On Mar. 22, sixth-year right-hander Joe Pace had this to say about fifth-year catcher Griffin Mazur:
“Griffin Mazur is undoubtedly the best catcher in college baseball.”
Based on Mazur’s performance on both sides of the ball so far this season, Pace might be right. But had he said that just a year earlier, he would have received more than a few funny looks. For one thing, Mazur’s mediocre numbers at UC Irvine would have immediately removed him from the MVP conversation. For another, he wasn’t a player anymore.
After most of his senior season was canceled because of COVID-19, Mazur’s playing career seemed to be over. He never expected to be drafted but hoped to sign a free-agent contract. When the draft was shortened to five rounds and minor-league baseball announced plans to cut 40 teams that spring, even that appeared unlikely. So he decided to begin the rest of his life by taking a graduate assistant coaching position at another school.
But spring athletes were granted an extra year of eligibility, so he reneged on the job to play in Ann Arbor with a program in dire need of a veteran catcher to replace Joe Donovan. Mazur came highly recommended by Anteaters’ coach Ben Orloff, who praised Mazur’s character — a trait prized by Michigan recruiters — and his work behind the plate.
Mazur’s offensive production, though, was a different story.
“In 2019, he put together a pretty good offensive sheet at UC Irvine,” Michigan associate head coach Nick Schnabel said. “It’s a little bit different out there, in that conference; in some of those ballparks the ball doesn’t travel as well, and things like that, but he had enough in his offensive package that we were really fired up about it.”
That package was nearly empty, as Schnabel’s lukewarm praise suggests. Mazur didn’t hit for average — he was a career .238 hitter as an Anteater. With one career stolen base to his name, he certainly wasn’t a speedster, either. Most glaring was his power deficiency: He hit one home run and slugged just .286.
His lone bright spot was in 2019, when Mazur rode his small-ball talents to career-highs in average (.297) and on-base percentage (.419), both career bests by more than 70 points.
But Mazur still had a year to improve, and his choice to spend it at Michigan, a program renowned for its success in developing players, was made with his progress in mind.
One of the first and most important steps that Mazur took towards an improved year at the plate was completely mental.
“It’s not necessarily a big swing change or approach change,” Mazur said. “I think it’s just been a combination of coach (Erik) Bakich and coach Schnabel preaching to me about honing in on what my approach should be.”
Last fall, the three examined Mazur’s numbers and found that he was a relatively free swinger. But he made frequent contact and posted a high walk rate and a low strikeout rate, all of which mitigated the dangers of his aggressive approach. Still, the coaches suggested that he swing at fewer pitches and try to do more damage in the remaining swings. The change in approach has paid off: Mazur takes more pitches, including some strikes, but when he swings at a pitch he really likes, the result is often an extra-base hit.
“If you’re swinging at bad pitches, you aren’t going to hit them very hard,” Schnabel said. “His discipline at the plate has certainly helped him offensively, being able to drive the ball.”
In addition to the new approach, Mazur has made physical improvements that help him hit the ball harder and farther. He worked hard in the weight room and took advantage of his bat speed data, which wasn’t tracked at Irvine.
At the beginning of fall practices, Mazur’s average bat speed was about 68-70 miles per hour. He wanted to increase that number by four or five miles per hour, which was projected to add almost 20 feet of distance to balls put in play.
With a current average bat speed of about 75 miles per hour, Mazur has exceeded his goal. He did so thanks in part to a weighted bat program that his teammate Matt Frye helped him design and execute over the team’s long winter break.
“I was basically just taking weighted bats, swinging them as hard as I possibly could, taking underloaded bats, which are just lighter bats than you would usually use in the game and swinging those as hard as I could,” Mazur said. “That was something that helped my bat speed.”
Mazur’s improvement was evident from the beginning of the 2021 season. With a grand slam in his second start, he quickly matched his career-high home run total. Three more homers, four doubles and a .492 slugging percentage later, Mazur is enjoying what is by far his best offensive season yet.
But his exponential growth as a power hitter has not come at the cost of his strong contact hitting and awareness of the strike zone, a rare feat. Thanks to his selective approach, he has 11 walks and a .400 on-base percentage, nearly 100 points higher than his Anteater total. He’s struck out only 10 times. Altogether, he’s a much tougher out and a constant threat at the plate.
Mazur has put up these prolific numbers from the heart of the order — an unfamiliar place for a former light hitter who used to hit at the bottom of the lineup.
“It wasn’t a tough adjustment,” Mazur said. “We have so many good players on this team that I think you could put whoever in whatever spot, and it wouldn’t really matter. I like hitting with guys on base, kind of having something to do at the plate, so I love the opportunity, and I was glad that coach Bakich trusted me enough to put me in that position.”
As he did at Irvine, Mazur excels at hitting with runners on — only now, with increased power, he can do more than just move them over a base. He’s driven in 15 runs, already closing in on his career-high 18 RBI mark from 2019.
There are still some areas that need improvement. Schnabel wants him to stay selective with two strikes. Mazur wants to continue to improve his bat speed and exit velocity and to have quality at-bats more consistently.
But the hard and detail-oriented work already put in is paying off in spades.
“His work ethic and what kind of kid he is, the amount of time he invests in his craft — those are probably the biggest reasons (for his success),” Schnabel said.
Beyond the upcoming weekend series, Mazur doesn’t think too far into the future. He wants to play baseball as long as he can, but he hasn’t considered the next steps of his playing career too much.
He’s alone in that regard.
“With any scout I speak with, he’s one of the first players that comes up,” Schnabel said.
Mazur’s offense is one of several reasons why.
“Scouts that I’ve spoken to like the bat,” 2080 Baseball Assistant Director of Amateur Evaluation Burke Granger said. “They think he’ll hit. He’s got a short, compact swing, there’s not a lot of wasted movement, and he’s been pretty good offensively obviously this year already.”
Granger speculated that Mazur will be drafted sometime after the tenth round but added that he could be selected as early as the fifth round if he’s willing to take a “below-slot deal.”
Regardless of when he’s selected, one thing is for sure: Though they were once all but over, Mazur’s playing days are just beginning.