a weapon. I just see the confidence in how he’s slowing the game down. He’s growing.”

Unlike the boisterous Bauer, Fried is quiet, modest, and handsome – more Koufax qualities – and, like the legendary lefty, has strong Los Angeles ties. He even has a full head of hair, which Koufax still sports at age 85.

Used strictly in relief during the unsuccessful NL Division Series against the Dodgers in 2018, Fried now ranks as the ace of the Atlanta staff, even ahead of the injury-delayed Soroka.

A one-time top amateur draft choice of the San Diego Padres, Fried survived Tommy John surgery and a surprise trade to the Braves on Dec. 19, 2014. The swap sent Fried, Dustin Peterson, Jace Peterson and Mallex Smith to Atlanta for Justin Upton and minor-leaguer Aaron Northcraft. In retrospect, it was the best thing that happened to Fried since his Bar Mitzvah.

Don’t look now but if the 2021 season returns to the 162-game format, the 6'4" southpaw has a superb shot at 20 wins, thanks to the heavy-hitting Atlanta lineup. He’ll be a great help as the team seeks its fourth straight NL East title – and its first pennant since 1999.

Behind Fried and Soroka, Snitker expects to fill out the rotation with a trio of 2020 rookies, Ian Anderson, Kyle Wright, and Bryse Wilson – and maybe an inexpensive veteran the Braves can find in the free-agent bargain bin. Adam Wainwright, who is from Atlanta, and Jon Lester, who lives there now, are strong candidates, along with former Brave Charlie Morton.

HERE’S THE PITCH Weekend Editor Dan Schlossberg of Fair Lawn, NJ has been a rabid Braves fan since the 1957 Milwaukee Braves beat the Yankees in the World Series. Dan’s e.mail address is ballauthor@gmail.com but his Twitter handle is #braves1.

Timeless Trivia

When players in both leagues won Triple Crowns of pitching in 2011, that was the first time that happened since 1924 and only the third time in baseball history. The pitchers who led their leagues in wins, strikeouts, and ERA were Justin Verlander (AL) and Clayton Kershaw (NL) . . .

Matt Cain is the only pitcher to score a run while crafting a perfect game . . .

Josh Hamilton (remember him?) holds the American League record for total bases in a game (18, thanks to four home runs and a double for Texas vs. Baltimore) . . .

Alex Rodriguez hit more grand-slams (24) than any other player . . .

The Montreal Expos drew 748,550 fans – an average of 9,300 per game – in their last season.

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Know Your Editors

HERE’S THE PITCH is published every day but Sunday and holidays. Brian Harl [bchrom831@gmail.com] handles Monday and Tuesday editions, Elizabeth Muratore [nymfan97@gmail.com] does Wednesday and Thursday, and Dan Schlossberg [ballauthor@gmail.com] edits the weekend editions on Friday and Saturday. Readers are encouraged to contribute comments, articles, and letters to the editor. HTP reserves the right to edit for brevity, clarity, and good taste.

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