Welcome to our 2020 Red Sox in Review series. This is, as you can probably guess, where we will be reviewing all of the players who made at least a modest impact on the Red Sox in 2020. Every week day we’ll be deep diving into one player. For each edition we’ll describe the season in a sentence, look at the positives from the year as well as negatives, look back at our one big question from the season preview and look ahead to the 2021 season. We’ll be going in alphabetical order of the players on this listT. You can look over that list and drop a name in the comments if you think I left anyone out who should be mentioned here. Got it? Good. Today we are exploring how 2020 was for Chris Mazza.
2020 in one sentence
Chris Mazza was part of the seemingly never-ending group of mediocre-at-best back-end starters for the Red Sox in 2020, but by the end emerged as the best of the bunch.
While I would probably rate Mazza’s season as an overall positive in the context of the expectations we had for him coming into the year as well as in comparison to the other arms who were trotted out as back-end starters, he was more or less average-at-best in a league-wide context. Overall he finished with a 4.80 ERA and a 4.26 FIP, both of which were within four percent of league-average after adjusting for park effects. I mention that because the first thing I want to talk about in this section, his strikeout stuff, is certainly in reference to his career norms.
Mazza had spent most of his professional career before 2020 in the minors, having 16 1⁄3 innings for the Mets in 2019 but nothing else at the major-league level. While he was in the minors, the righty generally carried a strikeout rate in the 15-18 percent range. There was some variance there to be sure, but that was the general range he found himself in most years. In that small sample with the Mets, he was at the bottom of that range at 15 percent. So, the expectations from me were that in the best-case scenario he’d get a bunch of soft contact to get outs.
Instead, he was actually a solid strikeout pitcher. Granted, we’re not talking about Chris Sale type stuff here obviously, but Mazza did set down 21 percent of his opponents, a rate he hadn’t touched as a pro since a short stint in Double-A in 2018, and before that not since he was in the low levels of the minors.
As one would expect, this came with some more whiffs, as Mazza’s 29 percent swinging strike rate (per Baseball Savant) was a whopping 11 points higher than that stint with the Mets. The righty saw improvement with most of his repertoire, which he also changed up a bit this year. After leaning more heavily on a sinker in the past, he made his cutter and slider the focal points of the arsenal, and they each got whiffs on about a third of swings.
The real key to Mazza’s relative step forward, however, was with his fastball. After hardly throwing it with the Mets in 2019, Mazza worked the four-seam into repertoire more often this past summer and he got a ton of whiffs, 42.5 percent of swings to be exact. It was a nice addition to his repertoire as it gave him something to change the eye level of hitters a bit, with the other offerings being better off down in the zone. It’s not a high-velocity offering, averaging about 93 mph this past season, but when you’re sitting on a cutter or slider it can get to the plate very quickly.
Although Mazza got some more strikeouts with his refined arsenal, he didn’t do a great job of keeping runners off the bases for free. To go with his 21 percent strikeout rate, the righty walked 11 percent of his opponents as well. In a way, this is not too surprising and sort of comes with the territory when you have a cutter and a breaking ball atop your arsenal. We’ve seen similar issues with Colten Brewer, who pitches in a similar fashion, as well as with guys like Brandon Workman and Matt Barnes after they made the curveball the focal point of their repertoire. There’s a trade off with all this stuff. The key for Mazza to get that rate down a couple points to a more manageable range is to get more swings on those pitches that don’t hit the zone.
More concerning to me than the walks was that the sinker remained a problem area for his repertoire. I mentioned above that the four-seamer was worked in more often, but it still was thrown less frequently than his sinker. And while the four-seamer ended the year with batters putting up a .273 wOBA (on the same scale as OBP), the sinker allowed a .475 mark. It was not much more effective in 2019 when it was the pitch he threw the most often. It seems like if Mazza is going to take any sort of step forward, the first step needs to be ditching the slider and working off his four-seam instead.
The Big Question
As I’ve mentioned, this was my best-case expectation for Mazza, being something in the form of Hector Velázquez back in 2018. Mazza ended up being solid, but it wasn’t in that form. I mentioned the strikeouts, but he also didn’t really allow soft contact. In fact, according to Baseball Savant, he was in the top 20 percent in both exit velocity and hard-hit rate, which helps explain the .356 batting average on balls in play. As I said above, a solution to this, or at least part of a solution, could be ditching the sinker in favor of more four-seamers.
Looking ahead to 2021
With the roster crunch coming up for the Red Sox, nobody outside the top players on the roster are completely safe. It wouldn’t be totally shocking if Mazza was let go or traded in a minor deal, but I wouldn’t bet on it. The righty still has an option remaining and has shown he can be solid depth. As things stand right now he is the fifth starter, which would be a disaster, but as a seventh or eighth guy on the depth chart you can live with that.