Real or not? Marcell Ozuna is the next Yoenis Cespedes

Trivia time! Who started in last year’s All-Star Game for the National League? (A) Yoenis Cespedes; (B) Marcell Ozuna.

It’s kind of a trick question. Cespedes was voted to start, but he strained a quadriceps a couple of days before the game, and Ozuna ended up starting in center field.

The New York Mets and Miami Marlins kicked off a four-game series on Thursday with an entertaining, marathon game that went 16 innings, with the Mets finally winning 9-8 on Travis d’Arnaud‘s home run off Adam Conley, who was Miami’s scheduled starter for Friday.

Cespedes crushed two long home runs in the content, after hitting three on Tuesday, giving him six homers to lead the majors. Ozuna, meanwhile, hit a first-inning grand slam off Robert Gsellman; he is hitting .389/.452/.722 with an MLB-leading 16 RBIs. With both hitters off to hot starts, it’s interesting to note how their careers have transpired in similar ways — and that it’s not necessarily a sure thing Cespedes will be the better player in 2017.

When Cespedes signed with the Athletics in 2012, he was an immediate star as a rookie, finishing 10th in the MVP voting. While he drove in a bunch of runs over the next two seasons, he wasn’t as productive otherwise, with middling on-base percentages, and the A’s traded him midway through 2014 to the Red Sox for Jon Lester. Ozuna’s first full season with the Marlins in 2014 was a success, a 4.5-WAR campaign in which he hit .269 with 23 home runs. Like Cespedes, however, he regressed and was even sent down to the minors for six weeks in 2015 after a 1 for 36 stretch. Ozuna said his time in Triple-A was “like a jail” and that the Marlins kept him down to prevent him from being eligible for arbitration until 2017.

Both players thus earned a reputation that might be described as enigmatic. After hitting .251/.298/.446 with 48 home runs in 2013-14, Cespedes was traded to the Mets in 2015 and has thrived in the spotlight of the Big Apple. He has cut down on his strikeouts. And while still an aggressive hitter, he improved his pitch recognition and patience to hit .286/.340/.537 with 66 home runs in 2015-16.

Ozuna isn’t on that level yet, but he might be on his way there. He was hitting .320/.375/.574 last June 24, when he sat a few games with a sore wrist. He wasn’t the same after that and hit a miserable .214/.269/.337 over his final 75 games, a stretch that included missing another week in early September with a sore wrist. It’s hard to know how much the wrist bothered him, but there is a clear delineation in his numbers. His average exit velocity, above average until that June injury, was all over the place the rest of the season.

All this is a way of suggesting that Ozuna’s current hot streak might be more than a hot streak, and this potential breakout actually started last season. Like Cespedes, he’s reining in his aggressiveness with a lower strikeout rate and higher walk rate. It’s only nine games, but his chase rate is way down, from 31.4 percent last season to below 22 percent so far this season. At 26, he’s at the right age to be reaching his peak. Who will have the better season? Sure, I’d still bet on Cespedes, but don’t be surprised if Ozuna makes it back to another All-Star Game.

About that marathon … The game might have ended in regulation if not for Neil Walker falling asleep.

He was the on-deck hitter in the seventh inning when Jay Bruce lined a single to left with Cespedes on second. Ozuna has one of the strongest arms in the league, but Cespedes charged home with two out. The throw was a little off line, and Cespedes went in standing up, with catcher A.J. Ellis making a swipe tag on the back of his leg. Cespedes was initially ruled safe, but the call was overturned on replay.

As the on-deck hitter, Walker’s responsibility is to help direct Cespedes. As Mets broadcaster Keith Hernandez pointed out, Walker should have been indicating to Cespedes to angle to the front of the plate with a slide. Instead, he stood there watching the play. The broadcast also showed Bruce motioning to Walker that he messed up. For a veteran player, there’s no excuse for messing up there.

I made a hockey playoffs joke last night. The Blue Jays had a chance against Zach Britton, who has continued to convert saves for the Orioles, although he hasn’t looked as dominant as he did in his 2016 miracle season. The Jays got runners on second and third with one out, but Orioles manager Buck Showalter brought his infield in — rather than concede the tie game with a grounder — and it paid off with a slow chopper to J.J. Hardy that froze Troy Tulowitzki at third, followed by a fly ball to center.

The Jays fell to 1-8 and are hitting .190, and all seems hopeless … but it’s not! Two teams in the wild-card era started 1-8 and made the playoffs. The 1995 Reds were 1-8, then won 19 of 22. The 2011 Rays — known for their fantastic finish on the final day of the season — started 1-8, but they won 13 of 16 to finish April with a winning record. So the Blue Jays might be on life support, but a big win streak needs to start now. They might have to do it without Josh Donaldson, who is listed as day-to-day but left Thursday’s game after re-aggravating a calf muscle.

For Britton, it was his 53rd consecutive save, moving him into third on the all-time list. Tom Gordon had 54 in a row for the Red Sox in 1998-99, and Eric Gagne had 84 in a row with the Dodgers from 2002-04.

What, you have plans Friday night? There’s a fun matchup at Dodger Stadium, with Zack Greinke taking on Clayton Kershaw — the first time they’ve faced each other. Some notes, courtesy of ESPN Stats & Information’s Sarah Langs:

  • Since 2011, Kershaw ranks first in the NL in ERA, OPS allowed, WHIP and WAR (no surprise!).

  • During that span, Greinke ranks fourth in ERA, fifth in OPS, sixth in WHIP and fourth in WAR.

  • When they were teammates from 2013-15, they combined for a 2.10 ERA. The Dodgers led the majors in rotation ERA over those three seasons (3.19, to the Cardinals’ 3.29), even though the rest of the starters had a 4.03 ERA.

  • Greinke, who left Los Angeles for the Diamondbacks before last season, did start once at Dodger Stadium in 2016, and it did not go well, as he allowed a career-high five home runs in 4⅔ innings.

The Kid gets a statue. The sweetest swing there ever was.

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