If you’ve been following the roster moves and decisions lately, you probably saw that the Royals decided on newly-acquired Vin Mazzaro for the fifth spot in the rotation, pushing Sean O’Sullivan to the bullpen. Of course, the schedule at the outset doesn’t require a fifth starter until April 16, the 13th game of the season. Until then, Mazzaro will hang around in extended Spring Training.
I admittedly don’t know too much about Mazzaro. I just watched his last start of the 2010 season against the Angels, in which he racked up this uninspiring line:
Mazzaro, Vin: 4.1 IP, 6 H, 5 ER, 5 R, 3 BB, 0 K, 2 HR
So, maybe that wasn’t the best game to watch to understand Mazzaro. Really, though, maybe it was a good one to see.
This all came around as I was wondering what we could expect from Mazzaro in the fifth slot. You might expect this, but the answer is this: not much.
Since I was able to watch this game, I’m going to look at Mazzaro’s ability through the lens of how he performed in that September 5th start.
Mazzaro started off strong, getting leadoff hitter Alberto Callaspo (hey, I know that guy!) to fly out. The next two batters went down smoothly, with Howie Kendrick grounding out and Bobby Abreu popping out to the catcher in foul territory. On the surface, that’s a pretty good inning. Mazzaro’s 12 pitches kept control of the situation and were in good enough spots to keep the Angels from getting solid knocks. Although Callaspo flew out to deep left-center, it was an easy out.
This is what you hope for from Mazzaro. It’s the positive outcome in the way that Davies has a positive outing now and then. While he doesn’t strike out many batters (5.8/9 IP in both 2009 and 2010), his groundball:flyball ratio improved from 2009 to 2010*, which likely helped his BABIP to drop below league average (.281 in 2010). If he can induce grounders and pop flies, Mazzaro gives you something that other teams’ pitching staffs aim for: pitching to contact. And with a Royals defense that’s very likely to be improved from 2010, that could be a good thing.
*When I say improved from 2009 to 2010, I mean from well, well below average to just below average. His groundball rate rose from 39% to 43% while his fly ball rate went in the opposite direction. It’s an improvement, but it’s nothing to call the press about.
The second inning echoed the beginning of the first. Mazzaro hit his spots against Torii Hunter and induced a slow grounder to get the first out. Against Hideki Matsui, he pitched much the same, though Matsui hit a seeing-eye grounder through the left side for a hit. Mazzaro then made Mike Napoli look pretty silly, inducing a weak grounder for a forceout, and gave up a bloop hit to center to Erick Aybar. After allowing a steal by Aybar and giving a walk to Jeff Mathis, Mazzaro got Reggie Willits to fly out to end the inning.
Vin Mazzaro doesn’t throw too hard, sitting mostly in the 91-93 range with his fastball. His key is hitting corners and keeping hitters off balance. In this inning, he did that fairly well. With the exception of Mathis, Mazzaro mostly kept ahead of batters, which is important for any pitcher. He kept his head and cool when the bases were loaded to induce the fly out to end the inning. It was the sort of inning where Mazzaro was in control, if only slightly, to the point where it felt like things could’ve very easily gotten out of hand.
Mazzaro started to struggle in the third. After giving up a five-pitch walk to Callaspo and getting a forceout on a botched bunt by Kendrick, Mazzaro completely missed his spot against Abreu, leaving a fat 91 mph pitch in the middle of the strike zone that Abreu lovingly launched over the right-center wall. Mazzaro came back, inducing a weak groundout by Hunter, but allowed a Matsui single to right and a Napoli home run to left-center on a 3-0 pitch. He kept his head, though, and got Aybar to pop out in foul ground to end the pain.
This is what I mean when I say Mazzaro can either get lucky with some outs or get hit hard. If things go reasonably well, he can induce grounders and weak fly balls. If he misses spots, he often misses badly. With Abreu, that was a complete miss. With Napoli, the batter had the swing sign on a 3-0 count. Since pitchers often expect batters to take a pitch on that count, Mazzaro just left one in another perfect home run-hitting spot. Napoli took advantage.
Another thing to note is that two Angels in the inning swung on the first pitch. There doesn’t seem to be any real trend in whether being ahead or behind in the count changes the outcome. However, across all of Mazzaro’s outings in 2010, batters hit .377 or better on 0-0, 2-0, and 3-1 counts. Like most pitchers, when Mazzaro gets ahead he can succeed. From what I saw in this (admittedly small) sampling, he’s able to get ahead in most cases. If he starts falling behind early in the game, though, just hope that the offense is feeling capable.
Fourth and Fifth Innings:
The fourth inning resembled the first inning: Mazzaro hit most of his spots, inducing two easy groundouts and an infield pop fly. He threw 12 pitches and kept ahead of batters.
In the fifth, Mazzaro got the first out from a poor bunt by Kendrick to get a solid start. After that, though, he went to a 3-0 count on Abreu and, though he did fight back to a full count, gave up the walk on a questionable ball four call. Mazzaro got ahead of Hunter at 0-2 before sending a fastball straight down the middle of the plate, allowing an RBI double and ending Mazzaro’s day.
Everything that Mazzaro showed in the first three innings was summed up in the fourth and fifth. When he nails his spots, he can pitch a good game. Really, though, isn’t that true of all pitchers? If they nailed every spot in every game, batting might become a much more futile effort.
No, the problem seems to be that when Mazzaro misses, he misses badly. By badly, I mean leaving a fat, low-90s fastball without much, if any, movement right in the heart of the strike zone. That’s like batting practice to most major league hitters. While you can get away with that with luck in some games, that’s a disturbing trend that, if continued over a season, would put you in the doghouse with your club. In 2010, that’s just what happened with Mazzaro, as he was pushed out of the starting rotation and into the bullpen.
Maybe that will motivate Mazzaro to get his work in and fight to keep his starting spot. Maybe he just purely doesn’t have the “stuff” to be a major league starter. In a related and not-at-all-surprising side note, the Royals acquired Mazzaro for his “stuff.” As Gleeman says in that article, Mazzaro hasn’t shown he has what the Royals claim to see, namely “raw stuff” and a good sinking fastball.
I’m not ready to write him off just yet, though. Mazzaro has thrown a grand total of 213.2 innings in the majors, which would amount to one season of work for a guy like Zack Greinke. It’ll be the third season for Mazzaro, who is still just 24, so it’s possible that he changes some mechanics to improve his production.
If you have any interest in Spring Training stats, you should know that Mazzaro has given up the fewest walks this spring that he’s ever given up before the season. His grounder:fly ratio is the highest it’s ever been in the spring. He’s already struck out more batters than he did last spring in one fewer start.
Take the good with the bad, though, as Mazzaro has a K:BB ratio of 1.2 and a WHIP of 1.95. He’s given up 8 earned runs in 12.1 innings and batters have hit .345 against him, the highest of his three Spring Trainings.
What does that all mean? Nothing, really – it’s Spring Training. Still, if anything, it makes me think that Mazzaro will be on par with last season, likely giving the Royals something like a 4.75 ERA over his starts. That sounds bad until you realize that four Royals pitchers had a higher ERA in 2010. So, really, if the bottom of the rotation can be that “good,” then the Royals should be in a better place in 2011.
Even with that, unless Mazzaro starts consistently pitching down in the zone and truly using that sinking fastball the Royals seem to love to great effect, I can’t imagine there’s much improvement to be seen. Like I say, there’s always hope, but Mazzaro’s pitching may not be the best place on the 2011 Royals to direct that hope.
Let’s hope he proves me wrong.