Baseball was always going to be there for Nick Williams, because everything he did on a diamond came so naturally.
But college football was Williams’ focus entering his senior year at Galveston Ball High. His former football teammate, Mike Evans, was a wide receiver at Texas A&M, and Williams, also a receiver, was planning to join him.
But then along came the Texas Rangers in the second round of the 2012 First-Year Player Draft, bringing with them the kind of bonus money that makes a teenager rethink things. Plus, choosing professional baseball would eliminate all that pesky schoolwork.
“When the draft happened, I had the chance not to go to class,” Williams said. “I think I’m going to take that.”
Sure, he skipped school, but he has been working on a degree in baseball since. A player’s development is in lock step with applying the experience gained on the field, and Williams has started to show this season what he has learned since 2012.
His reward was a place in the Futures Game on All-Star Sunday, along with his mature-beyond-his years, steady-as-a-rock fellow outfielder at Double A Frisco, Nomar Mazara.
Mazara, who signed a record $4.95 bonus as a 16-year-old in 2011, has always had the know-how to match the talent. The high-upside Williams, though, has turned a corner this season after a brief Double A taste in 2014 and a stint in the Arizona Fall League.
“He’s got the talent and the tools and the natural ability to hit, but he’s doing a much better job of playing the game within the game and managing each at-bat,” farm director Mike Daly said.
“For every player it takes a certain amount of experience. His time at Double A last year and also in the Fall League helped him change his approach. To his credit, Nick has changed his approach and stuck with it all year.”
Williams has been batting first for Frisco much of the season, a spot where patience and an ability to hit with two strikes are necessities. Those weren’t strengths for Williams entering the season.
He likes to swing the bat — a lot. His aggressive style at the plate produced plenty of hits, but also prolonged funks and low walk totals.
Williams drew 19 walks in 404 plate appearances in 2013 for Class A Hickory and 22 in 486 PAs in 2014 for Class A Myrtle Beach and Frisco. This season, though, he has already drawn a career-high 27 walks in 350 PAs and is far more comfortable when behind in the count.
“I used to feel suicidal when I had 0-2,” Williams said “Now I feel like I’m 0-2 all the time because I’m a leadoff hitter, but it feels great. Take a couple pitches, don’t swing at the first pitch, and it’s helped me.
“Really just approach that’s what I’ve worked on this season. Getting more walks, but they don’t necessarily want me to take my aggressiveness away. So taking the first pitch early in the season really helped me learn who I was as a hitter.”
Mazara, meanwhile, might be too patient, though the Rangers aren’t complaining. At some point, he will begin to expand the strike zone when the game calls for it.
“We don’t want to change anything about Nomar,” Daly said.
Williams said that Mazara’s patience became a joke in spring training with fellow prospects Joey Gallo and Lewis Brinson. But Williams also knows that Mazara’s approach is something that would benefit him.
“He has his plan, and he’s not going to go away from it when he goes to the box,” Williams said. “Not necessarily that he has to swing at that one pitch or that one fastball, but he picks an area where he wants the ball, and if it’s there you never know what he might do with it. He might hit the ball out of the stadium.”
Mazara’s power was slow to come this season, with no home runs in his first 31 games. But he has 10 in the 49 games since, and the World Team’s starter at designated hitter entered the Futures Game with an average/on-base/slugging slash line of .283/.360/.440.
At 6-foot-4 and still only 20 years old, Mazara is considered as the Rangers’ No. 2 prospect behind only Gallo.
“The day I saw Nomar for the first time, I knew he was a big-leaguer and was going to be a big-leaguer for a long period of time,” said Triple A Round Rock manager Jason Wood, an assistant coach on the USA Team. “Every step, every move, every swing he takes is always under control. To be consummate professional at this young age is something that is going to go a long way.”
Williams, 21, has posted a .295/.354/.455 line with nine homers for Frisco and snapped out of a 4-for-30 skid Friday by going 7 for 7 in a doubleheader. He had received some sage advice from his roommate on the road.
“I told him, ‘Hey, man, don’t worry about that. You’re going to struggle at some point in the season, but you’ve got unbelievable tools,’ “ Mazara said. “He’s so good that he doesn’t even know it. He doesn’t know what he’s capable of doing. … He’s got unbelievable tools. If he keeps doing what he’s doing, he’s going to be in the bigs.”
Ah, the big leagues, where Williams and Mazara saw their Frisco teammate Gallo promoted to in early June. It made them realize that they aren’t that far away, and the Rangers have a recent track record of promoting players who have never been to Triple A.
That seems less likely this season than it would have last year as the Rangers turned their injury-wrecked season into a tryout camp. Triple A, though, is a possibility, though neither is focused on his next step.
Just going to the Futures Game was a nice reward.
“Just be where your feet are,” Mazara said. “So if I’m here right now, I don’t worry about Triple A, the big leagues. I’m just going to do my job here. If some time they want to move me to Triple A, I’m going to go there and do my job, too.”
Jeff Wilson, 817-390-7760