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One Big Question: Can Chris Mazza find his zone as a soft contact swingman?

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A la Hector Velázquez from a couple years ago

Boston Red Sox Spring Training Workout Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

Welcome to Over the Monster’s One Big Question series. For those unfamiliar, this is something of a season roster preview where over the next 40(ish) (week)days we’ll be taking a look at each player on the 40-man roster prior to the season. If changes are made to the roster between now and Opening Day, we’ll cover the newly added players. Rather than previewing what to expect in a general sense, the goal of this series is to find one singular question — sometimes specific, other times more general — for each player heading into the coming season. We’ll go alphabetically one by one straight down the roster, and you can catch up with the series here. Today, we cover Chris Mazza.

The Question: Can Chris Mazza be a soft contact swingman?

I don’t know if we’ve mentioned this before, but the Red Sox need a fifth starter. There’s still a chance they bring someone in from outside the organization via either free agency (though the names available there at this point aren’t even that big of an upgrade over the little they have now) or trade, such as that rumored deal with the Padres. For now, though, it’s all about the battle in camp. Based on what’s coming out of the organization, it seems like Ryan Weber is certainly the favorite in the clubhouse, but other pitchers will get their chance, too. Among them is going to be Chris Mazza, who is probably a bit of a longshot to make the rotation out of camp but does sort of remind me of another Red Sox addition from a few years ago.

Before we get to that, though, a little bit of background on Mazza, who is probably unfamiliar to most Red Sox fans. The righty was originally drafted by the Twins back in the 2011 draft in the 27th round, but he only made it midway through the 2015 season before he was cut. It didn’t take too long to find a new home, though, with the Marlins picking him up just a couple weeks later, and he’d stay in Miami until getting cut again in 2018. At that point he was picked up by the Mariners late in the season before getting taken in the Triple-A portion of the Rule 5 Draft by the Mets the winter before last season. He got his break with the Mets, pitching well in both Double-A and Triple-A before finally making his major-league debut in his age-29 season in 2019.

So, now he’s in Boston after getting claimed off waivers a little before this past Christmas, fighting for that aforementioned rotation spot. I mentioned that he reminded me of another Red Sox pitcher, that one being Hector Velázquez. The latter was signed before the 2017 season with very little in terms of expectation and without any sort of stuff that made him stand out in camp. Despite that he came in, induced a ton of soft contact and pitched to a 3.12 ERA over 109 23 innings between 2017 and 2018 in a swingman role. It should of course be noted that Velázquez took a major step back in 2019.

Still, looking at those first two seasons, that generally seems to be the model that Mazza needs to follow if he’s looking for similar success. Granted, he may not pitch to the same kind of ERA (especially if the baseball is the same as last year’s), but I’m not sure how else he finds success. I don’t really see him sticking as a regular starter in a major-league rotation, as there’s just not enough stuff or command. Through the minors his strikeout rate was generally around seven per nine innings — far from dominant — while his walk rate was often in the two’s — fine, but nothing special. That’s a really fine line to walk over 180 innings.

On the flip side, he doesn’t really strike me as a guy who can go out and pitch one inning and a time with his stuff playing up. Obviously there are plenty of failed starters who turn it up a notch in a relief role and find a hole in the bullpen, but that doesn’t appear to be Mazza’s game. His best pitch is the two-seam fastball, which comes in with low-90s velocity but moves pretty well and generates a ton of ground balls. It’s a good pitch, but not the prototypical fastball we generally think of that can play up into the mid-to-high 90s in short stints. He doesn’t really have a great secondary to pair it with, either, going with a cutter and a slider most of the time as well as a changeup here and there. Both the slider and cutter are usable, but again it’s not the kind of out-pitch style secondary we think of in the bullpen.

So, he sort of finds himself as a tweener with his profile, which is a tough space in which to exist. The reality is that most guys in this zone simply don’t make it, but Velázquez is the profile that Mazza can try to fit. Velázquez was, of course, valuable as a swing man and multi-inning reliever, particularly in 2018. Mazza can fit that mold as a guy who doesn’t miss a ton of bats but has pitches that move well enough to generate a good amount of weak contact. It’s a tough needle to thread because misses in the zone can and likely will be punished, but if he lives on the edges he can be that valuable fill-in starter who pitches two or three innings out of the bullpen in between. Given all of the questions — both health and performance wise — with the top four in the rotation, never mind that fifth spot, it’s a role that could bring unsung value.

I’m sure that’s not the mindset of Mazza right now. He’s fighting for a rotation spot and wants to make the biggest impact possible. Not everyone gets those roles, though, and Mazza doesn’t fit well in any sort of traditional job. But if the Red Sox look at an unknown addition from a couple of years ago, they may find the blueprint for extracting the most out of Mazza in 2020.