There is a fairly high probability that this morning, many of you are very tired. The main cause of this extreme fatigue, if I know the demographics of this site, is those of you who stayed up late to watch the St. Louis Blues, whose first game of the Western Conference Semifinals inexplicably began at 8:30 p.m. local time for both teams involved in the game (raises hand). But for others, you’re tired because you went to see the latest installment of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Avengers: Endgame, last night. It’s all good. We’re all in this sleep-deprived game together.
I haven’t seen any of the Avengers movies, and I likely won’t see this one. But I do appreciate one very elemental facet of superhero movies: the origin story. Maybe it’s because the closest thing to superhero movies which I actually follow closely is sports. You see, superheroes generally aren’t just born superheroes–something quasi-magical happens which gives them their powers. For instance, the lead character in Avengers: Endgame is Iron Man, portrayed by Robert Downey Jr. (I know this is, like, a super famous detail, but this is coming from a guy who owns two RDJ films on DVD, and those are Natural Born Killers and Bowfinger, and I am speaking to those who watch the kinds of movies I do). Iron Man doesn’t just naturally have a titanium suit–Tony Stark is a wealthy, brilliant industrialist who is compelled into his heroics after escaping a kidnapping.
This hero narrative contrasts with sports, where natural ability is imperative. To be clear, professional athletes are overwhelmingly hard workers, but natural talent is essential. For as much as the David Ecksteins of the world are portrayed as gritty and scrappy and people who only got where they were through sheer force of will, he was surely dominant in Little League. Maybe he had to work really hard to build his career into what it became, but he didn’t have to work hard to merely be the best baseball player you’ve ever known.
But of course, Tony Stark didn’t come from nowhere–he was born into wealth and had natural intellect. Peter Parker may have needed a radioactive bugbite to become Spider-Man, but he already exhibited scientific brilliance. The superhero origin story is really more like a brilliant assist through two defenders while the hero himself/herself taps in an easy goal (like I said, I spent last night watching a hockey game).
Deep into his late-twenties, St. Louis Cardinals left fielder Marcell Ozuna was a nice outfielder to have on a Major League team, but he was also fairly ordinary. Ozuna was capable of very good seasons–notably, in 2017, Ozuna was a 44% better than league average hitter for the Miami Marlins, hitting a career-high 37 home runs in the process. But upon being traded to the Cardinals in the off-season, he suddenly became quite typical. His 106 wRC+, caused by a decline in power and a noticeably freer-swinging plate approach which caused his walk rate to fall by over 35%. Some argued that 2017 was a breakthrough, but after 2018, it looked like an abberation. Ozuna was a respectable MLB left fielder, but of the vaunted Marlins trio from which he emerged, he was distantly behind Giancarlo Stanton and Christian Yelich.
But on April 9, 2019, Marcell Ozuna’s origin story began.
Ozuna had been having a fairly rough time at the plate in this particular Tuesday night game against the Los Angeles Dodgers, going 0-for-3 with a strikeout and one walk. Ozuna, to that point in the season, was having a more extreme version of his underwhelming 2018 campaign–he had walked in 5% of plate appearances, struck out in a jarring 40% of them, and while he demonstrated some power, hitting two home runs in his 40 plate appearances, his wRC+ stood at an underwhelming 68. He had gotten moderately unlucky by BABIP, with a .240 mark, but this didn’t explain the whole thing. It was too early to declare Marcell Ozuna permanently mediocre, but there wasn’t much reason for optimism.
And then, while tracking what Marcell Ozuna thought was going to be an Enrique Hernandez home run, Marcell Ozuna did this.
The superhero origin story is rarely pretty. But all in all, this one wasn’t too bad–Batman had to deal with his parents being murdered. Ozuna just had an ugly looking defensive miscue that was ultimately inconsequential, as the Cardinals escaped the inning unscathed and ended up winning the game.
The exact details of what changed for Marcell Ozuna at this moment are somewhat murky. Ozuna stayed on the ground for a while, and while it is widely speculated that Ozuna stayed down to regroup and to perhaps engender some kind of sympathy, perhaps his unpleasant-looking fall caused some kind of physiological change for him. Perhaps the whimsy of the moment–his teammates immediately playfully joked with him about it, Dodgers reliever Kenley Jansen notably laughed uproariously from the bullpen, and Ozuna’s blooper became the greatest entry to the genre since basically the entire Naked Gun blooper montage–allowed Ozuna to relax, and that the intensity that compelled Ozuna to swing for multiple home runs every time was pushed aside. Perhaps the Gods of Baseball decided to reward Ozuna’s effort (a lot of adjectives could be used to describe Marcell Ozuna’s attempted home run robbery, but “lazy” is certainly not one of them). But no matter how one slices it, Marcell Ozuna has become a completely different player since that moment.
In Marcell Ozuna’s very next game, he went 3-for-4. His first plate appearance was a double, after which he immediately stole third base. His second was a single. His fourth was a home run. April 9 was supposed to be the low point of Marcell Ozuna’s time with the Cardinals–a metaphor so obvious that it would make whoever decided to put that CGI rat in The Departed blush (why yes, I do feel obliged to continue my tenuous movie tie-in by throwing out random movie references throughout this). And on the very next day, Marcell Ozuna had his first three-hit game since September 25, 2018.
In the 11 games Marcell Ozuna has played since his defensive snafu, he has reached base in all of them. He scored and/or drove in a run in 9 of 11 games. And following Wednesday’s 2-for-3 with a home run and a walk outing, Marcell Ozuna’s triple-slash line in his last 49 plate appearances stands at .282/.429/.795. His 206 wRC+ in that time could be called Ruthian or Bondsian but no other -ian in Major League Baseball history.
The easy temptation is to dismiss Marcell Ozuna’s run as small sample size luck. I get why–this is the convenient excuse. This is what we tell ourselves to feel assured that there is order and limitation in the world. But Marcell Ozuna isn’t putting up these numbers because he is simply finding all of the holes in the defense–his batting average on balls in play is currently well below both the league’s average BABIP and his career norms, at just .208. Unlike teammate Dexter Fowler, whose 2019 improvement appears to be largely guided by good fortune, Ozuna is arguably getting unlucky and he’s still hitting like this. Even considering his pre-origin story 2019 numbers, his wRC+ puts him below just four 2018 hitters in terms of offensive production: Mike Trout, Mookie Betts, J.D. Martinez, and Christian Yelich. He’s been that good this season.
Marcell Ozuna turned a corner when he turned ill-advisedly to try to rob a home run. Suddenly, things came into focus. And while I understand cynicism and a lack of faith that Ozuna has actually become a slugging superhero for the Cardinals, I also see Ozuna’s underlying numbers and see all of the makings of a superstar offensive weapon for the 2019 season.