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Marcell Ozuna takes to left field

Marcell Ozuna, much like Adam Eaton last season, has seen his defensive numbers rise after moving from center field to left.

MLB: Miami Marlins at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Center field is a rough gig. The outfield is your domain and the other two guys out there are just playing in it. From 2014 to 2016, Marcell Ozuna played 374 games in center field for Miami. But this season, they booted him over to left field, where his defensive metrics have (so far) improved. Ozuna’s 2017 is shaping up to look, defensively, a lot like Adam Eaton’s 2016.

Now, let’s not pretend Eaton and Ozuna are similar players. They’re not. Ozuna is 6’1” and homer-happy, while Eaton is maybe 5’7” and more of a walks-and-singles hitter with occasional pop. Let’s compare their 2016s at the plate:

Eaton and Ozuna, 2016

Player PA wOBA HR BB% K% wRC+
Player PA wOBA HR BB% K% wRC+
Eaton 706 .344 19 8.9% 16.3% 115
Ozuna 608 .397 23 7.1% 18.9% 105

Not a lot of similarities to point out. I can totally understand why no one would ever put these two players in the same category. As Ozuna’s last two seasons saw his defense take a nosedive, though, I couldn’t help but think of this one other center fielder I have some familiarity with. Look at Adam Eaton’s 2014 and 2015 seasons in the field and compare them to his 2016:

Eaton’s defensive progression

Year UZR DRS % Routine Plays Made % Likely Plays Made Def (Fangraphs)
Year UZR DRS % Routine Plays Made % Likely Plays Made Def (Fangraphs)
2014 -3.3 11 99.7% 88.2% -1.6
2015 -10.2 -14 99.1% 33.3% -8.8
2016 22.5 20 100.0% 87.0% 18.0

In 2015, he was this guy in center:

And in 2016 he became this guy in right:

Now, the 2015 downturn was almost too drastic to be believed. The numbers made it look like Adam Eaton was playing half the games blindfolded. But while single-season defensive metrics can be kind of iffy, he was already an overall negative in 2014; the next season, it just got a heck of a lot worse. So can we surmise that Adam Eaton’s positive numbers the next season were the result of moving him to a corner spot?

Almost certainly. He was still learning and growing, and his fielding percentage has always trended upward. But the drastic uptick that came with the move to right field was impossible to ignore.

You may be wondering: what does any of that have to do with Marcell Ozuna? Well, Ozuna, too, is trending upward since being moved to a corner. He had a 2015 that was negative in terms of overall defense, specifically UZR and DRS. That overall score bounced back into the realm of positivity the following season. His zone rating showed some marginal improvement in 2016, but his total runs saved dipped even lower. But now, his numbers are all trending up:

Ozuna’s defensive progression

Year UZR DRS % Routine Plays Made % Likely Plays Made Def (Fangraphs)
Year UZR DRS % Routine Plays Made % Likely Plays Made Def (Fangraphs)
2015 -1.5 -3 99.2% 72.7% -0.6
2016 0.7 -5 99.7% 75.0% 1.6
2017 5.3 7 98.3% 60.0% 2.7

Already he’s been more valuable than in either 2016 or 2015, and his 2.7 Def is the product of just a third of a season. There has been a slight downturn in the total routine and likely plays made, but he’s got plenty of time to bump those numbers up a bit, and the overall picture is still one of drastic improvement. In fact, I believe there is an even bigger increase to come because unlike the mighty mouse, Ozuna has had some seasons where he shined defensively. In 2013 he appeared in 70 games for the Marlins, and FanGraphs has his Defense that year rated at 8.4. When he played in 153 games the following season, FanGraphs had him at 4.9.

Unlike Eaton, he’s shown his value as a fielder in the past. He’s played a full season and put up positive numbers. That gives me even more hope that Ozuna will fully embrace left field and play up to his capability. Baseball-Reference has him, so far, at a .975 fielding percentage and puts his DRS at sixteen runs above average. (That number was -12 last season.) So expect to see a lot more of this:

By using Adam Eaton as a case study in rejected center fielders, I believe there is a good chance that Marcell Ozuna dramatically improves upon his numbers from last season. Defensive metrics may be difficult to wrangle on a season-by-season basis, but Ozuna had been trending the wrong way. After being reassigned to left field, he’s on the up-and-up again.