Where Nomar Mazara Seems to Have Improved by Jay Jaffe May 10, 2018 It feels like the Rangers have been playing out the string since somewhere around the fourth inning of Opening Day, even before injuries knocked Elvis Andrus, Adrian Beltre, Delino DeShields Jr., and Rougned Odor out of the lineup. But just because they’re already nine games below .500 (15-24) and no threat to contend for a playoff spot doesn’t mean they don’t mandate some attention. Beltre, who’s back in the lineup, is an all-time great, Joey Gallo is a fascinating player, Bartolo Colon is the eighth wonder of the world, and if you don’t want to see what Jurickson Profar can do with regular playing time after so many setbacks, you must be some kind of monster. Right now, though, the Ranger to watch is Nomar Mazara. The 23-year-old Mazara has been on some kind of tear lately. Over his past nine games, he’s hit seven homers, including two against the Tigers on Wednesday. In the seventh inning, he tied the game with a solo homer off Daniel Stumpf, and in the 10th inning, he won it with a walk-off shot off of Warwick Saupold. Get outta here: https://mediadownloads.mlb.com/mlbam/mp4/2018/05/10/2025533583/1525915330849/asset_1800K.mp4 That second shot, a scorcher down the right-field line, had an exit velocity of 117.1 mph. Coming into Wednesday, there had been just five homers of 117.0 or more, two by Giancarlo Stanton and one apiece by Marcell Ozuna, Hanley Ramirez, and Kyle Schwarber. Hours after Mazara joined the club, so did Aaron Judge — the owner of seven such shots last year, including a season-high 121.1-mph homer on June 10 — via a laser into Yankee Stadium’s Monument Park. Anyway, it’s a cool group to be part of. Mazara now has 10 homers, which is tied with five other guys for fourth in the AL behind Mookie Betts (13), Gallo, and Mike Trout (both 12). And while Stumpf and Saupold won’t be mistaken for anybody’s relief aces, the list of pitchers Mazara has homered off of in 2018 includes the winners of the last four AL Cy Young awards (Corey Kluber, Rick Porcello, and Dallas Keuchel) as well as 2016 AL Rookie of the Year Michael Fulmer. Mazara is already halfway to his career high of 20 homers, which he set as a rookie in 2016 and matched last year. In this day and age, however, 20 homers doesn’t move the needle much, not for a strapping 6-foot-4 corner outfielder who was touted for his power as a prospect, and not for one playing in a hitters’ park. And frankly, while Mazara showed flashes of brilliance in his two full big-league seasons, starting with a home run and three hits in his major-league debut on April 10, 2016, he’s failed to sustain it for very long. Pore over his splits and you’ll see that in five of his first 12 major-league months, he’s failed to maintain a .400 slugging percentage, and in two more, he cleared that bar by five points or fewer. In four months, he’s fallen short of a .300 on-base percentage. That’s not getting it done. In all, Mazara hit .266/.320/.419 with a 94 wRC+ and 0.7 WAR as a 21-year-old rookie, and then .253/.323/.422 with a 92 wRC+ and 0.1 WAR last year. Aside from his RBI totals (64 in 2016, 101 last year), there wasn’t a whole lot of difference between the two campaigns, and between the low OBPs, a lack of speed, and dreadful results against lefties, none of it amounted to much more than a young player surviving at the big league level. Surviving at the big-league level at that age ain’t nuthin’, though; it offers hope for growth. Our preseason Depth Charts projection forecast a .273/.338/.463 line with 1.9 WAR for Mazara, and so far, he’s outdoing that, hitting .294/.357/.545 for a 137 wRC+ and 0.8 WAR. But aside from this year’s early power outburst, it’s not yet clear that Mazara has turned the corner, as we’re still squinting at small sample sizes. He’s swinging at slightly fewer pitches outside the zone (31.0%, compared to 32.9% last year), which is good but hardly definitive of a breakout; his strikeout and walk rates (21.7% and 7.6%) and swinging-strike rate (10.8%) are more or less in line with his career marks. That said, Mazara has shown progress in a couple regards that bear watching. First of all, while his whiff and whiff-per-swing rates against breaking pitches haven’t changed drastically, he’s doing considerably more damage against them when he connects: Nomar Mazara vs. Breaking Pitches Year AB HR AVG SLG Ex Velo xwOBA 2016-17 265 9 .200 .332 88.2 .267 2018 35 4 .400 .771 91.5 .385 SOURCE: Brooks Baseball Sample sizes, sure, but we’re not pronouncing him as unlocking the mysteries of the universe, we’re just looking for signs that things are moving in the right direction, and this is one. Relative to 2016-17, he’s also doing a bit better than before against changeups and about the same against fastballs, though there’s currently a wide split between two- and four-seamers (good against the former, bad against the latter) that doesn’t show up in his earlier numbers. I’ll spare you the squinting. The other sign of progress is Mazara’s performance against lefties. To their credit, the Rangers haven’t sheltered the kid from the hard truths about same-side pitching, and man, they have been hard. Among lefties with at least 200 PA against southpaws in 2016-17, his 51 wRC+ — a .231/.282/.295 line with two homers and 59 strikeouts in 252 PA — was the second-lowest in the majors, and the 16th-lowest of the 2007-17 period. If an older player did that, you’d cast him as a platoon guy, a Matt Adams or an Adam Lind, but in a young player, you can afford to see if he comes around. This year, in 52 PA against lefties, Mazara is hitting .277/.346/.532 with three homers, 16 strikeouts and a 133 wRC+. While the strikeout rate is higher (30.9% versus 23.4%), obviously that’s a worthwhile tradeoff for not hitting like a mid-1970s futility infielder. Will Mazara’s gains against breaking balls and lefties hold? Probably not to this extreme, but if they’re even half as big as they appear to be right now, they’ll constitute significant advances for a 23-year-old former top prospect. The Rangers have another three-quarters of a season left for us to find out.