Nomar Mazara Is Hitting Balls in the Air (Yes, It’s Early April)

It’s appropriate to begin this post with a caveat: Today is April 6, and the Detroit Tigers have played all of four games. As such, any statistical snapshot is of the small-sample-size variety and should be taken with a large grain of salt.

With that out of the way, let’s take a look at what Nomar Mazara has done over four games — or more specifically, what he hasn’t done. Through his first 13 plate appearances, the perennial breakout candidate has a .538 slugging percentage, and only one of his six ball-in-play outs has come on a groundball. In his last eight times up, Mazara has gone 1B, 1B, 1B, HR, F-8, F-6, F-8, F-8. Moreover, the penultimate of those fly-outs, per StatCast, travelled 421 feet to the deepest reaches of Comerica Park.

Again, a small sample, tiny even. Still, might these early results portend the breakout that people have been waiting for? Is the 6-foot-4, 215-pound outfielder finally going to bid farewell to a high groundball rate — Mazara’s career mark is a worm-killing 49.4% — and begin driving balls into the air with some semblance of consistency?

With the caveat (there’s that word again) that we’ve been fooled before, Mazara might be on his way to doing just that. And contrary to what you might think, a swing change isn’t one of the reasons. I learned as much a few weeks ago when I asked the left-handed hitter about his longstanding groundball issues.

“For years, I’ve been working on it,” Mazara acknowledged. “It’s the fact that I had too much movement before I was able to make contact with the ball… my pre-pitch. I was moving my body, and at the same time I was moving my hands, so by the time I was making contact I was either out front or late; I was never on time. I don’t have that much movement now, so I’m allowing myself to make good contact and elevate the ball. I’m able to get the launch angle that I want, and that’s the key for me.”

A.J. Hinch agrees, albeit not to the extent that Mazara needs to hit moon shots. It’s more a matter of him making infielders a little less busy.

“Air doesn’t have to be a fly ball,” Detroit’s manager told me midway through spring training. “There’s a fine line between a fly ball and a pop up. But to elevate the ball in the first 90 feet, 100 feet, into the air, like a line drive… getting the ball off the ground is key for him to be more successful. He’s got a lot of power, and by getting him on plane, his damage will go up, his consistency should go up, and the soft context should go down. We don’t want soft contact on the ground.”

Mazara has shown an ability to leave the yard when he gets the ball in the air. The 25-year-old hit 20, 20, 20, and 19 home runs in his four seasons with the Texas Rangers, with one of his blasts measured by StatCast at 505 feet. That steady skein came to a cratering end in 2020. Mazara went deep just once — and logged a 67 wRC+ — in 149 woebegone plate appearances with the Chicago White Sox. The pandemic played a part. Mazara missed time with strep throat, then had to go through COVID-protocol quarantine. He never regained his footing.

Which brings us back to the here and now, and the glimpses of promise therein. As the aforementioned Hinch quotes had been delivered a few weeks ago, an update seemed in order. Yesterday I asked the Tigers skipper if Mazara’s hitting more balls in the air was likely small-sample randomness, or if he’s seen actual process improvements in the would-be slugger’s stroke?

“I’ve seen pitch-selection improvement,” answered Hinch. “I think that’s one of the big keys. [Robbie] Grossman has talked about it for himself. The power that he increased last year was getting pitches that he could pull in the air more often. If you swing at pitches that are more ground-ball pitches, you’re going to hit groundballs. That defeats the purpose. The selection of what pitches to hit, and when to elevate, is certainly key for Mazara. In this first series, we saw him be a little bit more selective on pitches that he could elevate.”

Following up, I asked Hinch about the excess pre-pitch movement that Mazara had cited back in March. Based on what he’s seen, and what he’s been told by hitting coach Scott Coolbaugh, are meaningful strides being made in that area as well?

“Cooley has talked to him about having a consistent set-up, and not having his head move too much,” replied Hinch. “You’ll see that he’s got quieter actions in the batter’s box. It’s not this big hand movement that’s all of a sudden creating some looseness in his initial movement to the ball. Cooley is working on simplifying things for him to keep his head still and allow his body to work mechanically to get the ball in the air.”

Which is what Mazara has mostly been doing. But again, it’s four games. Things could very well look different a week from now, a month from now, maybe by Memorial Day. Or maybe they won’t. Maybe Mazara is indeed morphing into a hitter who drives balls in the air, a player no longer an enigma, but rather a reliable run-producer. It’s always possible.

David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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3 years ago

Can anyone provide additional insight like does the DET hitting coach have a good reputation with this type of adjustment? Was it happening in spring training? Mazara is one of the few potential power bats available in my AL-only but I’ve been burned before making a big investment in him after his rookie year promise.