The Georgia sports curse has struck again.
Amidst a strange year for humanity and sports alike, one constant remains: a major sports team in the state of Georgia has blown a commanding postseason lead. The Atlanta Braves led the Los Angeles Dodgers by a margin of three games to one in the NLCS this October. Even with this advantage, the Braves lost three consecutive games to the Dodgers and let the lead slip out of their grasp, disappointing fans yet again and beginning another offseason on a bitter note.
Set aside this painful ending to a fantastic season for a moment, though: the Braves took the best team in baseball to seven games and were with them every step of the way, even with a major deficit in the pitching department.
This is something Braves fans haven’t seen since the dynasty days in the 1990s, as Atlanta hadn’t won a single postseason series since 2001 prior to this year’s playoffs.
So, Braves fans: don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened. But through that smile, there’s one question Atlanta baseball pundits and fans everywhere should be asking. How can the Braves make themselves even better for 2021?
Two words: Marcell Ozuna.
Analysts and writers everywhere are making this into a harder decision than it should be. The Atlanta Braves need to re-sign the red-hot bat of Marcell Ozuna this offseason, and there’s no question about it.
Ozuna, a one-year signing off of the free agent market this offseason by Atlanta, scorched every team he played against this season at the plate. His .338 batting average, 2.3 WAR and insane 175 OPS+ demonstrate that perfectly well on their own. In case those monster statistics were not enough to prove Ozuna’s offensive worth, he was also inside the 94th percentile or higher in several crucial hitting stats including xwOBA, Hard-Hit %, xBA and the ever-important Exit Velocity, according to SB Nation.
Some critics may point to Ozuna’s defense while he played left field for the Braves this year. The outfielder occasionally looked baffled on the left side of the stadium, and his defensive metrics reflect this: his DRS for the year clocks in at -2 while his UZR for 2020 was -2.7, according to FanGraphs.
These defensive questions are easily answered by a variety of factors. First, Ozuna’s offensive value for the Braves this season was unmatched by all except potential MVP Freddie Freeman. Second, the DH may be implemented in the National League next year, allowing Ozuna to hit without having to even play in the outfield. Third, the Braves signed Ozuna last year before the DH was going to be a feature in the NL for 2020, so the front office and management were clearly prepared to sacrifice some defensive value for his bat.
There’s one asset Marcell Ozuna brings to the Braves’ team, however, that cannot be represented in a statistic or a front office decision: Ozuna brought life to this Atlanta squad.
Throughout the entire season, Ozuna fought at the plate and became a fixture in Atlanta’s clubhouse culture. This can be traced all the way back to the earliest parts of the season when Ozuna saved the Braves’ hopes of a win in just the second game of the year.
On July 25, Ozuna hit a game-tying solo home run to give the Braves another shot at beating the New York Mets. Atlanta would go on to win 5-3, but something more important lies in the footage of that Ozuna blast in the 9th inning.
Go back and find the clip. Watch Ozuna round first base after he smashes the ball out of the yard. Keep an eye on his hands. In the second game of the year, before the Braves’ postseason run, before they lost their ace pitcher, before Ronald Acuña and Ozzie Albies were injured, before they swept the Reds and Marlins in their first two postseason series to advance in the playoffs for the first time since 2001, something happened. Before all of this, Ozuna started it all.
As he trots around the bases after a clutch home run, Marcell Ozuna is mixing it up.
This iconic celebration, a staple of the Braves’ incredible season and thrilling playoff run, was not born late in the season. It was not started by team leader and veteran Freddie Freeman or young star Ronald Acuña and definitely not team manager Brian Snitker. One of the defining pieces of the Braves’ identity as a team during this memorable season was started by a player new to the team.
This should tell any Atlanta Braves executive, player or fan all they need to know. Ozuna has been at the heart of this team and deserves to be re-signed and kept as a member of the core. Besides, how will the Braves mix it up next year without him?
Micah Johnston ‘22 is a journalism and media studies double major who has written for The Cluster since his freshman year at Mercer. He has written on and reported for Georgia Public Broadcasting, The Macon Telegraph and The Macon Newsroom on a variety of topics. He received the Center for Collaborative Journalism’s Junior Honors Award for the 2020-2021 academic year. Micah’s other interests include obsessively following Braves and Mariners baseball, constantly listening to all kinds of music and probably eating junk food.