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Nomar Mazara has been better than you think

Nomar Mazara’s slash line for 2019 is poor, but the underlying metrics suggest better results will come

MLB: Toronto Blue Jays at Texas Rangers Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Looking at Nomar Mazara’s Fangraphs or B-R topline numbers, and one can only conclude that the Texas Rangers right fielder is having a bad year. Mazara is slashing .227/.287/.417 on the season. That gives him a wRC+ of 81, which would be the worst wRC+ of his career, and an OPS+ of 80, which would be the worst wRC+ of his career. Both bWAR and fWAR have him below replacement level.

Perusing that data, it is only reasonable to conclude that the much-touted changes the Rangers have been working on with Mazara to elevate the ball more and tap into his offensive abilities have failed, that Mazara, in his fourth season in the majors, has stagnated, and that maybe it is time to send him down to the minors or otherwise move on.

Contemplating all this, I decided to poke around in the underlying numbers to try to figure out what was happening with Mazara...and in doing so, I came to the conclusion that Mazara’s actual batted ball performance is not in line with his production, that the changes he’s been incorporating have been getting results, and that rather than sending Mazara down, the Rangers should be patient, because there’s reason to think that if Mazara keeps hitting like he has the first six weeks of the season, he’ll put up productive numbers.

First off, let’s look at some of Mazara’s peripheral offensive numbers. Mazara’s K rate is 18.2% — not just lower than last year, but the lowest it has been in his career. His ISO is .189 — the highest it has been in his career, albeit not by a huge amount (he has a career ISO of .169, and a previous career high of .178). So he’s putting more balls in play, and hitting for slightly more power...both of which are good.

We’ve talked about Mazara needing to hit the ball in the air more, and the results there are mixed. Mazara’s ground ball rate is 47.2%, which is well below his 2018 mark of 55.1%, but slightly higher than the 46.5% rate he had in 2017. His line drive rate is 22.6%, which is the best of his career. That’s a good thing.

Mazara’s fly ball rate is 30.2%, which is lower than you’d like, and while it is higher than the 26.6% rate he had in 2018, its lower than his 2017 rate and in line with 2016. So on the surface, his fly ball rate is basically the same as it was in his first two seasons in the majors.

However...Mazara’s infield fly ball rate is just 3.1% this year. IFFB% is the percentage of fly balls that are popups in the infield. That’s less than half of the rate of previous years. More of his fly balls are of the good variety than in past years. And his HR/FB rate of 18.8% is in line with last year’s 20.0%, and better than in 2016 and 2017.

All that suggests that while he is hitting the ball on the ground too much, he is making more good contact. Fangraphs shows his hard hit percentage this year at 45.3%, compared to a 37.5% rate last year and a career rate of 33.8%. That’s 39th out of 174 qualified hitters in hard hit rate, per the Fangraphs version.

Statcast has a metric I like to look at called xwOBA. xwOBA gives you what a players expected wOBA would be, based on the player’s EV and launch angle for every ball he puts into play (including home runs), along with Ks, walks and HBPs. I find it helpful in helping to identify players who are making good contact but are not finding holes, as compared to players who just aren’t hitting the ball well.

Per Statcast, Nomar has a wOBA of .305, which is not good for a right fielder. He also has an xwOBA of .361, which is good for a right fielder. There are 334 players with at least 50 plate appearances this season. 26 of them have bigger negative spreads between their wOBA and xwOBA than Mazara. Mazara’s xwOBA of .361 is 83rd out of those 334 players this season.

Where is Mazara falling short? Batting average on balls in play. Mazara has a BABIP of .240 this season — well below his career .292 mark, and 151st out of 174 qualifying hitters per Fangraphs. He had a .298 BABIP in 2018, .293 in 2017, and .299 in 2016. Hitting the ball harder, and having a higher line drive rate, generally results in a player having a higher BABIP, not a lower one. A very simplistic view is that Mazara is having bad luck on balls in play.

And this is supported by the Statcast data. Mazara’s xBA (expected batting average) this year is .288. His actual batting average is .227. Out of the 334 players with at least 50 plate appearances, there are only 12 with a bigger negative spread. Statcast sees Mazara as having contact that would be expected to generate a .326 BABIP, not the .240 BABIP he actually has.

What does all this mean? Well, if Mazara actually had a .361 wOBA this year, he’d have a 120 wRC+. If he had the extra 61 points in batting average Statcast suggests he should have, and all those extra points came from singles, he’d be slashing .288/.348/.483, and we’d all be encouraged about the progress he’s made this season.

The counter to that, of course, is that Mazara is slow, he gets shifted against, he’s a pull hitter, and so he’s going to underperform his xwOBA. And that’s reasonable...but should he really be expected to underperform it by that much? Joey Gallo, an even more extreme pull hitter who gets shifted on more than Mazara, is underperforming his xwOBA by 21 points. If Mazara were just underperforming by 21 points, he’s at a .340 wOBA, which would be around a 107 wRC+, which would still be a rate where Mazara is performing at an acceptable level.

It brings to mind this quote from the immortal philosopher, Crash Davis:

Know what the difference between hitting .250 and .300 is? It’s 25 hits. 25 hits in 500 at bats is 50 points, okay? There’s 6 months in a season, that’s about 25 weeks. That means if you get just one extra flare a week - just one - a gorp... you get a groundball, you get a groundball with eyes... you get a dying quail, just one more dying quail a week... and you’re in Yankee Stadium.

And that, really, is the difference between Nomar Mazara’s results this year being good, and his results this year being what they are now. One more ball in play per week falling in, and we aren’t fretting about what’s wrong with Nomar Mazara, or whether we should send him down to AAA.

To be clear, all this isn’t to say that Nomar is fine, or that he’s fixed. Even his expected numbers have been down the past couple of weeks. He may end up reverting to what he has been in the past, with this early stretch of 2019 being an aberration, in regards to his quality of contact.

But after having done this deeper dive into the numbers, I’m much more convinced that Nomar has improved in 2019, even if the results are’t showing it yet.