Marlins slugger Marcell Ozuna appears on his way to a career season

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Tuesday May 30th, 2017

Selectivity is one of the most important traits in a hitter. The fewer bad pitches and more good pitches a hitter swings at, the better his results are going to be. In that vein, selectivity goes hand in hand with plate discipline. Swing at pitches you can drive, lay at ones that will produce weak contact or whiffs. Baseball 101, right?

There is such a thing, however, as being too disciplined. We looked at that phenomenon earlier this year with Freddie Freeman. The Braves first baseman was headed for a career as a middle-class version of Joey Votto. He was a line-drive machine who used the entire field, took his walks, put the ball in play a ton, and hit a modest amount of homers. Last year, however, he turned into one of the premier sluggers in the league by becoming one of the most aggressive hitters against pitches in the zone. If a pitcher threw a strike to Freeman, chances were strong that he was going to swing at it. That helped him find an entirely new level of production, and had him in all-too-early MVP discussions this year before he hit the DL with a broken wrist.

Freeman isn’t the only player in the majors to find success by becoming less selective on pitches in the strike zone. In fact, he isn’t the only player in the NL East to do so. Marcell Ozuna is experiencing a similar metamorphosis this year. The 26-year-old has been one of the most maddening players in the majors since 2014, his first full season, when he hit .269/.317/.455 with 23 homers in 612 plate appearances. At that point, he looked like a star in the making, letting the Marlins boast that their outfield of Ozuna, Giancarlo Stanton and Christian Yelich would be the envy of the league for years to come.

Since then, Ozuna has been consistently inconsistent. He slogged through the 2015 season, slashing .259/.308/.383, then bounced back last year with a .266/.321/.452 line with 23 homers. Still, two years after that eye-opening 2014 campaign, Ozuna was right where he started. Heading into this season, there was good reason to believe that Ozuna would remain a solid, though not spectacular, offensive contributor, with an above-average hit tool, below-average on-base skills, and mid-20-homer power.

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All that has changed this season. Ozuna is hitting .313/.385/.555 with 12 homers in 205 plate appearances. He’s on pace for career highs across the board, including 40 jacks and 118 RBI, rounded down to the nearest whole number. How exactly did Ozuna bring about this career renaissance in his age-26 season? By picking out better pitches to hit.

Plate discipline hasn’t exactly been a strong suit for Ozuna. Before this season, he never had a swing rate lower than 47.1%. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but he had issues with his pitch selectivity. Ozuna had an o-swing rate—the frequency at which a hitters swings at pitches out of the strike zone—of at least 32.9% in each of the first four seasons of his career. This year, his o-swing rate is down to 30.8%. No matter who you are, you’re better off swinging at fewer balls. Even if Ozuna weren’t doing anything else, the mere fact that he’s laying off more bad pitches would be great news.

What makes Ozuna’s improved discipline even better is what he’s doing against pitches in the zone. This is the other side of the selectivity coin. Ozuna is swinging at fewer bad pitches than ever, but his overall swing rate is at 49.6%, which would be a career high, should it hold all season. The big difference is that he’s swinging at 74.1% of strikes he sees this season. Before this year, his career-high swing rate at pitches in the zone was 68.9%. Ozuna’s selectivity—both laying off pitches out of the zone and getting more aggressive on pitches in the zone—is paying huge dividends. Before we get to that, let’s take a look at his swing rate by zone over his career.

Ozuna’s swing rate by zone, 2013–2016

Ozuna’s swing rate by zone, 2017

First and foremost, Ozuna is hitting the ball harder than he ever did in the previous four years of his career. His hard-hit rate is 42.4%, which is more than four percentage points better than his prior career best. That shouldn’t be a surprise, given that a larger share of balls he’s putting in plays this season are in the strike zone than in any of his previous four seasons.

Ozuna also seems to have a better understanding of exactly the pitches he wants to attack. Take a look again at those swing rates by zone. He isn’t all that more aggressive against high strikes, but on pitches at the belt and down in the zone, however, he’s one of the most aggressive hitters in the league. The following chart, which shows Ozuna’s slugging percentage by zone, gives us some insight into why he’s not letting many of those pitches go.

With that in mind, take a look at Ozuna’s slugging percentage by zone this year. Ignore the colors of each zone, and instead pay attention to the numbers.

Add that up, and Ozuna is slugging .720 on pitches in the strike zone at his belt or lower. Even on pitches that are beneath the zone, he’s slugging .426. Isolate that for pitches that are over the plate but down out of the zone, and it’s a robust .553. That’s a hitter who knows who he is.

Ozuna’s selectivity tweaks are just the type of adjustments that produce sustainable change. Swing rates normalize quickly, and that tendency is even more pronounced when a player has the success that Ozuna has had this season. It’s rare for a hitter to suddenly go back to totally free-swinging ways once he makes that change, so we can largely trust his improved discipline against pitches outside the zone. The numbers he has compiled on the back of his newfound aggressiveness on strikes, meanwhile, should be all the reinforcement he needs to keep the approach. After three seasons of peaks and valleys, Ozuna may finally be finding his full potential.

Hitters to watch this week

Logan Morrison, 1B, Rays

Morrison was at the center of this week’s waiver wire column after going 7-for-26 with three homers, three doubles and eight walks against six strikeouts last week. He went 0-for-4 with a pair of strikeouts on Monday, but is still slashing an impressive .246/.347/.544 with 14 dingers and 35 RBI this season. Now healthy and holding down an everyday job, Morrison’s ownership rate needs to be a whole lot higher.

Lucas Duda, 1B, Mets

Duda has been one of the hottest hitters in baseball over the last week, going 11-for-27 with three homers, four doubles, nine RBI and four walks in his last seven games. That has his slash line up to .263/.391/.568 on the year. Duda spent just shy of a month on the DL, but he’s one of the few bats the Mets can trust on a daily basis. He’s still widely available in fantasy leagues, and is worth a look in all formats.

Charlie Blackmon, OF, Rockies

Blackmon hit his 13th homer of the season on Monday, putting him on pace for his first career 40-homer season. What’s more striking, though, is that he has 46 RBI despite leading off every game this year. Blackmon has turned into one of the best hitters in the majors over the last few seasons, and is putting together a truly unique 2017 campaign. With Mike Trout headed to the DL, Blackmon can make a run at the top outfielder spot in fantasy leagues.

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Anthony Rendon, 3B, Nationals

Rendon had a five-game hitting streak snapped on Sunday, but he got right back on the horse with a 2-for-4 game on Monday. Going back to the start of his modest hitting streak, he’s 14-for-25 with four homers and three doubles in his last seven games. Rendon got off to a painfully slow start this season, but he’s now slashing .291/.393/.517 with nine homers, 10 doubles, 32 RBI and 29 walks against 31 strikeouts this season.

Anthony Rizzo, 1B, Cubs

Rizzo just finished off a big week, during which he went 8-for-25 with four homers and six RBI. He went 0-for-3 with a walk in the Cubs 5–2 Memorial Day loss to the Padres, but he finally seems to be turning a corner this season. He goes into Tuesday’s action slashing .235/.370/.465 with 12 homers and 30 RBI in 222 plate appearances.

Prospect Watch

Austin Meadows, OF, Pirates

It’s impossible for any team to be out of playoff contention before the calendar turns to June. Realistically, however, there are already some teams that should be thinking about 2018 and beyond. With each passing day, it becomes clearer that the Pirates are one of those teams. As that reality sets in, Meadows gets closer and closer to his MLB debut. It’s all but a guarantee that we will see the 22-year-old outfielder in Pittsburgh at some point this summer.

Meadows entered this season as a consensus top-10 prospect, reaching a high point of No. 6 on both Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus. He got off to a slow start with Triple-A Indianapolis, and his full season numbers still don’t look great. What his .262/.320/.372 slash line does not communicate, though, is how hot he has been at the plate over the last few weeks. When May began, he sat at .195/.247/.256. Since then, he has totaled a .317/.378/.465 line, looking like the sort of top-of-the-order hitter the Pirates expect him to be for the next decade. He has been even better in a smaller, more recent sample, going 14-for-30 with three doubles and a homer in his last eight games.

With Starling Marte serving a suspension until July and Andrew McCutchen struggling again this year, it likely won’t be long before Meadows forces his way to the majors. Once he does, he’ll be immediately relevant in all fantasy formats.

GIF of the Week

Sure, Ryan Zimmerman isn’t the fastest member of the Nats' lineup, but that doesn’t minimize the greatness of this play by Chase D’Arnaud.

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