It has been a season full of disappointments for the Marlins, but two key players they weren’t counting on to be among them were Christian Yelich and Marcell Ozuna.
Entering their second full seasons in the big leagues, they were supposed to team up with Giancarlo Stanton to form the best young outfield in baseball.
Instead, while last year’s runner-up in the National League MVP race continued to smash homers and drive in runs before landing on the disabled list this past weekend with an injured hand, Yelich, 23, and Ozuna, 24, have fallen well short of producing like they did a year ago through the first three months of this season.
Ozuna, who showed up to spring training heavy, has seen his power and run production diminish significantly. Yelich, who spent 18 days on the disabled list with a herniated disk in April, is hitting nearly 40 points lower than he was last season and ranks last in RBI (15) among left fielders with at least 175 plate appearances.
“I don’t know that it got in their heads,” manager Dan Jennings said Friday of Yelich, Ozuna and Stanton being tabbed by ESPN The Magazine the best outfield in baseball back in January.
“To me, maybe it’s more of a sophomore jinx. They’re growing into their own, and there’s always going to be growing pains at the big-league level. Confidence wise, we believe in them, and I think you’re starting to see some signs they’re coming out of it.”
The Marlins, all but out of the playoff race with the third-worst record in the National League at 31-46, have received multiple trade inquiries over the past few days, mostly for starting pitching. Neither Yelich, who signed a seven-year, near $50 million in spring training, nor Ozuna, who won’t be eligible for free agency until 2020, are expected to be put on the market.
Yelich, at least, is beginning to show signs he could be breaking out of his funk. He had four hits Saturday against reigning MVP Clayton Kershaw and the Dodgers, and is hitting .286 with two homers and four RBI in June after hitting only .220 with two homers and 11 RBI through the first two months of the season.
Last year, Yelich struggled through his first two months, hitting just .242 with five homers, 19 RBI and an on-base percentage of .329 through his first 57 games. The rest of the 2014 season, Yelich hit .310 with four homers, 35 RBI and a .383 on-base percentage.
Ozuna’s struggles, though, are a bit more concerning. Although he’s hitting .264 (he batted .269 last season), he’s yet to homer at Marlins Park in 38 games (he homered 12 times at home last year) and is slugging nearly 100 points lower (.357) than he was a year ago (.457).
“I don’t care if you’re a Hall of Famer or not, the key to success at the big-league level is being able to make the adjustment to the adjustment — and these guys are young,” Marlins outfield coach Brett Butler said. “When I was coming up, you spent five, six years in the minors. Now, they’re rushed. So now they’re learning how to do that up here. This is invaluable for them. It’s only going to make them better all around.”
Butler’s point has merit. Ozuna only played 10 games for Double A Jacksonville before he was called up to the big leagues in April 2013. Yelich only played 49 games in Double A before he was called up to replace an injured Ozuna that same year.
Defensively, though, Ozuna has slipped some.
Although he’s tied for fourth in assists among center fielders with five, he has dropped from plus-6 (10th-best) to minus-5 (fifth-worst) in total zone total fielding runs average, a sabermetric statistic that measures overall total defensive contribution. Yelich, a Gold Glove winner last season with a rating of plus-11 in total zone total fielding runs average, has a plus-3 rating (tied for ninth).
“Defensively, they’re playing fine,” Butler said. “Their work habits are really good, and they want to be the best. I wouldn’t trade any outfield in baseball for ours.”