Adjustment and perseverance. If there are two words that sum up the career of Chris Mazza, these are them. Despite having to adjust to pitching after spending most of his amateur career as a shortstop and although he had to persevere through some difficult mental and physical circumstances including ignoring his doubters and naysayers, coming back from a serious injury and being released by his first team which nearly forced him to contemplate life after baseball, Mazza did it. He overcame. Today, he is one of the best starting pitchers in the Southern League, on the verge of realizing his Major League dream. The latest of his fantastic exports this season is a month of June in which, despite some more rough luck proven by a .322 BABIP, he limited damage, stranding 83% of his runners and holding down a 1.04 ERA lowering his seasonal ERA to 2.71 sixth best in his league. Mazza’s June not only continued to prove his ability to pitch effectively but proved once again his ability to rise above. For those reasons, he is our June Prospect Of The Month.
26 IP, 1.04 ERA, 1.46 WHIP
79.2 IP, 2.71 ERA, 1.23 WHIP
14/10 K/BB, 3.5 K/BB%
51/23 K/BB, 8.5 K/BB%
.277 BAA, .322 BABIP, 82.5% LOB%
250 BAA, .287 BABIP, 76% LOB%
Chris Mazza was born on October 17, 1989 in the San Francisco area as not-so-distant relative to Joe DiMaggio. He has wanted to follow in the Hall Of Famer’s footsteps ever since he could pick up a baseball.
“He was my grandmother’s cousin,” Mazza said. “I’ve wanted to play since I was 6 years old.”
Mazza attended high school at Clayton Valley High in nearby Concord where he barely reached a nonathletic 5’6″, 120 pounds and struggled statistically, hitting just .238/.322/.266 in his junior and senior years, causing him to go recruited. So Mazza took his talents to nearby Menlo Oaks College where he spruced (pun intended) up and began realizing his true potential. After making the team in tryouts his freshman year, Mazza became the college’s all time leader in home runs and triples. In his junior year, Mazza would usually start games at his normal shortstop but would be called upon to pitch in save situations. Doing so, he posted a team low 2.37 ERA, and 19 saves, another school record thus making him a prominent fixture in Menlo’s first ever Conference Title run. Following his success leading both the offense and defense that year, Mazza, for the first time ever, garnered the attention and selection of clubs at a variety of levels, including prestigious collegiate schools, independent ball and affiliated ball. One of those clubs was the Minnesota Twins who drafted Mazza as a pitcher in the 27th round of that year’s MLB Draft. Although a mixture of flattered, excited and nervous, was faced with what he describes as a very difficult decision in terms of where to and how to continue his baseball career. But with a bit of guidance and some motivation provided by his Menlo squad mates, Mazza chose to accept the Twins’ offer.
“It was a really tough decision to make because we had just won our league and made it to the conference tournament for the first time in school history. It was also tough because I had teams that looked at me to play shortstop and that’s really what I wanted to do because wasn’t 100% ready to give up playing shortstop and becoming a pitcher only,” Mazza said. “But after having a long talk with teammates, my high school coach Bob Rolsten who played in the Twins organization, and my dad, we came to the decision that this was a once in a lifetime opportunity and that I didn’t really have anything else to prove in college ball. Also my college teammates said they would kick my butt if I came back for my senior year.”
Mazza broke into his pro career with the rookie ball GCL Twins and Elizabethtown Twins. Even though the numbers looked great over his 18 appearances in his rookie season, (30.2 IP, 2.05 ERA, 0.95 WHIP, 28/2 K/BB), Mazza attributes that success to throwing to a similar level of hitters as those he faced in college who were also just beginning to get acclimated to using wood bats. He divulges that despite the solid numbers, he really didn’t have a full understanding of what he was doing on the mound.
“The biggest adjustment for me was learning how to pitch. When I got to pro ball, I didn’t really know how to actually pitch,” Mazza said. “In college, I just got on the mound and threw as hard as could. And when you throw in the mid 90’s in college, you get away with a lot things.”
Here Mazza was, virtually a brand new pitcher who was simply taking the mound and putting the stress of throwing as hard as he can with every pitch on his arm with underdeveloped mechanics. Accordingly, just seven starts into his 2013 season, his arm blew out. Despite every effort to avoid surgery, Mazza eventually went under the knife. It cost him more than an entire season’s worth of playing experience.
“I went on the DL because of an issue with my ulnar nerve. The nerve was popping in and out of the groove every time I would throw cause my arm to go numb. It was like getting hit in the funny bone every time I threw,” Mazza described. “At first, we just tried resting it for about four weeks of no throwing. I was in a brace where I could bend my elbow. After that, I started up a throwing program to build my arm up. About three weeks into the throwing program, my arm started going numb again because of the nerve. About a week later, I had to fly up to Minnesota and have surgery to move my nerve. They call it an ulnar nerve transposition. So I ended up missing the rest of the season.”
Upon returning to the mound on May 26, 2014, Mazza went on to play the best ball of his career. In 25 appearances out of the Cedar Rapids’ bullpen, he held down a 2.79 ERA via some of the best control numbers in the league. Striking out 62 and walking just 11, his 25.5 K/BB% ranked 4th in the Midwest League. He also had the second lowest FIP in the league (1.93). However, much like his rookie season, a lot of Mazza’s success would come at another hefty price. Unbeknownst to Mazza, he threw the final two and a half months of that season with a broken right wrist.
“I fell up the stairs one night during a power outage and broke my scaphoid bone between my hand and wrist on my throwing arm. At first I didn’t even know it was broken. I thought I just jammed my wrist really bad because I could still move it. So I didn’t throw for five days then when I started playing it hurt a little bit but not enough for me to say that I can’t throw. Plus when I would actually pitch it didn’t hurt at all.”
Then, that offseason, things came another very unfortunate head.
“During the offseason, it was still bugging me a little bit until I was working with my dad and I went to hand him up a pile of bricks and my wrist bent back I just collapsed in pain,” Mazza said. “So this whole time from when I fell in July to me handing up my dad some bricks I couldn’t do a push-up or anything that caused my wrist to bend back because it hurt. But since it didn’t hurt to throw a baseball I didn’t think anything of it.”
A few days later, Mazza found himself back in another waiting room with the prospect of once again being absent from baseball for a lengthy period of time very real, if not a forgone conclusion. The diagnosis and treatment curtailed exactly that.
“I finally went a got my wrist looked at and got an MRI and the doctor said I had a broken scaphoid nonunion in my right hand. He told me he doesn’t know how I was even able to throw a baseball. I just said I’ve always had a high pain tolerance which in this case isn’t always a good thing,” Mazza said. “I had surgery in November of 2014 and they had to put a screw in my scaphoid bone to fuse the bones back together. So I had to be in a cast for 6 months because of course the scaphoid bone is the worst bone to break in your entire body because it only has two little veins blood supply so the healing process takes longer.”
Almost eleven months from when he was last permitted to pick up a baseball, Mazza finally did so again on July 3, 2015, beginning a rehab assignment with the GCL Twins. After five appearances there, Mazza was ready to return to Cedar Rapids, to get back on the horse. However, after just two outings back in single A, he was knocked back off said horse once again when the Twins. Being forced off the mound once again after he had just returned from a second hiatus was admittedly a tough pill for Mazza to swallow, especially after the promise he showed when he was healthy (and sometimes even when he wasn’t 100% healthy) but the close relationships he built within the organization including the one he had with his head coach helped keep Mazza afloat in a deep sea of adversity.
“When he called me in to his office I had a pretty good idea was getting released,” Mazza said. “One thing that helped was Jake Mauer who was my manager for three years in the Twins’ organization. Being with Jake for three years, we got to know each other really well and became pretty close. So hearing get choked up as he’s telling me he has to release me because they simply don’t have a spot for me kept positive that this wasn’t the end of my baseball career.”
Mauer had that same confience that he hadn’t seen the last of Chris Mazza and vowed to put in some calls to some independent league teams that he had connections with. But before those calls came to fruition, Mazza got a call of his own.
“About a week later, me and my brother are out golfing and we are on the 14th green getting ready to putt and my phone rings and when I answer it Brett West is on the other end and tells me that the Marlins want to sign me as a free agent,” Mazza recalls perfectly. “I was so excited. I was getting a second chance.”
Mazza, who was able to stay professional through two lengthy injuries, the disappointment of being cut and through one of the best and most relieving phone calls he’s ever received hung up the phone. From there, the emotion poured out of him and created a scene that must have resembled one from Happy Gilmore.
“When I got off the phone I told my brother and he started screaming,” Mazza said. “We were jumping around looking like two idiots out on the golf course.”
After Mazza signed his minor league deal on August 4, 2015 he headed to Jupiter to begin his Marlins’ career as a Hammerhead. After he finished out that season by tossing to the tune of a 3.60 ERA with a 1.07 WHIP over 15 innings and following another 15 innings worth of 1.09 ERA, 0.93 WHIP ball to begin 2016, the Marlins would present Mazza with the biggest challenge of his career: transitioning to the rotation and adjusting to life as a starting pitcher.
“As I got to about my seventh start is really when I felt the number of innings start to catch up to me and wear my body down. At the time I was just doing the same body maintenance that I did as when I was a reliever. So I just I just had to start doing more, whether it was running more, getting more physical therapy or extra work in the gym,” Mazza said. “It was tough because my body wasn’t ready for that extra work load. Unfortunately it led to inconsistency the last month and a half of the season. It was a definitely a learning curve but helped me prepare for the offseason. It gave me an idea on how much more I had to get my arm and body in shape so I can take on the innings of a starter.”
Although he was still relying on the same stuff he used as a reliever, Mazza admits it was tricky having to face hitters more than once and thus having to learn how to select pitches advantageously as he got into more deep counts. However, with some help from his battery mates, he was able to conquer that feat.
“Things really didn’t change much on my approach to attacking hitters that year. I was only a three pitch pitcher so I still went after hitters the same way,” Mazza said. “The biggest thing was not to get stuck in the pitch sequences but I had a lot of help from my catchers with that.”
As much as Mazza learned from himself and his teammates that year, the best piece of advice he got came from Hammerheads’ pitching coach Joe Coleman in spring training. It was then Coleman noticed a hitch in Mazza’s game that the Twins never did, an issue that when fixed, would allow Mazza to become a much more effective hurler and will allow him to succeed at the next level. The issue lay in the amount of effort Mazza put behind each pitch, sometimes throwing the ball as hard as he could trying to blow hitters away and the other painting corners and trying to induce weak contact. Coleman informed Mazza that whichever brand of pitcher he wanted to be, a max effort late relief type or a more methodical innings eating back end starter, was acceptable but he could no longer be both at the same time.
“Joe sat me down and asked me what kind of pitcher do I wanna be. He said after my first couple outings in spring training it looked like I was trying to be two different kind of pitchers at the same time. The first was the pitcher that want to throw the ball past guys and the being the pitcher that wants to sink the ball and get ground balls,” Mazza said. “He told me yeah, I have a plus plus sinker but when I try to throw the ball past guys, it stays straight and doesn’t sink. He said if you want to be a guy that throws past guys, that’s fine and if I wanted to be a guy that sinks the ball. that’s fine too. We just need to pick the guy that you want to be so can have a plan when you are on the mound. Then told me with a sinker like mine, he felt like I would be more successful and have a better chance of getting to the big leagues. So the next day I went up to him and told him that I wanted to be a guy that sinks the ball and ever since then, my career has been going in a positive direction.”
Following his transitional year in 2016, via the assistance of Coleman and his most extensive year of uninterrupted on field experience, Mazza entered the 2016 offseason with a firm grasp on being part of the rotation as well as his own identity as a pitcher. With that knowledge, he dedicated the next six months to one thing: truly becoming a starting pitcher.
“I went in to the offseason last year telling myself that I’m going to get in shape to be a starter. I worked really hard on developing a change-up because it’s just a pitch that you need to have as starter. Even though I’m most really on my sinker and cutter I can throw my change-up a few times a game to keep hitters honest.” Mazza said. “I also need to thank my strength coach Rob and trainer Cesar who have kept me in shape and kept up with physical therapy to make sure I’m healthy and ready to go.”
Coleman’s ability to recognize and fix Mazza’s issue in trying to throw two different styles from pitch to pitch during spring training in 2015 and Mazza’s own drive and extra work put in that offseason had him well on his way to becoming an effective starter. But he still had some work to do mechanically and mentally. That’s where Jacksonville pitching coach Storm Davis’ expertise has come into play.
“I’ve been more consistent in my delivery and being able to make the adjustment when I get out of wack one or two pitches rather then it taking me two or three batters to get back to where I need to be. And that’s all because of Storm Davis,” Mazza said. “Whether it’s looking at film, fixing my arm slot, seeing how hitters are reacting to certain pictures I throw during the game or talking about pitch selection. And when we make a mistake, asking why did we make that mistake and how do we change our approach so we don’t make that mistake again and so much more. He’s really helped me mature as a pitcher.”
Through all of Mazza’s trials and tribulations whether it be going unrecruited, suffering two major injuries early in his career, being released after he finally began to enjoy some success and so many more factors that would have made a lesser man throw in the towel, Mazza is finally a near finished product this year. The exports of that finished product speak for themselves: a 3.01 ERA that ranks 12th in the Southern League, a 1.29 WHIP that ranks 17th, a 7.0% walk rate than ranks 15th and a 75% LOB% that ranks 13th. All of this has been made possible by a very balanced arsenal which includes his bread-and-butter groundball 90 MPH sinker, a 92 MPH cut fastball that he can ramp up to 94 and which he will throw interchangeably with the sink peice to keep hitters guessing, an 84-86 MPH changeup that is emerging as the secondary pitch Mazza has the best feel for despite his learning how to throw it this past winter and a slider that has lessened to a mix-in offering since his surgery but which he will still bury for strikes in pitcher’s counts.
Much like the way he has approached his baseball career, Mazza won’t shy away from any challenge. He is an in-your-face style pitcher who won’t pick at corners but instead comes right after his opposition and dares them to beat him. He can get in trouble doing so at times, giving up baserunners, proven by his 8.5 hits per 9 innings but his ability to keep the ball down almost exclusively and induce groundballs keeps runs off the board and his pitch counts in check. According to Mazza, that bulldog, win-above-all style mentality approach to pitching as well as every other aspect of his life is something that was inborne in him and has, above all else, been his biggest and best companion along the way. As long as he hasn’t let the beast run completely wild.
“I hate losing. I hate losing more than I like winning. I’ve always been that way. I don’t care if I’ve given up 10 runs, I want the ball in my hand and I’m not coming out off the game. Even though Storm has told me I gotta keep the bulldog on a leash at not let him run out of control,” Mazza said. “I’ve just always been super competitive ever since i was a little kid. It doesn’t matter if it’s baseball or tic-tac-toe; I’m going beat you. My mom gets mad at me cause I don’t let my six year old nephew win when we play video games together.
With the Marlins on the verge of a firesale and Mazza continuing to turn in quality outings, he is on the verge of realizing his Major League dream and in so doing, beating all of those individuals, teams, schools and organizations who thought he would lose. For the 27-year-old and those who have been by his side since the start no matter what, his call to the big leagues will symbolize the biggest win of his life. Without having to actually speak a word, Mazza will tell a lot of people “I told you so.”
“It’s crazy to think about sometimes. I’ve had lot of people tell me I wasn’t able to play at the the next level and the started in high school. I got told I was too small or you good but you’re not good enough to play college ball. And when I got to college it was the same thing people would say, “Go to a Division III school, you can’t play pro ball.””, Mazza said. “I just always had that chip on my shoulder to prove people wrong.”
Attention all naysayers and doubters: grab your foot and prepare to insert it into your own mouth. Chris Mazza is about to arrive.