Baseball

Braves Notes: Ozuna, Harris, Hilliard

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Marcell Ozuna has been one of the worst hitters in Major League Baseball this season, batting just .073/.192/.200 in 63 trips to the plate this year. The Braves, however, don’t appear set to make a change of any kind, writes Justin Toscano of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Toscano spoke with hitting coach Kevin Seitzer, manager Brian Snitker and Ozuna himself about the former slugger’s struggles. Seitzer praised Ozuna’s spring training form and opined that he’s placing too much pressure on himself. “[Ozuna] 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,” Seitzer tells Toscano.

Perhaps there’s something to that, but Seitzer didn’t address the fact that Ozuna’s struggles aren’t exactly contained to 2023 alone. While he swatted 23 home runs a season ago, he did so with the fourth-worst on-base percentage among all qualified hitters (.274). Dating back to 2021, Ozuna has come to the plate 778 times and posted an anemic .210/.271/.381 batting line, and his strikeout rate has worsened each year along the way. He’s currently hitting the ball on the ground at a career-high 51.4%, which doesn’t bode well for a hitter whose once well above-average sprint speed now sits in just the 20th percentile of MLB hitters, per Statcast.

The Braves, of course, still have Ozuna signed through the end of the 2024 season.  He’s being paid $18MM this season and next, with a $1MM buyout on an option for the 2025 season. He’s served a 20-game suspension for violating MLB’s joint domestic violence, sexual assault and child abuse policy and also been arrested on a a DUI charge while playing out his current four-year, $65MM deal.

That contract surely plays a role in the team’s unwillingness to move on from a player whose past 800 big league plate appearances simply haven’t been productive. Injuries have also thinned out the roster, leaving Ozuna with more playing time than he might be afforded if the lineup were at full strength. The Braves will seemingly take some steps toward that fully healthy lineup in the near future, however. The team announced this morning that Michael Harris II is heading out on a minor league rehab assignment. The team hasn’t provided a formal timetable for when the reigning National League Rookie of the Year, but getting Harris going in a minor league setting is a positive encouragement all the same.

Harris’ looming return will crowd the outfield mix a bit, but David O’Brien of The Athletic writes that Sam Hilliard’s hot start to the season figures to keep him in the mix even after Harris is back. That’ll likely mean a steady dose of left field playing time for Hilliard, who’s out to a .327/.400/.592 start with three home runs and four doubles in 55 plate appearances.

That Herculean production from Hilliard, however, is propped up by a sky-high .520 average on balls in play and comes in spite of a 38.2% strikeout rate. He’s still making hard contact when he does put bat to ball and showing good speed, but Hilliard’s contact woes and good fortune on balls in play point to clear regression.

Hall of Famer Chipper Jones, who’s working with the Braves’ coaching staff as a hitting consultant, spoke highly of Hilliard to O’Brien, suggesting that if the team can get Hilliard to cut back on his massive strikeout rate, there’s a good bit of upside in his bat. That’s surely true, but strikeouts have been an issue the 29-year-old has been unable to correct at any point in his career. Hilliard has a 33.2% strikeout rate in 694 plate appearances dating back to his days with the Rockies, and he’s punched out in 28.4% of his 930 Triple-A plate appearances and 31.1% of his 484 Double-A plate appearances.

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