Winning is hard.
In baseball, every night you’ll have a winner and a loser in parks across the country. Overall, you only get one winner on the season. The World Series trophy makes its winter home in but a single city, so 29 other will be disappointed.
So when there’s only one ultimate winner, you have to manufacture victories.
You look to regular season victories, trades that went your way, or players you develop that make your farm system looking productive. All of this is a grand waltz meant to placate fans, because they want to feel like winners. Those things give hope, and hope turns into more trips through the turnstiles and more games on the television.
Texas might want to strike up the win factory a little earlier than expected this season.
With the Astros out to a Boltian lead in the division and the only hope for postseason play being a wildcard berth, this season looks like it will be one that results in losing. That knowledge necessitates a turn to other victorious bullet points with the subtle waft of next year lingering in the air above.
One of those success baubles is Nomar Mazara.
The former J2 bonus baby was forced into active duty in three level stadiums last year, and when you factor in he couldn’t legally drink when the season started he held his own. Flashes of greatness were followed by doldrums caused by being a rookie.
So what’s 2017 brought us for the budding Dominican cornerstone?
More of the good, less of the bad.
Covering the basics
The results this year for Mazara have been better across the board.
Every metric in the traditional slash, batting average on base percentage and slugging, are up from last season. He’s walking about 2% of the time more, striking out a skosh less, his weighted runs created plus is over 100 after being in the mid-90s last year, and he’s accumulated as much WAR in this season’s 66 games (1.0) than he did all of last year’s 145 games (1.2).
This is what you expect from young hitters who get more plate appearances in the bigs. They feel more comfortable against higher velocity, they’re more used to the big league breaking stuff, and their mental process is more clear.
Consider that last one for a moment. Mazara was 20 years old when he debuted at the highest level of his profession. Despite the lack of outward expression of such emotions, his mind had to be swimming in thoughts and concerns. It’s natural and normal, so don’t construe that as a detriment.
As he accrued service time becoming more used to this reality, it’s only logical that it became more familiar allowing him to relax. When you’re not worried about getting lost in an unfamiliar city and ballpark, it’s a lot easier to track that medium fly ball or smack that curve for a double.
What we’re seeing is that natural evolution on display, and the results are quite favorable for all involved.
How’s the process by which those results are achieved looking?
Sinking and sliding
Let’s get a look at what Maz is doing against specific pitches this season compared to last. Pitch recognition is a skill that the better you are, the better you hit. Shifts in results by pitch are decent indicators that a player is more comfortable against various pitches, and also gives hurlers less options to use against him.
The two pitches that leap off the screen in a positive way are the slider and sinker.
In 2017 Mazara’s seen the sinker second most of all pitch types, just as he did last season. Maz had great success against sinkers last season, with a .303 average, a .494 SLG, and .191 ISO. This season, Maz is mauling sinkers with a .409 average, .796 SLG, and .386 ISO. It should come at no shock, but the majority of Maz’s homers have come off the sinker (4).
Moving onto the slider, there’s a similar trend. Last year versus the slide piece, Mazara hit .221, slugged, .338, with an ISO of .118.
You know what’s coming next.
Against sliders this season he’s notched a .226 average, a .548 SLG, and a .323 ISO. To say he’s hitting for massive power on this pitch is a massive understatement.
Illustrating this further, Mazara has the same amount of homers (3) on both sliders and four seam fastballs. Mazara has seen 239 less sliders this season, 403 to 164.
Put another way, Mazara has already hit the same number of homers off those two pitches by June 21st than he did all season in 2016.
To answer your question, yes that’s good.
Put that ball in the air like you just don’t care
Anyone familiar with baseball has noticed we’re undergoing a fly ball revolution in baseball. The prevalence of stats like launch angle, exit velocity, and a burning hatred of the ground ball have led more players and instructors extolling the virtues of fly balls.
Regardless of your thoughts on that (#TeamFlyBall here), what can’t be denied is Mazara’s use of the fly ball has been both pronounced and effective this season.
This year has seen Maz both raise his fly ball rate from last year, 29% to 38% while dropping his ground ball rate from almost 49% to 42%. What’s almost more interesting about Mazara’s fly ball rate though isn’t so much how often he hits them. It’s where.
Here’s a spray chart for Mazara’s 2017 courtesy of Fangraphs.
Notice that while a lot of Mazara’s homers (black dots) are pulled to right field, a lot of his overall fly balls (blue dots) are sent the opposite way. There’s plenty of opposite field power for Maz, even if most of those flyballs aren’t over the yard (yet).
This chart also shows off something unique: balls in play distribution. Mazara doesn’t really have a concentrated area where all balls go. If the dots confuse you, the numbers might help clarify. Mazara pulls just under 34% of his balls, 35% go towards the center, and 31% go opposite field. In an area where shifting is the cat’s meow, Mazara is practically shift proof.
Defending the defense
There’s been a lot of criticism this year about the Texas outfield defense in general, Mazara in specific. There’s an idea that he regressed from last season, or that he wasn’t ever that good.
It’s worth noting that while we will cite some stats here, publicly available numbers for defense aren’t perfect. The ways we measure defense are flawed, so while we can use what we have as a good indicator they’re not iron clad.
Our first snapshot comes in the form of UZR/150 (Ultimate Zone Rating/150). This number helps measure defensive aptitude, and it’s also normalized so you can compare numbers without worrying about discrepancies in sample size.
Last year across all outfield positions, Mazara’s UZR/150 was 5.7.
This season? 5.4.
Looking at Defensive Runs Saved (DRS), last year Maz was a -5.
This year? -4, a slight improvement.
Moving to Insider Edge fielding, Mazara is making slightly less “Routine” plays (99.7% to 98%). However, he is improved this year on plays deemed “Likely,” “Even,” and “Remote.” Remote in specific is worth nothing, as Mazara faced 9 Remote plays all last year while seeing 8 already this year.
Nobody is going to confuse Mazara with Willie Mays anytime soon, but he’s not as bad as your eyes tell you. He’s actually better so far this season than he was in 2016.
You are young and life is long and there is time to kill today
I’ve smacked y’all with a lot of numbers today. I want to bring this to a close with a much simpler number.
That’s how old Mazara is, turning that this past April. The progress Maz has made so far is wonderful, and is a great indicator of not just how good he is now but how good he can be. The accepted age for most major leaguers peak is 27, so The Big Chill has half a decade before his zenith arrives.
While his future is bright yet undetermined, his present is important because of what it represents for the team now. This is not going to be a successful season for Texas overall barring a monumental turnaround, but they’ll have a gleaming outfield beacon at which they can point.
In a season that will be short on winning and success, Mazara’s progress and prognosis represents at least one victory that team and fans alike can celebrate.
How would you say The Big Chill's second year is going so far? Share your thoughts with Samuel on Twitter @thesamuelhale.