Chris McCosky | The Detroit News
Lakeland, Fla. — You really need to be careful about making hard and fast judgments about players off a small sample size. Especially in baseball, where the normal measuring base is 162 games.
Take new Tigers outfielder Nomar Mazara as a case study. From 2016 through 2019 with the Rangers, he averaged 547 plate appearances a season, hit .261, slugged .435 and averaged just under 20 home runs and 77 RBIs.
Last year, the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, he was traded to the White Sox and was limited to 149 plate appearances. He hit .228, slugged .294 and hit one home run with 15 RBIs. Is it fair and just to define his worth based on his diminished production in less than a fourth of a normal sample?
Of course not. And yet, Mazara stayed on the free agent market until Feb. 12, when the Tigers, who had been courting him all winter, signed him for one year and $1.75 million.
“Last year was crazy for everybody, not only me,” said Mazara, who finally cleared his intake testing and officially joined the Tigers Thursday. “There’s still good players out there (on the free agent market). Just the fact that I signed so late is crazy, but you can’t blame people. You just have to wait for your opportunity.
“I am thankful to be here now.”
He’s thankful, too, to be clear of the nightmare that was 2020. You know that dream where you are trying to get somewhere, you see the destination right in front of you, but you just can’t get there? Welcome to Mazara’s world last year.
“It was really tough,” he said. “I got strep throat and that made me miss like 14-15 days and then they made me do the whole COVID protocols again. I was just sitting at home watching TV. I couldn’t do anything, no working out, no hitting.”
Imagine signing a $5.56 million deal with a new team and not be able to be out there competing as they get off to a 7-4 start? Just watching on TV.
“By the time I started practicing again, they’d had already played 10-12 games, so I only took like three days of practice. My adrenaline was like, I want to be there with the guys. I need to be there. At the end of the day, that did affect me — just taking three days of practice and go to war.”
He said the pressure he felt wasn’t from the contract or the expectations that come with it. The pressure came more from the condensed season and knowing that missing 10 games was the equivalent of missing 27 in a normal season
“Everything was feeling good in the first spring training,” he said. “Then when I had those two weeks off, I was like, what’s going on? When am I going to be able to go back? Just watching the games and seeing how good they were doing.
“I think that was what put it in my mind to take just three days of practice — telling myself I was ready when I was not.”
And when the predictable struggles occurred early on and he fell into a hole, then it was like being in quicksand. The harder he tried to climb out, the deeper he sank.
“Last year was one of those years where it was the first time I ever felt like nothing was working for me,” Mazara said. “I was just trying to get back going again. It was crazy. If it would’ve been a normal season, I’d be like, OK, let me work on this and in the second half I’ll get there. But it was on my mind like, there’s no time. I’ve got to get it right, right now.”
And as these nightmares go, just as he was figuring it all out and getting back to feeling like his normal self — he hit in five of his last six games and went 3 for 6 with a double in the wild card series — he woke up and the dream was over.
“You can’t look at that now,” he said. “It’s in the past. I am in a good position. My swing feels good. I faced live pitching (Thursday) and I’m right where I’m supposed to be right now.”
His session on Thursday was impressive, by all accounts, and exhausting. He saw at least 30 pitches — some from Franklin Perez, but most from Julio Teheran — and he was driving the ball with his usual authority.
“It was a great feeling,” said Mazara, who bats left-handed and has a career 110 OPS-plus against right-handed pitching, including 65 of his 80 homers. “I was seeing the ball really good and I was able to put the barrel on balls. I didn’t feel that at all last year.”
Scott Coolbaugh was the White Sox assistant hitting coach last year and worked with Mazara through the whole process. So imagine Mazara’s delight when he learned, after he signed, that Coolbaugh was the new hitting coach in Detroit.
“He’s a great human being,” Mazara said. “I’ve known him since I was 16 years old because he was in the Rangers organization. I didn’t know he was here until I signed, but I was pretty pumped about it. I texted him right away.
“That’s my guy.”
What they worked on most was trying to get Mazara’s swing path back where it used to be. He was never a steep launch-angle guy, but last year it fell to 6.7 degrees, the most level his swing has ever been. The result was his least productive offensive stretch, despite a career-best 49% hard-hit rate.
Neary 50% of the balls he put in play (49.4) were hit on the ground last year.
“I had too much movement in my body before I make contact with the ball,” he said. “I wasn’t allowing myself to elevate the ball.”
The way he described it, because he was feeling uncomfortable in the batter’s box or with his swing, he was unconsciously over-compensating with his hands and body. And by the time he got to contact point, he was either too early or too late.
“When you feel 100% and your mind is right, you take your A swing,” he said. “But when your swing is not 100%, I was putting so much movement on my body that by the time I make contact, I couldn’t elevate the ball.
“Now I don’t have that much movement and I have the launch angle I want. That’s key for me. Last year I could do it in the cage, but I didn’t feel it in my hands and I couldn’t take it into the games.”
In his live session Thursday, though, everything was clicking.
“That’s what I want,” he said. “I was excited to feel that. You’re going to see a lot of good things this year.”
Mazara drew interest this winter from several teams, but the Tigers were the first and the most persistent of his suitors. He saw them add Robbie Grossman. He saw them add Wilson Ramos. He is friends with fellow Dominicans Jeimer Candelario and Willi Castro. And add in the AJ Hinch factor, well, his decision became pretty easy.
“I played against AJ for a long time (in the American League West),” he said. “A lot of people tell me he’s a great guy and just by the fact that we had a conversation yesterday — he is a great guy. He’s talking about the environment here and he’s going to change the mentality — he’s not fooling around.
“He’s a winning manager and we’re going to change the culture here. We want to win and we have the people here to take the next step. That’s what we want.”