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Chris Mazza is part of the 2021 Rays grand pitching experiment

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Moneyball? How about “Mazza Ball!”

MLB: Boston Red Sox at Atlanta Braves Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

The Tampa Bay Rays traded catching prospect Ronaldo Hernandez and utility prospect Nick Sogard to the Boston Red Sox in exchange for relievers Jeffrey Springs and Chris Mazza. Springs has pitched significant portions of the past three seasons in the majors and will slide into an already deep Rays bullpen mix, but maybe the more interesting trade target is Mazza, who will be 31 year old starter/long reliever with a 5.05 ERA over only 46.1 major league innings.

In most years, on most teams, a pitcher like Mazza would be an afterthought. But for Tampa Bay, coming off the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, he figures to be a part of arguably the most radical experiment in pitcher usage the Rays have tried yet.

The basic context for 2021 is:

  • Pitchers are more effective when batters don’t have many opportunities to look at their stuff (this is called the “times through the order” or “TTO” effect/penalty).
  • It’s generally believed to be bad for the health of a pitcher’s arm for him to throw many more innings in a season than he did the last.
  • No one in baseball threw more than 84 innings in 2020 (Lance Lynn), and no one on the Rays threw more than 57 innings (Tyler Glasnow).
  • These are uncharted waters. Everything about how to safely and responsibly transition a starting pitcher from a shortened season to a full season is a guess.

The Rays were already pushing the envelope on limiting their starters and spreading reliever workload, and for 2021, after declining to retain Charlie Morton and trading Blake Snell (two of their four legitimate innings-eating starting pitchers), they’ve gone in hard on the idea that they’ll spread those 2021 innings over a range of pitchers, and have loaded up on swing-man types.

Veteran free agents Collin McHugh and Rich Hill will likely slot into that role at the start of the season, alongside Josh Fleming and Trevor Richards, and it’s possible that Luis Patino, Shane McClannahan, Brendan McKay, and Brent Honeywell will join that bulk group at some point. But with all the uncertainty present as they head into camp, the Rays clearly wanted yet another bulk option.

Enter Chris Mazza, who Chaim Bloom of the Red Sox also turned to as a bulk option and spot starter to help his decimated pitching staff in 2020.

It’s a fascinating trade, as neither side holds the usual information asymmetric information on the other. Bloom knows Ronaldo Hernandez as well as anyone not at the Rays alternate training site, and the two sides understand and evaluate pitching in a similar way.

Mazza features a deep five-pitch repertoire: a good sinker, cutter, and slider, a show-me four-seam fastball, and seldom-used changeup that nevertheless flashes real quality.

Chris Mazza, 2020
Texas Leaguers

We know that the Rays pitching evaluation searches for the weird and extreme, and every single one of those pitches has interesting characteristics. Lets talk about how they fit together and why the Rays likely see Mazza has more than his 5.05 ERA.

The Breaking Balls

Probably the strongest component of Mazza’s repertoire are his two hard breaking balls. Flipping over to the Brooks Baseball numbers and looking at presenting their pitch shapes as Z-Scores (a good way of evaluating how unusual a pitch shape is), we see that his cutter is a little bit harder than the average, cuts gloveside a little bit more than average, and drops over a full standard deviation more than the average cutter.

Chris Mazza Brooks Baseball Z-Scores

Pitch Velo pfx HMov pfx VMov
Pitch Velo pfx HMov pfx VMov
Cutter 0.29 0.65 -1.29
Slider -0.58 0.89 -1.11

This is a good hard pitch with bite. It’s the type of cutter a pitcher can use to pound the zone as a primary pitch without needing to set hitters up for it to be successful. It’s not exactly the same, but I’d put it’s Rays cutter comp as Alex Colome.

In this example, Mazza had Randy Arozarena taking what he thought was up and in while the pitch broke over the inside corner for strike three.

Mazza pairs that cutter with a sweeping slider, and tunnels the two pitches well together. His slider is slower than the average, but it drops significantly more than the average as well, and has a ton of run. In a vacuum it’s better for breaking pitches to be hard than to be soft, but because of the way it functions as a pitch system alongside his cutter, I actually think the velocity separation is important here.

In this example, Mazza started the slider on the inside edge of the plate, and ran it to the outside. You can see why Margot thought he had a good pitch to hit, but Mazza had him out in front, and the pitch just kept traveling past the end of his bat.

It’s a good enough slider that it doesn’t just function as a platoon pitch. Mazza is very willing to throw it to lefties as well, and is able to effectively run it in on the back foot.

Mazza operates from the third-base side of the rubber, which, together with his three-quarters arm slot, plays up the already significant sweep on his breaking pitches even more.

The Sinker

Running armside, the other direction from his breaking pitches, is Mazza’s sinker, a hard live pitch that shares characteristics with other sinkers that the Rays have targeted over the past couple years like that of Aaron Loup, Cody Reed, Ryan Thompson, and Ryan Sherriff: lots of horizontal armside movement, and good speed for the movement that it gets.

Mazza’s version has average velocity, but runs 1.25 standard deviations more than the average, and drops 1.74 standard deviations more than the average, per Brooks Baseball.

In this example, you can see that Willy Adames sees cutter on the bottom inside corner, but the pitch is a sinker, which easily runs inside and below his bat.

One generally assumes that pitchers who lean on a sinker are going to generate ground balls, and Mazza did so in the minor leagues, but over the first 46 innings of his major league career that hasn’t been the case, with only a 33% groundball rate.

It’s possible this is just a small sample size oddity, but it is something to think about with Mazza’s mound position. That third-base positioning that plays up the gloveside sweep on Mazza’s breaking balls plays down that armside run that he’s getting on his sinker. The Rays have positioned their sinkerballers to play up armside run in the past (notably Adam Kolarek and Ryan Thompson) as a way to help jam same-handed batters and generate groundballs. This will be something to pay attention to with Mazza as he finds his way in Tampa Bay.

The Four-Seam Fastball

Generally the ideal four-seam fastball these days is one that rises significantly due to backspin. Mazza’s doesn’t. It rises a full two standard deviations less than the MLB right-handed average.

It’s possible that this “sinking” four-seam sinks enough to be interesting, and sometimes interesting means good, but in a vacuum this fastball looks like a bad pitch. But pitching doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and Mazza has produced a whiff on 19% of the four-seams he’s thrown, and 44% of the swings against those four-seams. Both of those whiff numbers are huge for a fastball and are the best in Mazza’s repertoire.

It works because hitters are looking for something else.

For example here’s Ronald Acuña Jr. swinging through a 92 mph four-seam meatball at the top of the zone because he’s hunting the sinker.

The best Rays comparison here is probably Yonny Chirinos. His four-seam isn’t amazing either, but because hitters have to adjust to the quality on his sinker it works as strikeout pitch.

The Changeup

The final pitch to talk about is Mazza’s changeup, which he’s only thrown 31 times in the majors and 17 times in 2020. It went for a ball over half of the times he threw it, and last year it drew only one whiff.

So why even mention it?

Well, take a look at its pitch shape.

RHP 2020 pitch shapes
Data from Pitch Info

This changeup has splitter-type downward action. By shape at least it’s a better version of the pitch type than Yonny Chirinos’s or Oliver Drake’s version. There’s really not a whole lot of pitches like it in baseball. The most similar offering is Hector Neris’s splitter, and Neris throws his splitter 50% of the time and gets whiffs on 50% of the swings against it.

There’s an obvious difference in feel, comfort, and command, but the comparison to Neris also brings us back to mound position. Both players throw from a lowered three-quarters arm slot, but Neris sets up on the extreme first base side of the rubber, from where he can work his splitter in under the swing of a righty or away from the end of the bat of a lefty.

Mazza’s changeup has the same action, but from his starting position some the armside run moves opposite the initial directional vector from the point of view of the batter.

The pitch has enough downward motion that, given good and consistent location, it can work no matter where Mazza begins his windup, but it does present and interesting question about which angles (if any) to attempt to play up.

Conclusion

It’s not often that pitchers break into the majors after the age of thirty, but he Rays are an unusual team who value unusual stuff, and are about to give Chris Mazza an unusual opportunity.

Any pitcher will look good when you just look at videos of their strikeouts, and we should definitely note that Mazza’s peripherals were not good in 2020. A 21% strikeout rate, 11% walkout rate, and a 33% groundball rate isn’t going to turn into an above average ERA over any significant sample — the 5.14 xFIP tells the right story there.

But breaking down Mazza on the level of his individual pitch types, there’s reason to believe he can improve on those peripherals. His sinker, cutter and slider are good. His four-seam fastball probably isn’t good, but it works. And his fifth option, the changeup he basically never throws, is a pitch to dream on.

Mazza has one option remaining, and he’s certainly not a lock to break camp on the 25-man roster. But somewhere in the stuff, in the deep collection of pitches and the question of which angles to emphasize, there’s a good pitcher who will pitch meaningful innings for the major league team.