Fifth in a series of spring training previews
To a segment of baseball people, fans and statisticians that continues to grow and grow, there is no higher authority than Bill James.
The godfather of analytics, whose reasoning and calculations helped launch the Moneyball movement, has taken the lead in heaping high praise on Nomar Mazara.
James went so far as to fearlessly forecast that the Texas Rangers outfielder will finish in the top five of American League MVP voting. That was in November. Within the past week, James pegged Mazara as the third-best left fielder in baseball.
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The Mazara love stems from him being a young left-handed hitter trending the right way at the plate. And Mazara played a lot of left field last season, more than was planned.
But he is slated to be the Rangers’ right fielder in 2018, the same position where he played 70 percent of his games last season. No matter where he plays, no one with the Rangers — nor James, apparently — is worried about Mazara.
The Big Chill isn’t worried either, and he will come to spring training with a different mind-set and higher expectations.
“My plan is completely different,” he said. “My mind is completely different. I know what I need to do now — hitting, defense-wise, everything. This is going to be my third year in the big leagues. I know exactly what I need to work on now.”
Mazara said that he needs to work on everything and has worked on everything this off-season.
Left-handed pitchers still give him problems, as only one of his 20 homers last season came against a port-sider, and off-speed stuff can still tie him up.
But he showed more pop at the plate, with 16 more extra-base hits in 2017 than in his rookie season, and took more walks. While his OPS was only marginally better and his average dipped 13 points, he made more hard contact and saw his exit velocity increase.
“There were a lot of ups and downs,” said Mazara, who drove in a team-high 101 runs. “At some points I was playing hurt, but I played through it. Hopefully this season I can stay healthy. It was a good season for a young guy like me, but from my side, I don’t think it was that good. I could have done better.”
But offense isn’t the full story on Mazara, who won’t turn 23 until April 26.
The Rangers’ plan last season was for Mazara to be the regular right fielder, with some Shin-Soo Choo, who was to be the regular designated hitter, sprinkled in.
Mazara, in his second season, would dutifully slide over to left field in games when Choo wasn’t the DH. And, for the most part, it worked out that way.
Choo, though, ended up playing more than half his 132 games in right field while Mazara spent 47 of his 131 games in left field. He isn’t as good there defensively.
In an off-season designed to make the Rangers better without spending lavishly, their plan entering spring training is the same as a year ago. Essentially, it’s no more Nomar in left field.
Choo is likely to get games in right field, as manager Jeff Banister believes that there is value in letting DHs occasionally play the field to keep their minds and body sharp. They might be timed on days when Mazara needs a day off against a tough left-hander.
Ryan Rua has a handful of games there, and it seems like the Rangers are willing to stick Drew Robinson anywhere on the field. But the plan, as it was in the off-season, is for Mazara to play right field even more than he did in 2017.