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Nomar Mazara needs to make big-league adjustments

How can the 21-year-old Rangers outfielder progress toward stardom?

Texas Rangers v Colorado Rockies Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images

I don’t know which headline you remember about Nomar Mazara’s rookie season. The first ones overflowed with eye-popping tales of power. Then came the early signs of struggle, and the assurances that Mazara — nicknamed The Big Chill — wouldn’t be discouraged. And finally, there were the offseason notes that demanded improvement, and perhaps lowered expectations a bit.

Lower expectations never hurt anyone, per se, but there is an obvious headline that we tend to forget when we don’t see it coming: Mazara just played a full season of Major League baseball at age 21. That, in and of itself, is a shockingly rare feat.

The list of 500-plate appearance seasons played at age 21 or younger this millennium is short, and includes some incredibly bright stars. Mazara’s season is not notably impressive compared to some of the others. It probably indicates he’s got a few more things to figure out, but that he can figure them out at the Major League level.

That’s what makes his upcoming 2017 campaign interesting. Every big leaguer is making adjustments all the time — yes, even Mike Trout — but not many of them are doing so while also figuring out what they should order at bars. Mazara is in a very small group of recent players whose talents were both immense enough and refined enough to deliver them to the majors at this age. Perhaps those talents delivered him to Texas before the finishing touches were put on his development. Or perhaps those final steps just couldn’t be taken against minor-league pitching. Either way, watching him choose which part of his development to prioritize will be fascinating.

The day after Mazara debuted in the majors, Baseball America’s report on the then-newcomer reminded readers of Mazara’s progression from a 16-year-old with a mysteriously large bonus to a consensus top-50 prospect, part of which was cutting down on the swing-and-miss that was once a substantial part of his game.

Mazara has evolved from a power bat with a lot of swing-and-miss into a mature hitter for his age with a promising blend of contact and power. He’s a smart hitter who has a good plan at the plate with the ability to make adjustments within an at-bat. Mazara doesn’t have premium bat-to-ball skills, but he has good hand-eye coordination, makes contact at a steady clip and uses the whole field. He drives the ball with authority, showing plus raw power in games and a chance to hit 20-25 home runs consistently in his prime.

In our current era, Mazara’s rookie numbers would lead to precisely zero accusations of having a swing-and-miss problem. Instead, he may have a when-to-swing problem.

A hitter’s profile is a complicated beast. Sure, that red lever is set to excellent contact skills, but sometimes, in the bowels of the machine, it yanks on the plate discipline chain, and things don’t quite run correctly. Push it back to really good contact skills, and, hey, maybe the whole thing purrs more efficiently.

For the visual learners among us: Mazara can hit this.

But that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. Mazara put a remarkable array of pitches in play last year, which kept his swinging-strike rate, and probably his overall strikeout rate, in the realm of the surprisingly reasonable while throwing his pitch selection a bit out of whack. Mazara chased 33.4 percent of the pitches he saw outside the zone, by FanGraphs’ O-Swing rate metric, while swinging at just 61.3 percent of the offerings he saw inside the zone. That’s a pretty rare combo that almost certainly hints at some confusion.

Pitchers learned to avoid the zone. Of those 21-and-under seasons that occurred since plate discipline data became available in 2002, he saw the fourth-lowest proportion of pitches in the zone, trailing only terrifying-looking Giancarlo Stanton, terrifying-sounding Bryce Harper and Freddie Freeman.

Atlanta Braves v Colorado Rockies Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images

Here we find an interesting case study for Mazara. Freeman entered 2011 with only a cup of coffee under his belt, and proceeded to hack at 36.3 percent of the pitches he saw outside the zone.

For perspective, that’s Adrian Beltre level, without the superhuman hand-eye coordination to make it work. I mean, Freeman did, and does, have superhuman hand-eye coordination compared to the rest of us (he made contact on nearly 66 percent of those chase swings), but not the super-superhuman ability that allows Beltre to do it and still never strike out (he made contact on a nutty 79.7 percent of his chase swings last year).

Anyway, what Freeman did next is instructive. It’s unreasonable to expect Mazara, or anyone, to completely alter the nature of their approach and become Jose Bautista or Joey Votto. It’s much more feasible to make seemingly small but meaningful shifts within that approach, though. In 2012 — his second full season — Freeman swung just as often, but shifted a healthy portion of his cuts from chase swings to zone swings. His line-drive rate jumped up, beginning its ascent toward the top of the league, and he also added fly balls, further cutting into his ground ball total. This was pre-Statcast, of course, but Freeman’s hard-hit rate also soared to a new level, where it has remained ever since that sophomore season.

By 2016, a veteran Freeman’s array of pitches put in play looked much tidier, and more carefully selected, than Mazara’s rookie version.

Balls in play with exit velocities, 2016
via Baseball Savant

Mazara’s ideal adjustment in year two probably looks similar to what Freeman did in his sophomore season.

Freeman’s results would look pretty ideal, too. Early-career Freeman is basically the mid-range outcome described in Mazara’s scouting report, and last year’s Freeman is a superstar. Refining Mazara’s approach could be a stepping stone toward tapping into his prodigious power more routinely, and more effectively. But it’s an adjustment worth making whether the instant rewards arrive or not.

Just last year — after taking 432 plate appearances at an even younger age — Astros uber-star Carlos Correa made a similar move, shifting a few percentage points from the chase category to the zone category, while swinging at the same clip. It just didn’t have quite the same effect. His OBP got a boost from an improved walk rate, and he made better contact, but he made less of it. And where better contact came in line drives and fly balls for Freeman, it remained tied up in grounders for Correa.

No one is complaining about Correa’s production, obviously, but he did a good thing, process-wise, and didn’t reap the rewards you might have expected from it. The complicated machine wasn’t fully in tune.

Luckily, Correa’s only 22. And if Mazara is still puzzling over some of his bat’s settings at this time next year, we’ll be able to say the same for him.

. . .

Zach Crizer is a featured writer at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @zcrizer.