Whether or not the National League has the designated hitter once again in 2021 may prove quite crucial to the free agent case of Marcell Ozuna.
On October 22, a report from LaVelle E. Neal II at the Star Tribune suggested that the DH could remain only in the American League next year. Any changes to the rules in the NL would need to happen through bargaining between the players and league, which, as of this writing, still haven’t happened yet. With that said, however, Buster Olney reported on November 8 that it remains a “safe bet” that we’ll get another season devoid of pitchers hitting in the Senior Circuit.
While I certainly do foresee the DH remaining in the NL in 2021, nothing is set in stone until the players and league officially agree upon this permanent rule change. And that could prove to be very important in the case of someone like Ozuna, who made 39 of his 60 starts last season as a National League DH.
This year, Ozuna bet on himself, and it paid off. In his contract season with the Cardinals, 2019, Ozuna had a good year, but didn’t really enter the offseason as a top free agent target, ranking 11th on MLB Trade Rumors’ Top-50 Free Agents, for example. He slashed .241/.328/.472 with 29 home runs and a 109 wRC+ in 2019, roughly in line with his 2018 performance, but still far from what we believed to be his peak. In Ozuna’s most productive season, 2017, he played like one of the best players in the sport, posting a 143 wRC+ and producing 5.0 WAR, ranking 20th among position players.
So, in a prove-yourself-style contract, Ozuna inked a one-year, $18 million pact with the Braves in late-January, adding another impact bat to a lineup already featuring the likes of Ronald Acuña Jr., Freddie Freeman and Ozzie Albies. The Braves went on to score the second-most runs in baseball and post the third-best wRC+. While their pitching in the postseason was certainly excellent, their offense is what carried them to the NLCS.
Without a doubt, Ozuna was a big part of that. In his best offensive season to date, Ozuna tore through the East’s pitching, slashing .338/.431/.636 with 18 home runs and a 179 wRC+. In just 60 games, Ozuna matched his 2019 WAR total of 2.5. Ozuna was one of just three players (Mike Yastrzemski and José Ramírez were the others) to put up at least 2 WAR in 2019 and at least match that total in 2020, a season about one-third as long.
In almost every aspect of his offensive game, Ozuna ranked near the top of the leaderboards. He led the National League in home runs and finished third in both wOBA and wRC+. Beyond his power numbers, Ozuna also walked more often, and, with that, posted the third-best on-base percentage in the NL. At least in the 60-game sprint, Ozuna had an elite on-base and power combination that made him one of the best all-around offensive players in baseball.
And there’s plenty of reason to think that it’ll stick, too. Luck certainly drove a portion of Ozuna’s success — no player will carry a .391 BABIP in the long-run — but tangible changes do show up in the underlying data. He hit the ball harder than ever, posting a 93.0 mph average exit velocity (ranking 12th in baseball), while putting fewer than 40 percent of balls on the ground for the first time in his career. Hitting the ball hard and hitting the ball in the air is a simple recipe for success, so it’s not really a shock to see that Ozuna also had the third-best expected wOBA in the majors and the sixth-best expected wOBA on contact. If Ozuna continues to hit like this, the BABIP won’t really matter. An Ozuna without the same luck is still one of the best hitters in baseball.
The title of this article, though, says that Ozuna is a man of extremes. Extremes — plural. While he certainly lit up the scoreboard throughout the season, his defense held him back from producing truly eye-popping value. This matrix — displaying offensive and defensive runs above-average for qualified hitters — paints a pretty clear picture of Ozuna’s game:
Ozuna spent about two-thirds of the season as a DH, which contributes negatively to his defensive value as a result of the positional adjustment. However, the reason he is so far to the left on the graph is because, when he did play the field, Ozuna was not great:
Ozuna’s defense, 2020
Even by his most favorable metrics, Ozuna sits right along the first quartile of outfield defenders. FanGraphs’ WAR metric incorporates UZR, which rated him most harshly, leading to his extreme position on the above matrix.
While it certainly made for a flashy title, I still caution you in putting too much stock into these numbers. It’s hard to draw firm conclusions from defensive metrics even in a 162-game season sample, let alone a 60-game season sample. Most suggest to look at multiple years’ of data before concluding that Player X is good or bad at defense. For Ozuna, 2020 did represent an outlier, which does make you wonder if he can play the outfield at least semi-regularly — like he did this year — in the future. He actually won a Gold Glove in 2017.
On the flip side, though, Ozuna seems to be slowing down. His sprint speed has either stayed flat or declined every year since it began being tracked in 2015. Additionally, Ozuna had shoulder surgery prior to the 2019 season, leading some to question whether this has permanently altered his defensive outlook. Ozuna did have the seventh-most outfield assists as recently as 2017, and his arm runs above-average, always one of his better marks, dipped into the negative for the first time this year:
Ozuna’s UZR breakdown by year
Even when considering the small sample sizes of individual years, knowing what we know — Ozuna had shoulder surgery and is slowing down — it’s probably pretty likely that he’ll end up a full-time DH. If that’s not the case in 2021 (it probably doesn’t have to be), it may be at least worthwhile for teams to not play him in the field every day. And that’s why National League teams will need to take a long look at what rules they’ll be operating under before they make a big offer to Ozuna.
Still, with all of that said, the bat will talk in contract negotiations. Ozuna has the capability to truly ignite an offense. Thus, I think something in the range of three to five years at $15 to $17 million per year makes sense. I’ll split the difference on both and project a four-year, $64 million contract for him. The Braves will likely be in on re-signing him, and, really, we could see all NL East teams try to make a play here. The Twins, Rangers, Cardinals and Brewers have also been mentioned as potential fits.
Devan Fink is a sophomore at Dartmouth College and a Contributor at Beyond The Box Score. Previous work of his can be found at FanGraphs and his own personal blog, Cover Those Bases. You can follow him on Twitter @DevanFink.