Thursday, July 25, 2013

Vin Mazzaro: A Good Reason to Pull for the Pirates

Yet another Pirates bullpen post (beats A-Rod, right?)...

When I wrote about Monday night's game, during which Jason Grilli got hurt, the Pirates brought in Vin Mazzaro for the last out, earning the first save of his five year career.

I am a big Vin Mazzaro fan. He was drafted by the A's out of high school in Hackensack, NJ in 2005. After posting 5+ ERAs in his first two minor league seasons, he had a big year at AA Midland in 2008 (12-3, 1.90 ERA over 22 starts) and spent most of 2009 and 2010 with Oakland, starting 35 games 4.72 ERA. He was traded to the Royals in November 2010. He was expected to be the team's fifth starter, but after a lousy spring and a lousier start of the year in AAA Omaha, he stayed in the minors until May. He was called up for a start against the Yankees on May 11 (4 innings, 2 runs and a no-decision in a game the Royals won 4-3). He then sat until May 16, at home against the Indians.

Kyle Davies started the game for the Royals but left with an injury after getting just one out and walking the bases full. Nathan Adcock came in, allowed two of Davies' runners to score, and another run in the second. He left in the third inning after the leadoff runner got on base. He was replaced by Vin Mazzaro, in his second game as a Royal.

Mazzaro pitched two and a third innings. He struck out two, but walked three and gave up 11 hits, one a homer, and was charged with 14 runs. The Royals lost, 19-1.

Now, giving up 14 runs in a game isn't unheard of. Nineteen pitchers since 1916 (that's how far back game data go) have given up 14 or more earned runs in a game. But most of those guys pitched in the early part of the 20th century, when relief pitchers were rare. Since World War II, only four pitchers matched Mazzaro's 14. And Mazzaro is the only pitcher to have given up 14 runs in fewer than three innings. 

Here's the thing: I was at the game. I remember it for two things. One was a group of young Korean-American girls who ran down to the railing of the upper deck where I was sitting to snap pictures every time Shin-Soo Choo came to the plate for the Indians. The other was wondering why Ned Yost left Mazzaro in to take that pounding. It's not like the bullpen was depleted that Monday; the Royals didn't play Sunday, they got a complete game Saturday, and they used two relievers for two innings Friday. It just seemed gratuitous.

Then, the next day, the Royals sent him back to Omaha. With his 22.74 ERA. I remember sportswriters suggesting that we'd seen the last of Vin Mazzaro.

We hadn't. He pitched again for the Royals in June and September, compiling a 4.09 ERA over five games and 22 innings. Last year he also split time between Kansas City and Omaha, with a 5.73 ERA in 44 innings, spread over 18 games. The last nine games were in September, exclusively in relief, and his ERA of 4.63 in those appearances consisted of two games in which he allowed three runs each and seven games in which he allowed none.

That was good enough for the Pirates, who recently have had an uncanny ability with pitching reclamation projects (A.J. Burnett, Francisco Liriano, Joel Hanrahan, and, of course, injured closer Jason Grilli, who had five saves in ten seasons before this year). They traded for Mazzaro in November. In 33 appearances this year, he's 5-2 with that one save, and career bests for ERA (2.62), WHIP (1.14), strikeouts per nine (6.0), walks per nine (2.0), home runs per nine (0.6), strikeouts to walks (3.0), groundballs per fly ball (1.02)--pretty much everything good.

Not bad for a guy who had what one writer called The Worst Pitching Performance Ever. And certainly the worst one I saw.

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