TAMPA, Fla. — Nomar Mazara felt like he was just getting started when last season ended. He was hitting the ball hard, just not often enough and not where he needed it.
After a 7-for-40 slump with 16 strikeouts in 11 games from Sept. 1-16, 2020, he began to dig himself out over the final two weeks. He followed that with three hits in two games for the White Sox in their American League Wild Card series in Oakland, including an RBI double and an RBI single in the winner-take-all Game 3.
“It was probably the first year I ever felt like nothing was working for me. I was just trying to get going. If it would’ve been a longer season, I’d be like, ‘Let me work on this for the second half. I’ve got time.’ But it was on my mind, like there’s no time to do it. I’ve gotta get it right, right now.
“When I got there, it was like the last five games, and then I got hot in the playoffs. But that was late. But I took that as a lesson.”
A full schedule would’ve put him in position for a midseason turnaround and a contract push. Instead, the abrupt end left Mazara with the bizarre combination of a career-low .228 average and .598 OPS despite a career-high 48.9% hard-hit rate that ranked among the top 10% of Major League hitters.
That put the Tigers in position to snag a turnaround candidate for their retinkered offense.
“I’m in a good position, and my swing feels really, really good,” Mazara said. “I faced live pitching [Thursday], and I’m where I’m supposed to be right now.”
Even so, it took a while. The wait for Mazara and the Tigers to reach a deal ended up longer than the season. Then came the wait for Mazara to get through travel and testing and into Spring Training.
“There were a lot of teams involved. That’s why we were waiting,” Mazara said of the late deal on a one-year, $1,750,000 contract. “But we made the right decision, because the Tigers were one of the first teams to reach out. It made you feel this was the best opportunity for me.”
It wasn’t until after Mazara signed that he realized his new hitting coach was a familiar face. Not only did Scott Coolbaugh work with Mazara last year as assistant hitting coach for the White Sox, he worked with Mazara while he was in the Rangers’ system.
In some ways, Coolbaugh can help Mazara get back to his roots from Texas, where he posted three consecutive 20-homer seasons and fell one home run shy of a fourth straight year in 2019. In other ways, Coolbaugh can help Mazara pick up where he left off at the end of last year, having played a part in his late turnaround.
“Last year was tough. [Coolbaugh] saw that I was working my butt off to get things going,” Mazara said. “He was trying to figure it out, but my swing was just off. I was working early every day with him, doing extra hitting and everything. He’s one of the guys that is going to be there for you no matter what. No matter what the situation is, he’s always open.
“That’s what kind of hitting coach you want around you. No matter what the situation is, he’s going to open the door for you to help you out. I didn’t know he was here until I actually signed with the team. I was pretty pumped about it. I texted him right away. That’s my guy right there, so I’m excited to keep working with him. He has an opportunity to work with a lot of people in here.”
Just as big for Mazara, he still has an opportunity to get a good amount of work in this Spring Training before embarking on a full season. He’s expected to get into games possibly as soon as Sunday, giving him three weeks of preparation and conversation with Coolbaugh.
Mazara already feels well ahead of last year.
“I was putting so much movement in my body at the time I was making contact, I wasn’t able to elevate the ball,” Mazara said. “Now, I don’t have that much movement, and I’m able to get the launch angle that I want to. That’s the key for me. I’ve been working really, really hard.”