As Marcell Ozuna tries to find his old self, the Braves are sticking with him

Braves designated hitter Marcell Ozuna (20) watches from the dugout at Truist Park.

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Braves designated hitter Marcell Ozuna (20) watches from the dugout at Truist Park.

When Braves hitting coach Kevin Seitzer imparts knowledge on any of his players, he does so with the perspective of his own career: He began on a great trajectory, then experienced a sharp regression, then found himself again and made an All-Star team during a great finish to his playing days.

“So I use my struggles and successes to help with the message for them, and how my mentality had to change because it was caring so much, trying so hard, working so hard, got me released twice, and I stunk,” Seitzer said. “And then it was like, ‘OK, if I go for 0-for-400, it’s not because I don’t care and I’m not working and I’m not prepared. And if I go 400-for-400 and God doesn’t want me in the big leagues, I ain’t gonna be in the big leagues.’ It was, for me, coming to a place of peace and contentment where I was just thankful to have a uniform on my back again.”

This is the story and message that Seitzer shared with Marcell Ozuna – who might be in baseball’s worst slump to begin the season – on Monday night. When Seitzer’s own funk began years ago, he thought he had lost his swing. He felt he lost all of his confidence. He didn’t know what to do.

In a way, this is where Ozuna is right now.

“I’m just working every day and coming with an empty mind every day to do everything that I need to do (to have) success,” Ozuna told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “That’s what I do every day. I’m working harder, and I know that I’m having a bad moment, but I don’t want to be in the bad hole that I am right now. So I just have to continue working hard, grinding it out, and let’s see what happens.”

Ozuna has started the season in somewhat of a historic slump: Since 1995, only three hitters have collected four or fewer hits in at least 55 at-bats over their first 17 games of a season, and Ozuna is one of them. The last? Texas’ Leody Taveras in 2021. And before him? Baltimore’s Brady Anderson in 1998.

But the Braves have stuck with Ozuna. It seems they will continue to do so.

People in the organization describe Ozuna as someone who cares and truly wants to help his team by performing well. They say he’s a great teammate and hasn’t caused any problems in the clubhouse.

Braves designated hitter Marcell Ozuna, center, celebrates after his solo home run during the fourth inning of a baseball game against the Washington Nationals at Nationals Park, Saturday, April 1, 2023, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

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It’s impossible to ignore the off-field troubles, though: In 2021, he was arrested on domestic-violence charges that later were reduced to misdemeanors, and he served a suspension. Last season, he was arrested for DUI. The two incidents don’t reflect well on Ozuna or the Braves’ organization.

Entering the season, the Braves still owed Ozuna $37 million through the rest of his contract. They could designate him for assignment, but at this point, it doesn’t appear they’ll do that.

The Braves feel there’s no superior alternative to Ozuna. He’s not blocking any up-and-coming prospects. Their depth outfielders aren’t bat-first guys like he is – when he’s hitting. When Michael Harris II returns from the injured list, Braves manager Brian Snitker probably will use Sam Hilliard and Kevin Pillar as a platoon in left field.

And if Ozuna – once an outfielder, now primarily a designated hitter – continues to struggle, they could just put him on the bench and leave him there until he gives them a reason to play him. The Braves also see it like this: Their starters play every day and that leaves limited playing time for bench players, meaning Ozuna isn’t standing in anyone’s way because anyone else, such as Eli White or Nick Solak, wouldn’t receive many at-bats, either. (When Harris returns, the Braves likely will option White. When catcher Travis d’Arnaud comes off the injured list, the club will option Chadwick Tromp.)

Meanwhile, Ozuna said he continues to work hard on his contact point, which is where the bat impacts the ball. He works in the batting cage and at batting practice.

“And then when the game comes, the adrenaline is so high, so you have to control it a little bit,” Ozuna said. “Don’t let the adrenaline go too fast in your mind, and that’s what right now (is happening.) I’ve let my adrenaline go too high. I have to work on slowing (down) the game.”

Marcell Ozuna is shown in the first inning of a baseball against the Miami Marlins Sunday, Sept. 4, 2022, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Hakim Wright Sr.)

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Here’s how Seitzer sees it:

“Well, the last three weeks of spring training, he was in a great place, as good as I could ask for going into the season,” Seitzer said. “And then that guy that works so hard and cares so much and tries so hard, started caring too much and trying too hard, and that’s what’s leading to where he’s at right now. It’s a tough combination to where it’s ‘still try hard but care less.’ Care less about the results. You want to go stay within yourself and not try and hit the ball in the seats. And it’s not that he’s trying to hit the ball in the seats, he’s just trying to do really good and help the team. And then the more you struggle, the harder you try, and then the worse it gets. And that’s kind of where he’s at.”

It seems the solution is easier said than executed. Before 2021, Ozuna had never struggled like this. He is a two-time All-Star who has won two Silver Slugger Awards. He once was one of the best power hitters in baseball.

Now no one knows where it went, or if it’ll ever return.

“It’s the shrink part of me that has to come out and try and get the brain into a place where it’s more calm, to where they’re controlling their emotions,” Seitzer said. “A lot of times, hitting coaches will say, ‘Just relax. Go up there and relax.’ Well, you can’t go relax when you’re at war in that batter’s box, you got 95 (mph) coming at you, and secondary stuff. You can’t relax, but you can control your emotions and stay within yourself.”

Braves left fielder Marcell Ozuna (20) bats during a baseball game at Nationals Park, Sunday, April 2, 2023, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

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Seitzer said he’s trying to get Ozuna to be less concerned about hitting inside pitches or pulling the ball. When he’s focused on these things, he’s not able to stay on secondary pitches. Seitzer has wanted Ozuna to use the middle of the field so that he gives himself more time to hit off-speed pitches. Ozuna has been out in front and too early. He’s swinging too hard on fastballs and often is beating them into the ground or fouling them off, Seitzer said.

Among major-league hitters with at least 60 plate appearances entering Wednesday, Ozuna had the lowest batting average (.073) and third-lowest OPS (.390). According to FanGraphs, he also had the fewest Wins Above Replacement, at -0.7 fWAR.

“Right now, it’s hard,” Ozuna said. “We have to find a way out, and the way is working hard every day and giving your brain space to breathe.”

Ozuna is trying to find his old self. The guy who blasted 37 homers in 2017. The one who posted a 1.067 OPS in the condensed 2020 season. He’s searching for anything that resembles the dominant hitter the Braves invested in with a four-year contract extension that will pay him $65 million by its end. This contract – thus far, at least – has been a rare miss for president of baseball operations Alex Anthopoulos.

“If he can find it, it can definitely be a force,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “It’s hard to go through that for him, I know that. It’s not easy when you’re used to performing. It’s not the same level that he’s used to, but like I say on his behalf, he’s continuing to work at it. It’s hard. It’s hard for him. But hopefully he can get it going at some point.”

Multiple times this season, Snitker has seemed encouraged by Ozuna squaring up a few balls, despite the lack of results.

He also has expressed something else.

“We’d just like to see more consistency in the at-bats and, as I told him, better results,” Snitker said.

As Ozuna’s failures have mounted, Braves fans have booed him. He has heard those boos at Truist Park, where Braves fans are known to be friendly to their own. The shocking part: During a recent road trip, Ozuna received boos from Braves fans in Kansas City.

Braves designated hitter Marcell Ozuna (20) reacts to being struck out by Philadelphia Phillies starting pitcher Zack Wheeler during the sixth inning in Game 2 of baseball's National League Division Series, Wednesday, Oct. 12, 2022, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

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Hostility is not foreign to Ozuna. He’s played in the Dominican Winter League, which exposes players to words and actions much harsher than what they experience in MLB.

“For me, when they’re booing, it’s important sometimes because I know they’re keeping in mind who I am,” Ozuna said. “They want to see results and all that stuff.”

Ozuna wants to see himself achieve those results, too. He likened this stretch to 2015, when the Marlins sent him down because of a rough spurt. Then he became an All-Star in each of the next two seasons.

He didn’t feel any pressure. He just went out and had fun.

“Right now, I just need to have fun and then be the Marcell Ozuna that I need to be,” he said.

It’s impossible to directly compare players, but there are examples of tough stretches. In 2021, Jorge Soler hit .186 with a .599 OPS in the first half, then eventually helped the Braves win the World Series. Matt Carpenter had a couple of down seasons and now is finding some success with the Padres.

The best-case scenario for the Braves is that Ozuna is another case of a player who lost it, then got it back.

For Ozuna, the concerning part is this: He hasn’t been the same since 2020. In 713 at-bats since then, he has a .653 OPS. His OPS-Plus – which standardizes OPS by accounting for external factors – is 77, well below the MLB average of 100.

The criticism of him, and the questions about him, are fair. Is he done? Is this it for his career?

The Braves hope not.

“It’s a tough go,” Seitzer said. “He’s very strong mentally, he’s very strong emotionally, but he’s got a huge heart and cares so much. Dealing with the booing and all of that stuff breaks my heart, too, because all that does is adds more pressure to what he’s already feeling. He wants to do good to help the team, number one, and get back on the road that he’s traveled most of his career. I mean, this dude’s been a really good hitter with power his whole career. And now we’re having a hard time getting any of it back. So it’s just an ongoing process.”

The Braves could someday release Ozuna – anything is possible – but it doesn’t appear that day is coming soon. He’s not performing, but the Braves don’t feel he’s killing their team. They entered Wednesday with a 16-8 record. Plus, they don’t believe Ozuna causes any issues in the clubhouse.

Only Anthopoulos can decide whether it’s worth keeping Ozuna on the roster.

Ozuna hasn’t shown a ton of signs that point to a breakthrough. He seems lost. Whether he’ll ever find his way remains to be seen.

Through it all, he’s remained positive.

“You know why? Because every day when you (get out of) your bed, you have to say, ‘Thank God for another day living in the world,’” Ozuna said. “You always have to be positive, and then the negative things are (going to be there) anyway. So for me, it’s like you have to be ready for any moment, any sequence (when) they give you the opportunity. Don’t try to do too much and just be yourself – breathe and make good contact.”