DiMaggio relative Mazza thrilled to join Rays

February 22nd, 2021

Right-hander 's big league career has included stops with three of the Yankees’ biggest competitors: the cross-town Mets and the American League East rival Red Sox and Rays. It’s a little awkward, because he grew up a die-hard fan of the Yankees -- for good reason.

Mazza, traded from Boston to Tampa Bay last week, is the third cousin of Hall of Famer Joe DiMaggio. More specifically, Mazza’s grandmother on his father’s side is a cousin of the DiMaggio brothers: Joe, Dom and Vince. Mazza only met “Joltin’ Joe” once at a family reunion when he was 6 years old, and he didn’t really understand the significance until years after that.

“I was around 10 or 11, and me and my older brother were watching ESPN Classic and they’re talking about the 56-game hitting streak. And my brother looks at me and he goes, ‘You know that’s our cousin, right?’” Mazza said Sunday morning on a Zoom call from Rays camp in Port Charlotte, Fla. “I go, ‘What are you talking about?’ He goes, ‘Yeah, that’s Joe DiMaggio. Grandma’s cousin. We met him a couple years ago at the family reunion.’

“I’m like, ‘So that’s who that guy was.’”

The 31-year-old pitcher was obviously thrilled to visit Monument Park in Yankee Stadium last season and take pictures of his legendary relative’s plaque, calling it “one of the cooler moments” and something that meant a lot to his family. But that affection is put on pause when he steps onto the field.

“Whenever we play them, I still want to kick their butts,” he said, smiling. “That never changes.”

A lot has changed for Mazza over the last 10 days, though. The Red Sox designated him for assignment on Feb. 12, and Boston chief baseball officer/former Rays executive Chaim Bloom immediately told the righty that he was working to trade him. So Mazza knew he’d be on the move, something he’s grown used to in a career that’s included stints in six organizations and independent ball, but he didn’t know where he’d be going.

Mazza hadn’t considered the Rays as a landing spot given their postseason run last year and their deep pitching staff, but he was thrilled when the move went down and he received unsolicited feedback from former teammates raving about his new organization.

“When I got that phone call, I was super excited. You get to come to a playoff team that went to the World Series,” Mazza said. “It's kind of what you're always searching for, one of those teams that’s always going to be in a playoff race.”

Mazza will likely begin the season as rotation/bulk-innings depth for the Rays, given his experience as a starter. Manager Kevin Cash noted the importance of having a deep group of pitchers capable of throwing multiple innings, perhaps even going one time through a lineup, as Tampa Bay intends to stretch out as many arms as possible early in Spring Training. Mazza could be a part of that mix, and he believes he’s still improving nearly a decade after he was drafted by the Twins in the 27th round of the 2011 MLB Draft.

As his strikeout rate jumped last year, Mazza used his four-seam fastball more than he had since Rookie-level ball and he developed a split-changeup. He hopes that he’ll benefit from being able to change hitters’ eye levels with high fastballs, adapting against swings designed to crush low pitches. He was also excited to hear about the Rays’ philosophy of maximizing players’ strengths rather than just trying to address their weaknesses.

“Just seeing what these guys have done the last couple of years, it’s been unbelievable,” Mazza said. “[Pete] Fairbanks, [Tyler] Glasnow, when [Blake] Snell was here, all those guys. So I'm really excited to get to work with them and kind of learn the whole analytics thing, because I've never been huge on analytics. … Whatever is helping guys, you want to go try and see if it helps you. For the most part, it's helped. It's just more understanding how the analytics work for me, and once I start to get a better understanding of that, I think it's just going to help even more.”

Around the horn
• Reliever Diego Castillo and catcher Francisco Mejía joined the Rays’ workout on the field Sunday morning. Their intake testing and quarantine process had been delayed by a late arrival from the Dominican Republic.

• Cash reported some additional encouraging news on Sunday: All the Rays position players’ COVID-19 intake tests came back negative late Saturday night. They are scheduled to officially report on Monday, with the first full-squad workout taking place on Tuesday.

• There’s been a sizable group of hitters working out at Charlotte Sports Park, as a bunch of position players reported along with the pitchers. That group includes Willy Adames, Joey Wendle, Brett Phillips, Greg Jones, Taylor Walls and Dalton Kelly. Cash confirmed that all of Tampa Bay’s position players are in town, including Ji-Man Choi (who traveled from South Korea) and Yoshi Tsutsugo (who spent the offseason in Japan).

• With a limit of 75 players allowed in big league camp, Tampa Bay’s players with long-term injuries are rehabbing at Tropicana Field under the supervision of Major League medical coordinator Paul Harker. Left-handers Jalen Beeks and Colin Poche are already on the 60-day injured list and could be joined before the start of the season by right-handers Yonny Chirinos and Oliver Drake.

• During Sunday’s workout, Cash humorously discovered one difficulty of getting to know players from a distance and behind face coverings. He saw a pitcher wearing a mask and a left-handed arm sleeve and acknowledged him as 40-year-old veteran Rich Hill. Turns out, it was actually 25-year-old non-roster invitee Kenny Rosenberg.

“And he does kind of look like Rich, just a little bit younger version,” Cash said, smiling. “But then he took his mask down and, you know, he looks closer to 18 than 43 or 41 -- whatever Rich is.”