STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- In his post trade deadline conference call, Pirates GM Neal Huntington pointed out Jose Osuna by name as a potential piece of his 2020 club that will see more playing time in the wake of Corey Dickerson's departure.
Osuna has long been propped up as a power bat option from the right-hand side. That's obviously something the power-hungry Pirates could use. The power numbers he has turned in over a short sample in 2019 certainly give credence to those who clamor for more playing time for the 26-year old. The club used its last option on Osuna this season, so a decision point will soon be upon them, and that decision will likely be based on a singular question.
Can these dribs and drabs of power last over a bigger sample?
The problem in answering that question is that the sample might not get as big as it needs to be to make an informed decision. Osuna plays first base, third base and the corner outfield spots. While not necessarily a classic "utility" player, Osuna does have the flexibility to get the requisite 10-15 plate appearances per week that he would need to help determine if his power is real or a mirage. But where will those PAs come from? Josh Bell is as locked in as an everyday starter as you'll see around baseball -- his current slump notwithstanding -- and Colin Moran has earned the right to start at third. The outfield gets even murkier for Osuna as Bryan Reynolds is more or less entrenched in left for 2020, and the club is dedicated to giving Gregory Polanco every bit of leash it can in right field. Platooning with Moran at third seems to be the most viable option to those PAs, though Moran has brought his splits against left-handed pitching to just above respectability, even if the power against southpaws isn't quite there.
So, yeah, sample size is going to continue to be an issue in an attempt to properly gauge if Osuna's power bat can stay hot for long stretches. With that in mind, let's see what we can determine.
The first drastic difference I've noticed in Osuna this year is that he is swinging at pitches in the zone at a much greater rate, a la Bell. His in-zone swing rate of 75.2 percent is over nine percentage points higher than the MLB rate of 66 percent. Rick Eckstein's footprints and aggressive approach are all over this club's hitters this season, and Osuna is just the latest example. It's a simple proposition really. Swing more in the zone, do more damage.
Osuna has put out better swings too, with a slight uptick in launch angle from 2018, while maintaining solid exit velocity:
You've heard me say before that launch angle isn't everything, and it amounts to something nearly devoid of meaning without proper exit velocity to go with it. I doubt highly that Osuna has read my words, but someone got the message to him: Lift plus hitting the ball hard equals better xwOBA numbers across the board. Better xwOBA equals better results.
Osuna has also shown an ability to turn an at-bat around. He is tied for the second with Kevin Newman in most pitches seen when behind in the count at 31.5 percent -- Jacob Stallings leads with 34.5 percent, but is not a regular -- yet he carries the highest xwOBA when behind at .303. That's not an earth-shattering number, but over the course of a big enough sample, that could equate to a few extra hits here and there, perhaps even some cheap home runs and doubles.
Osuna's changes at the plate this year -- more fly balls, more walks drawn, persistent patience -- has turned him from a player on the fringes of the Pirates' 25-man into a piece the club might need to make room for. That's a good problem to have, and a hard one to solve, as his current performance demands more plate appearances.
With these results, the PBC might want to work harder at a solution.
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