Marcell Ozuna recently hit Will Smith in the head with his backswing. What's up with that?
The last home run I ever hit in college was an eventful one. We were playing Palm Beach Atlantic on the road in a Friday night game late in the season. It was the top of the third and I came up for my second at bat of the game. I got a really good pitch to hit in the form of a middle-away fastball, a pitch I loved driving to left-center. I next heard and felt two *pings* in rapid succession.
The first was me making contact with the ball. I smooooooked it. The second was me making contact with the catcher's head on my backswing. I smooooooked that too.
I'm not exaggerating when I tell you I thought I might've killed this guy. He wore a traditional two-piece catcher's mask, as opposed to the hockey goalie-style masks many catchers opt for today. The latter offers more protection, especially in the sides of the head. I spun around after the second *ping* to find him on the ground at my feet like a sack of potatoes. I can't remember exactly what I said, but it was something to the effect of, "OHHH SHIT ARE YOU OK?!" as I bent over to check on his apparently lifeless body.
The next thing I heard was "RUN!" That came from our manager. In baseball, one is supposed to run after putting the ball in play, but alas, I'd forgotten to do so based on the possibility of having just committed involuntary manslaughter. I dropped the bat (weapon?) and ran to first, though it didn't really matter; the ball had already gone over the left-centerfield fence by the time I got out of the batter's box. My final collegiate home run. Didn't see it.
I touched home plate and, thankfully, the catcher was sitting up and looked fine. I'm not sure if he lost consciousness or if he was just lying on the ground assessing the damage before getting back up, but he managed to stay in the game after the trainers checked on him, I have no idea how.
It's important to note that I had already crushed this guy with my backswing in my first at bat. He kept trying to steal the low strike by creeping up towards the plate, to the point where I could actually see his outstretched glove out of the corner of my eye as I stood waiting for the pitch. I also have a one-handed finish and big backswing. All of these things point to him being at risk of wearing a bat to the head, and that's what happened, multiple times.
So what's with this rambling story about a dangerous Division II home run? Well, it applies to the Marcell Ozuna-Will Smith hullabaloo from earlier this week.
Ozuna v Smith
Atlanta Braves OF/DH Marcell Ozuna hit Los Angeles Dodgers catcher Will Smith with his backswing in their series opener this week. It resulted in a flyout to left field, not a home run (Sheehan: 1, Ozuna: 0). As he was walking back to his dugout, Smith exchanged some words with him, which led to the benches and bullpens spilling onto the field. No real fighting was done and no ejections were made, but it ignited a debate as to who, if anyone, was at fault.
Here's what Smith had to say:
"I was just mad. He hit me in the head with his bat pretty hard. It's not the first time he's done that to me. He's done it to other catchers around the league. I just felt like there comes a point where I needed to say something there. In the moment, it kind of got a little heated. It's something he's not doing on purpose. But you do it enough times you'd think he'd fix it."
It's also relevant that Smith suffered a concussion earlier this season, so this is a sensitive area for him, literally and figuratively.
As for Ozuna, he had this to say:
“He said, ‘No, you’ve got to fix it.' I said, ‘I’ve got to fix it, why? You want me to change my mechanics? If you throw an inside pitch, you’re trying to steal a strike, what do you want me to do? I’m gonna swing like that.’”
Another relevant detail is that Smith was not just set up on the inside corner, but off the plate inside. He wanted this pitch IN.
Now that we have the details, how do we sort through this unfortunate incident?
Tough but Unavoidable
To me, both of these players have sound reasoning on their side, but Ozuna has more of it. Sorry. I know he's one of the most disliked players in the league after his domestic violence-related incidents and "I'm Ozuna from the Braves" fiasco. And his quote about "never trying to hurt anyone," although clearly related to his backswing, is about as tone deaf as they come. I get it.
But in this particular situation, you have to give the hitter some slack. You might not fully grasp this if you've never played baseball at a somewhat high level, but altering your back swing is a very difficult thing to do, and often, a bad idea.
The backswing is just not something a hitter focuses on, like, ever. It is simply the split second between your swing and you running. Ozuna could tweak his backswing, but this would involve either keeping two hands on the bat, which, after the millions of one-handed finishes he's had in his life, might mess with his head at the plate, or he could alter the depth and trajectory of his one-handed finish, which would probably occur by altering his actual swing.
He also could move forward in the batter's box, so as to create a greater distance between himself and the catcher. But this would compromise his ability to catch up to high velocity. The batter's box has become more of a suggestion in recent years, as hitters regularly stand with one foot on the back line or even a little behind it. Sacrificing a few precious milliseconds of reaction time by moving closer to the pitcher is a bad idea.
All of these compromises are bad ideas when viewed through the lens of performance, which, let's be honest, is the one that matters.
It's an unfortunate situation, but it's kind of an "it is what it is" thing. It's easier and less compromising for Smith to adjust than Ozuna; you'll often see catchers tilt their heads or bodies away as soon as the batter makes contact, to avoid this exact issue. Hitters get paid for their swings, not their backswings. Matt Antonelli, a former big leaguer who is now a YouTube personality, breaks it down beautifully. You can't blame Smith for being peeved. But it's also tough to blame Ozuna or expect him to adjust.
It just...be like that sometimes.