Over the past several years, it’s unbelievable the amount of pitching prospects that have panned out big-time for the Tampa Bay Rays. From David Price with the first overall pick of the 2007 MLB Draft to Jeremy Hellickson and Alex Cobb as 4th round picks to Matt Moore 7 rounds after Price to James Shields way down in Round 16 in 2000 just to name a few, the Rays have been able to find quality big league starting pitchers seemingly whenever they’ve selected them, and that has been a major reason that they’ve taken such a huge step forward as a franchise the last five seasons. But just because the Rays have assembled the best homegrown starting core in baseball doesn’t mean that they didn’t suffer their share of failures. One of the pitchers who was not nearly as lucky as several of his peers was the Rays’ 2nd round back in 2005, right-hander Chris Mason.
Entering his junior year at UNC-Greensboro, Chris Mason had been best known is an athletic third baseman with good power potential. He also pitched on the side, but he didn’t throw overly hard and it looked like his future would be as a position player. However, everything changed Mason’s junior year. Joining UNC-Greensboro’s rotation full-time, Mason dominated opposing hitters, going just 6-7 but with a 2.88 ERA and an incredible 135-24 strikeout to walk ratio in 118.2 innings pitched. His 135 strikeouts beat Kevin Millwood‘s previous school record of 125. And although Mason still only threw in the 88-92 MPH range, scouts were convinced that his breakout season was far from a fluke. He showed control and command along nice late life on his fastball and paired it with a curveball that was a mix between a curveball and a slider in the low-80’s but continuously missed bats as Mason possessed a nearly unconceivable ability to locate it for a new full-time pitcher. Despite his unorthodox repertoire and background as a pitcher, Mason entered the 2005 MLB Draft as a highly-touted prospect, and it was the Tampa Bay Devil Rays that pulled the trigger on him at 56th overall in the second round.
After Mason endured such a major increase in innings pitched from 2004 to 2005, the Devil Rays were very careful with him in his pro debut, using him out of the bullpen even though they intended to develop him as a starter and keeping him on a strict pitch count, and he proceeded to dominate in 9 appearances at Short Season-A and 10 at Low-A, going 2-1 with a 1.87 ERA, 30-13 strikeout to walk ratio, and not a single home run allowed in 33.2 innings pitched. He was so impressive that the D-Rays took the training wheels off of him in 2006 as they sent him to start at High-A Visalia, and Mason had a rough season between throwing more innings than he ever had before and pitching in the hitter-friendly California League, but he still showed flashes as he went 12-10 with a 5.02 ERA, a 6.6 K/9, a 2.6 BB/9, and a 1.0 HR/9 in 27 starts, a relief appearance, and 152.1 innings pitched. Mason wore down at the end of the year as he faced a heavy workload and lost something of his fastball, but he continued to miss bats with his slurve and began integrating a changeup into his arsenal. The Devil Rays had to be a little concerned after Mason struggled the way he did, but they had to believe that everything would get better for Mason with a couple full years as a pitcher under his belt, and that’s exactly what happened in 2007.
Moving up to Double-A Montgomery, Mason delivered exactly the type of prolonged performance the Devil Rays had been waiting for, winning the Southern League’s Most Outstanding Pitcher Award as he went 15-4 with a 2.57 ERA, a 7.6 K/9, a 2.5 BB/9, and a 0.4 HR/9 in 28 starts and 161.1 innings pitched. Mason saw his fastball see a dip in velocity into the high-80’s, something that had to be disconcerting for the Devil Rays, but at the same time he continued to throw it for strikes and command it extremely well down in the zone, and his secondary pitches took a major step forward. Mason made strides getting more consistent sharp break on his breaking ball, and then his changeup suddenly emerged as his best offering with excellent arm action and great late bite. Mason tied his arsenal together with a deceptive delivery that made all his pitches harder to pick up. With his fastball velocity so low, Mason was going to be hard-pressed to be more than a 3rd of 4th starter in the major leagues. But either in that role or possibly as a late-inning reliever with his velocity seeing an uptick out of the bullpen, Mason had the ability to make an impact in the major leagues by the end of 2008.
Even as he succeeded, there were some inherent problems with Chris Mason. He showed great control and command of his high-80’s fastball, but he never got great sink on it, and especially at that velocity he was going to get hammered whenever he made a mistake. He did a great job locating his breaking ball, but its slurvy tendencies made it a pitch that was never guaranteed to beat upper-level hitters. Even if his changeup remained plus and his breaking ball remained effective, though, Mason was going to have to rely on them tremendously because his fastball was not a great pitch. All of those issues came to a head for Mason at Triple-A Durham in 2008. He started the season in the Bulls’ rotation and finished it in the bullpen, but no matter in which role he pitched, Mason couldn’t get anybody out, going just 3-10 with a 6.21 ERA, a 7.5 K/9, a 3.4 BB/9, and a 1.6 HR/9 in 17 starts, 16 relief appearances, and 108.2 innings pitched. He allowed 19 home runs compared to 24 the previous three years as upper-levels hitters weren’t fooled at all by his fastball. And after Mason managed a 6.24 ERA in 24 appearances at Double-A in 2009, Mason drew his release. He signed with the Mets and made 10 appearances at three levels in their systems, but he was a minor league free agent following the season and the Mets weren’t interested in bringing him back. Other than an ill-fated comeback attempt at Independent Ball in 2011, that was it for Mason’s career at just 24 years old.
What can we learn from the story of Chris Mason? Quite a few things that can influence the way we look at Rays’ prospects moving forward. Mason’s Double-A performance shows that minor league stats, even at levels at high as Double-A and Triple-A, don’t necessarily mean very much and a pitcher’s repertoire is going to be the primary determining factor for his future performance. Mason’s Triple-A collapse shows that outstanding fastball command and control can only make up for a lack of velocity up to a certain point and pitchers dealing at low velocities are going to have an extremely hard time as they move up through the minor league ranks with a low velocity fastball unless it features great movement, and the same thing can be applied for a slurvy breaking ball. But one thing that is especially worth picking up on is that the Devil Rays let Mason go from his first full season to a minor league workhorse in his second and while correlation does not implying causation, thinking that his innings increase and loss of fastball velocity were not connecting in anyway is downright foolish. Doing something like that was a mistake that typified the general managerial tenure of Chuck LaMar, but even in 2006, Andrew Friedman’s first year as Rays Director of Baseball Operations (and de facto GM), he made the same mistake. When you have a talented but inexperienced pitching prospect, the temptation is to rush to build up his innings even if it may not be the best thing for his long-term health, but teams have to find a way to hold themselves back and if they don’t the results could be disastrous.