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Thoughts on the Nomar Mazara trade

Nomar Mazara is no longer a Ranger

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Texas Rangers v Oakland Athletics Photo by Jason O. Watson/Getty Images

The Texas Rangers have traded Nomar Mazara to the Chicago White Sox for outfielder Steele Walker. The Rangers have cleared their log jam at the corner outfield and DH spots, have opened up a 40 man roster spot, and have picked up a decent prospect.

That’s that, right?

Ah, if it were only that simple.

I remember when I wrote off Nomar Mazara. Signed to a record $4.95 million signing bonus on July 2, 2011, as part of the team’s big money international class, Mazara was seen from Day One as a huge upside, hugely exciting guy who was a potential middle-of-the-order bat, a guy who could be a game-changer with his raw power and offensive ability. He was part of a philosophical decision the Rangers made to put their amateur budget dollars in Latin America in the summer of 2011 rather than in the draft — Texas drafted Kevin Mathews and Zach Cone with their first round picks that year, passing on other, better, higher-priced players because Mathews and Cone would sign for slot, and the Rangers had chosen to go with slot picks in the draft and allocate their big dollars to J-2 guys.

I wrote Mazara off in early May, 2014. At that point, he had had a production season in the Arizona Rookie League in 2012 as a 17 year old, but then struggled in his introduction to full season ball in 2013, slashing .236/.310/.382. Repeating low-A in 2014, Mazara started slowly once again, and on May 16, 2014, after the first game of a doubleheader at Charleston, Mazara was sitting on a .211/.282/.313 slash line.

I remember in early May seeing Mazara seemingly drowning, and feeling that, yes, he was a 19 year old in A ball, but he was repeating the league, he was a bat-only guy, and he wasn’t hitting at all for the second year in a row. I mentally, in early May, chalked him up as a lost cause.

As everyone knows, Mazara broke out after that. He was 1 for 3 with a double in game 2 of the doubleheader. He picked up 5 hits in a 3 game set in Kannapolis in the next series. He went 2 for 4 with 2 doubles against Charleston at home, and then after two hitless games, went 2 for 4 with a triple and a homer against Kannapolis.

Mazara continued to mash as the season went on, and on August 3, 2014, he had slashed .295/.399/.562 for Hickory starting with that Game 2 in Charleston. He earned a promotion — not to high-A, but to Frisco — and slashed .284/.357/.443 the rest of the way.

Mazara cracked top 100 lists after the 2014 season. 2015 saw him spend most of the season in Frisco, before earning a promotion to Round Rock late in the year. The Rangers refused to part with him when the Philadelphia Phillies wanted him as part of the Cole Hamels deal that summer. Baseball Prospectus had him as the #5 prospect in baseball that offseason. Baseball America ranked him #21, MLB Pipeline had him at #18, and Keith Law had him at #9.

In 2016, Nomar Mazara started the season in AAA, and appeared likely to spend the bulk of the season there. Shin-Soo Choo, however, strained a calf muscle a week into the major league season, and Mazara was brought up to fill in for him. He performed admirably for a 21 year old, ended up sticking all year, and ended the season with a .266/.320/.419 slash line and a 0.5 bWAR. It appeared to be something to build on, a foundation that would allow Mazara to develop into an All Star outfielder.

That, of course, didn’t happen.

In a way, Mazara is a player development success story. The Rangers found a guy who they signed to a record bonus as a 16 year old, and that teenager developed into one of the top prospects in baseball, and then a guy who has been a major league regular for four seasons, and then a guy who fetched a second round pick from 18 months earlier in a trade. Even big dollar signees often flame out, especially big dollar guys signed when they are 16. Mazara is going to spend at least a half-decade, likely longer, in the majors as a starting outfielder.

That’s good.

In a way, however, Mazara is a player development failure. A guy who was a top 20 prospect in baseball, who was good enough to hold his own in the major leagues as a 21 year old, who has some of the most impressive raw power in the game, has spent four seasons stagnating. His home runs by season are 20, 20, 20, 19. His OPS+ by season is 93, 90, 96, 96. His wRC+ by season is 91, 87, 95, 94.

That performance would be fine for a speedy center fielder. For a below-average, slow-footed right fielder, however, that’s not good enough. Nomar, during his time with the Rangers, was a sub-par starting outfielder, and did not show enough to indicate he was even going to get to average going forward.

And that’s why Nomar Mazara is no longer a Texas Ranger. He’s simply not good enough to warrant taking playing time away from Joey Gallo, Shin-Soo Choo and Willie Calhoun, who fill the same role he does. And with three spots for four players, he was the odd man out.

What the Rangers organization has to be asking themselves today — and what I’m sure they’ve been asking themselves the last couple of years — is where they failed with Nomar Mazara. How they got to the point that they are dealing a guy who looked like a cornerstone of their rebuilding effort just a few years ago. How they failed to unlock the potential in a guy they believed in so strongly.

The very short answer on this is, as we have discussed before, Nomar hit the ball on the ground too much. That’s no secret — we have talked about this, and everyone knows it. Since Nomar came into the league, there are 292 players with at least 1000 plate appearances. Of those 292 players, only 38 have hit the ball on the ground a higher percentage of the time than Nomar.

One of the things that Nomar earned praise for was his approach — you’d hear writers and broadcasters praise him for not trying to crush every ball, for being willing to go the other way. His swinging strike rate of 10.8% from 2016-19 is consistent with that — he was 125th out of 292 in swinging strike rate, which is reasonable for a power hitter.

But the problem was what he swung at, and what he made contact with. Mazara swung at 34.4% of pitches outside of the zone in that period, ranking 63rd out of 292, but he only swung at 64.9% of pitches inside the strike zone — 211th out of 292. That results in a player whose swing rate is right in the middle of the pack — 46.8%, 145th out of 292 — but who is chasing or making contact on too many bad pitches, and not take advantages of the hittable ones.

A player can succeed swinging too much at pitches out of the zone and not enough at pitches in the zone — Adrian Beltre had a 34.7% O-Swing rate over that period, and a 64.8% Z-Swing rate, which is almost an exact match for what Mazara did. The difference, however, is that Beltre could do damage on a pitch just about anywhere. Nomar Mazara is no Adrian Beltre.

Its been suggested by a few fans that the Rangers didn’t think that Nomar needed to change, that they didn’t know that he needed to put the ball in the air more and drive the ball more, that they were oblivious to what was apparent from looking at the batted ball numbers. Levi Weaver’s article on the deal, however, would seem to suggest otherwise, saying that Nomar “never truly bought into the organization’s vision for the long-term things that could make him better.”

Chris Woodward came to Texas and said he had a plan for what the organization was going to do. He said 2019 was about the players learning what the plan was and what they needed to do, and 2020 was about implementing that. His quotes also seemed to suggest that those who didn’t buy in, or who he didn’t feel were, or would be, implementing the plan would be squeezed out. The trade of Nomar Mazara would seem to be a consequence of that.

Ultimately, even if this a matter of the player not buying in and committing to the plan, rather than the organization not realizing that the player needed to make changes, it reflects poorly on the Rangers. One of the things that we have heard the team prioritizing over the last year is getting coaches and instructors who know how to communicate with the players, particularly on the minor league level, and get buy-in on what they need to do to improve. That is something that, at least on the surface, they failed with in regards to Nomar Mazara when he was coming up.

Its a whole different game now that it was in 2011, when Nomar signed. If Nomar Mazara had signed with the Rangers in 2018 as a 16 year old, I suspect that the Rangers would have worked with him from the outset with analytic data, would have much more in the way of information in regards to what Mazara was doing and what he needed to change in order to maximize his potential. And they’d have coaches who grok the analytic data and can convey it to the player in a digestible manner.

And maybe it wouldn’t have mattered. Or maybe if the Rangers player development folks had tried implementing these changes and this information when he was a teenager, he would have been better able to incorporate it and adapt his approach to maximize his abilities.

Or maybe if he hadn’t made it to the majors as a 21 year old and hit 20 home runs and been locked into a starting job the next four seasons, changes would have been made. Maybe if the Rangers had sent him down in 2018 it would have helped. Or maybe it wouldn’t.

At the end of the day, we will never know what could have been. We only know that the Rangers failed in developing Nomar Mazara, failed in their efforts to have him grow and improve as a player the past several years, and that the Chicago White Sox will now have their shot.

Maybe a change of scenery will help. Maybe a new organization and new coaches will help Nomar grow as a player. Maybe development isn’t linear and he would have blossomed this year or next if he had stayed here. Maybe he will turn into the MVP candidate that Bill James predicted he would be. Maybe he will turn into a journeyman who bounces around the league the next 8-10 years.

We will have to wait and see.


Oh, yeah, the Rangers got a prospect from Chicago in this deal. I have been saying for months that Nomar Mazara’s trade value was minimal, that the combination of him having two not-that-cheap years of arbitration remaining (he’s likely to get $5-6 million this year, and then $8-10 million in 2021) and being a below-average regular was going to depress his value to the point that even a team willing to bet on the upside would not be willing to give up anything of real value for him.

As it turns out, I was wrong. Steele Walker is a lefthanded hitting outfielder who the Chicago White Sox took in the second round of the 2018 draft out of the University of Oklahoma, and who Baseball America ranked 8th in the ChiSox system. Walker was ranked #20 in the BA Carolina League top 20, meaning that he was ranked ahead of all the Rangers’ DEWDs in their rankings for the Carolina League except Sam Huff and Leody Taveras.

Walker’s skill set also is consistent with the recent shift in prioritization the Rangers have shown in seeking position players — he’s in the mold of Nick Solak and Davis Wendzel, a high makeup guy with a quality approach but questions about the tools and ceiling. He’s a center fielder right now but will probably move to a corner spot, and with Leody Taveras likely being the Frisco center fielder in 2020, I expect Walker will spend the bulk of his time in a corner spot for Frisco in 2020.

He seems like someone who could turn into David Murphy, a potential useful role player, and is more of a high floor/low ceiling guy than a potential All Star. For two years of Nomar Mazara, that’s a pretty nice return.