One of the wild cards of the 2020 season will be the development of 25-year-old outfielder Nomar Mazara, who will look to finally break out, this time in a new environment. By now, Mazara has had four whole seasons to prove himself at the Major League level, and in 2019 he was largely the same player as he was when he debuted with the Rangers in 2016. Last year was critical for the marriage between Mazara and the Rangers; if Mazara were to establish himself as a building block for Texas, he needed to take the leap that the club has been expecting since it signed him in 2011 as an amateur. Unfortunately, that progress didn’t really come, and the Rangers dealt Mazara to the outfield-needy White Sox in December.
At 6’4″ and 215 lbs., Mazara looks the part of an MLB slugger: his frame alone is enough to convince spectators that he’s got superstar potential. He’s almost in the Giancarlo Stanton/Joey Gallo class of physicality, and his mammoth home runs lend credence to that comparison—Mazara hit the longest homer in MLB last year with a Statcast-measured 505-foot blast. When Mazara gets into one, your eyes light up at the thought of him mashing with regularity.
But the fact of the matter is that Mazara has yet to hit more than 20 homers in a season, and has in fact never put up a season of even 1.0 WAR by FanGraphs’ measure (Baseball-Reference agrees). It’s been frustrating for Rangers fans to follow his development, not because he’s been a bad player, but simply because they recognize he could be so much more.
While his average exit velocity of 89.1 mph only ranked in the 51st percentile last year, his hardest-hit balls tell a different story: his maximum exit velo, 114.6 mph, ranked number 41 among all MLB hitters. That’s something you might expect from a perennial 30-homer guy, not someone who’s plateaued at the 20-home run threshold. So what’s holding him back?
For one thing, his ceiling has thus far been limited by just average on-base skills: Mazara has never walked at a rate higher than 9% in a single season, meaning that his yearly on-base percentage has consistently hovered around .320, which is just about MLB-average. Even when he does tap into his prodigious power, that leaves him a step below the likes of Gallo or Stanton, who command enough respect from pitchers—and are disciplined enough—to generate above-average walk rates.
Last year, Mazara was at his most aggressive since entering the big leagues: he swung the bat more often at pitches both inside and outside the zone, and that change yielded mixed results. As you might expect, more swings means that he also missed more often than ever, though that didn’t adversely affect his strikeout rate. His walk rate was the lowest of his career, but the more assertive Mazara was able to post his best hard-hit and slugging numbers yet, though not by a huge margin.
But none of that looks to be the driving force behind Mazara’s stagnation; we’ve seen plenty of players put up big power numbers with subpar plate discipline. To this point in his career, the most frustrating part of Mazara’s game is the frequency with which he does damage. Mazara just hasn’t been able to get to that power as often as we’d like to see. And whether he reaches his ceiling in Chicago seems to hinge on one particularly troubling facet of his game, and that’s his inability to pull the ball in the air.
To preface: generally, pulling fly balls is an undeniably good thing, at least for players with the strength to swing for the fences: in 2019, MLB hitters posted a cumulative wRC+ on pulled grounders of -5. That’s really bad. 100 denotes average, so we’re talking about 105% below average. On the other hand, that number for pulled fly balls was an astronomical 403. So pulling the ball tends to be a profitable endeavor for MLB sluggers. That’s no surprise, and it’s the reason baseball has experienced a “fly ball revolution” in the last half-decade.
But Mazara has thus far been unable to take advantage of that revolution. When he pulls the ball, the results just haven’t been there simply because he hits the ball on the ground too often: in 2019, 66% of the balls Mazara hit to right field were grounders, by the far the least favorable outcome for a player of his stature. In essence, the best way to get extra-base hits—fly balls to the pull field—just haven’t been a significant weapon in Mazara’s arsenal. When he does pull the ball, he simply isn’t doing as much damage as he could be by elevating the ball. That’s been the case for his entire career, and frankly I think it’s the single biggest thing preventing Mazara from becoming an All-Star.
Interestingly, the same trend isn’t true of his hits to the opposite field: in fact, he hit the ball in the air much more often when going to left field (54.1 FB%, compared to just 23.9 GB%), and that translated to better results: Mazara posted a 139 wRC+ when going the other way, which is well above league average. His production on opposite field swings gives us a glimpse of what could be if he’s able to generate a similar batted-ball distribution to his pull field. And one figures those numbers would only get better when he pulls the ball, where it’s easier for hitters to get to their strength. He’s capable of elevating the ball, and good things happen when he does, but to this point he’s failed to do so when it’s most advantageous.
He’ll get the starting right field gig with the White Sox this summer, and while Chicagoans might have preferred their team to go after someone with a more solid track record, the fruits of acquiring Mazara might be sweeter than any other outfielder on the market. The South Siders have had success developing young players in recent years, and Mazara could fit right in with their burgeoning young core. So whatever the mechanical or mental source of the trend we described above, they’ll hope the player development staff can unlock what Texas couldn’t and tap into Mazara’s electric talent. That could make the difference between whether he merely tantalizes with his potential, or actualizes it.