Marcell Ozuna’s Strangely Backwards Month

The longest Cardinal at bat for the month of May (by number of pitches) occurred during the second game of a May 22 double-header.  Kansas City was in town and pitching old friend Homer Bailey.

Homer was in a bit of first-inning trouble.  He had walked Matt Carpenter and given a single to Paul Goldschmidt.  With one out he now had to deal with Marcell Ozuna.

For 12 grueling pitches, Homer tried to put Ozuna away.  For the most part, Homer came right after him, but didn’t have enough stuff to get the third strike past Marcell.  But there was just enough late movement – especially on his splitter – that Marcell couldn’t keep it fair.  Ozuna ended up fouling off 7 pitches in the at bat – four times the splitter.

Finally, on the twelfth and final pitch, Bailey tried to run a fastball away from Marcell.  It didn’t get far enough away.  Well, not until after Ozuna flicked it over the right field wall for the home run that began the 10-3 rout.

By the second inning, when Ozuna came up again, St Louis was already ahead 5-0 and Bailey was out of the game in favor of Glenn Sparkman.  Mr. Sparkman’s duel with Ozuna was much shorter.  It lasted one pitch.  Glenn threw him a fastball at the top border of the zone, and Marcell popped it up.

These were exhibits A and B in what was a curiously backward month for Marcell.

Normally hitters thrive early in the count, with the advantage switching to the pitcher as the at bat goes on.

Across all of baseball (according to baseball reference) batters hitting that first strike are slashing .350/.412/.628.  Once the hitter gets two strikes on him, the tables turn.  Those guys are slashing .170/.245/.279.  The dynamic is less than even.  Only 21% of batters manage to hit the first strike, while slightly more than 53% find themselves in two-strike counts.

That batters tend to be more defensive with two strikes on them is expressed in a couple of ways.  In spite of the fact that two-strike counts represent more than 53% of plate appearances, they account for only 32% of all home runs.  Isolated power is another indicator.  Isolated power is simply the slugging percentage minus the batting average – the higher the number the more explosive the hits.  For all players hitting the first strike, the slugging percentage is .278 higher than the batting average (.628 v .350).  If the batter doesn’t hit the first strike, but hits the second strike thrown him, that number reduces to .240 (.574-.334).  When backed up with two strikes, the isolated power is just .109 (.279-.170).

Ozuna hit 6 home runs in May, and drove in 22 runs in 27 games.  He also hit just .226, striking out 22 times.  Four of those home runs came with two strikes on him (including the home run against Bailey).  Moreover, he hit .208/.311/.509 with two strikes on him – notably better than most of the league does.  His .301 isolated power number testifies to the fact that Marcell doesn’t swing defensively in these situations.

At the same time, though, Marcell was only 3 for 16 (.188) – with two of the hits being infield singles – when hitting the first pitch.  In fact, he grounded into more first pitch double plays (2) than he had first pitch extra-base hits (he had one double).

In all at bats where Marcell hit the first strike, he hit a modest .286, and his first-strike slugging percentage (.464) was lower than his two-strike slugging percentage.

Marcell Ozuna comes to the plate with the intent of hitting the fastball.  He infrequently chases pitches out of the zone – even when he has two strikes on him, but is less particular about where the fastball is inside the strike zone.  As long as it is over the plate, Marcell will accept it.

This has been something of a problem on first pitches, where Marcell has put a lot of pitcher’s pitches in play.  In fact, the best approach to Marcell last month was to throw him that first pitch fastball – just not over the middle of the plate.

Conversely, pitchers who try to nibble and put themselves in fastball counts when Ozuna is at the plate will frequently find – to their disappointment – that Marcell swings just as hard late in the count as he does on the first pitch.  To an extent, he becomes more dangerous as the at bat goes on.

This is notably different than the Marcell Ozuna of 2017, who hit .402/.402/.652 on the first pitch, and .424/.479/.715 on the first strike.  I don’t remember much about that Marcell Ozuna, but I’m going to guess his first-pitch selectivity was a bit more stringent.

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