DUNEDIN, Fla. — Tim Mayza, the flame throwing lefty who’s been turning heads in Toronto Blue Jays camp, was given a test in Clearwater last week.
While the 25-year-old had been handling clean inning situations with ease this spring, the Blue Jays figured it was time to see how he does in a jam. So, after Joe Smith loaded the bases with two outs, Mayza came jogging in from the bullpen, facing exactly the kind of scenario a late-inning, high-leverage reliever sees often in the majors.
At the plate: Howie Kendrick, a veteran right-handed bat with more than 5,000 big-league plate appearances. Not an easy assignment. But Mayza came in and attacked, getting to two strikes quickly and tilting the balance in his favour.
Catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia called for a 1-2 fastball and set up inside. But as Mayza delivered, the ball drifted out and over the plate, causing Saltalamacchia to reach back to his right as Kendrick’s eyes lit up at the 96-m.p.h. fastball before he jumped all over it. He lined a hard shot the other way, plating two runs.
Mayza regrouped and struck out the next batter, but that hardly helped ease the pain of allowing a hit in such a big spot. Opportunities can be fleeting for young prospects at spring training—that’s why everyone says you have to make the most of them. It had to be on Mayza’s mind as he walked back to the dugout, but he didn’t have long to dwell as Jason Grilli was waiting for him with a message to deliver.
"Inherited runners are a very underrated thing. The folly is that you didn’t create this situation, and yet you’re trying to get out of it," Grilli says. "Your mindset almost has to be: if the runner from third doesn’t score, it’s a bonus. But if you can get two out of the three, you’ve done the job.
"It’s a mentality thing. You pick your battles. You figure out the puzzle. You have to narrow your focus down. You see a young guy coming out and trying to out-stuff it. Sometimes you have to take a step back, and just make your pitches.
"Look, young guys like him are trying to make lasting impressions. And there’s a lot of things going through your mind when you’re in those situations. I just wanted to let him know that you learn every step of the way."
Looking back on it, Mayza completely understands what Grilli was saying. He says he entered that situation trying to do too much. He wanted to strike out Kendrick emphatically and didn’t rely on his best tools to get the out.
"I tend to get a little amped up and overthrow," Mayza says. "Grilli, he just told me, ‘Hey, when you get ahead of guys, don’t worry about trying to make the nastiest pitch. Focus on locating that pitch and you’ll get them out.’"
Mayza’s name often comes up when you ask Blue Jays coaches and executives who they’ve been impressed with this spring. The line looks good: he’s allowed only three hits and a walk while striking out seven over 4.1 scoreless innings. But it’s the stuff that’s particularly exciting.
Mayza’s fastball is hard to ignore, especially when it’s coming out of his hand from 94-98 m.p.h. But his 84-88 m.p.h. slider has been just as enticing, and helps shape the profile the Blue Jays are clearly grooming Mayza for: a high-leverage, late-game, get-us-out-of-this-mess reliever.
It’s a hard, sweeping slider that he can add some depth to when he takes a little velocity off of it. Its effectiveness against left-handers is obvious, but he has no problem throwing it to righties as well, either back-dooring it away from them or attacking their back foot with it inside. Mayza particularly likes to play with the elevation of the pitch, throwing one in the dirt, one at the shins and one at the knees.
"It’s been a pretty good pitch for me so far," he says. "It’s been a little harder this spring than usual. I’m a big feel guy when it comes to throwing it."
Of course, that overpowering fastball will be his bread and butter throughout his career, and it still has room to grow. It’s already come a long way. Mayza came out of high school with a fastball that sat only 82-83 m.p.h. He started working out more in college and logging lengthy long toss sessions that gradually built up his arm strength. He took another big jump when he arrived in a professional environment and really dialled it up when he reached single-A Lansing in 2015.
Mayza struck out 66 batters in 55.2 innings that year, and when he began 2016 with a 2.04 ERA in 35.1 innings for high-A Dunedin, Mayza earned a quick promotion to double-A New Hampshire. But that’s where things went awry. Mayza pitched to a 4.11 ERA with the Fisher Cats, walking a batter an inning before being demoted back to Dunedin.
"I lost what my game was when I got up there," Mayza says. "I needed to just stay within myself and my game and what I knew worked for me."
Just like when he faced Kendrick this spring, Mayza was trying to do too much. It can sound counterintuitive, but pitchers will tell you that trying to be too perfect can often be to their detriment.
"I was trying to be a little too fine—trying to paint the corners rather than going at hitters like I should" Mayza says. "I took it as a learning experience. When I got sent back down, I just thought, ‘Hey, I’ve got to get back on track. I’ve got to stick to what works for me.’"
He finished the season with 13.1 excellent innings in Dunedin, before going to the Arizona Fall League and getting hit around. He simply walked too many batters, something that’s been a knock against Mayza throughout his minor league career. He has a 4.4 BB/9 as a professional, a rate he’ll have to bring down if he’s going to pitch effectively in the majors.
It starts with fastball command, something Mayza works on every day. When he plays catch, for instance, he’ll pick out small spots on his throwing partner to try and hit: the belt buckle, a letter on the jersey, even a small logo on the inside of the glove.
"Aim small, miss small," Mayza says. "If you aim for that little logo, your misses aren’t going to be as bad."
The Blue Jays are certainly high on him, and in his first year of big league camp Mayza is getting the sense that he’s close. And if he can take advice like Grilli’s to heart, it may not be long before you see Mayza on a big league mound, throwing absolute gas from the left side.