Anthony Rizzo used to watch Coby Mayo play Little League, so when the New York Yankees star says he’s seen plenty of Mayo over the years, he means it — the growth spurts, the high school stardom and then as a training partner after the Orioles drafted Mayo in 2020.
So when Mayo returned from his first full season of professional baseball this winter — one in which he climbed to Double-A and faced injuries that dimmed his production in the second half there — the Yankees’ first baseman’s impression of what happened over that year spoke volumes.
“To see the difference from last year to this year, just the maturity I saw, has been fun,” said Rizzo, a three-time All-Star who graduated from Parkland, Florida’s Stoneman-Douglas High School 13 years before Mayo did. “He’s always been a baseball player, but the ins and outs of the minor leagues from early on … Seeing him come through his first full season, last year, he had highs and lows. Success, got hurt a little bit, but … just seeing his confidence and him being another year older and knowing what to expect in a minor league season, he has realistic expectations of he can be in the big leagues this year. That definitely should be his goal.”
For Mayo, that affirmation means plenty. He grew up playing with the son of Rizzo’s longtime trainer, so the presence of a rising star in the game and then a legitimate major leaguer around the field as he grew up fueled him. He believes Rizzo is a “grinder” with as strong a work ethic as anyone in the game, and wants to be regarded as highly as Rizzo on and off the field as his career blossoms.
Part of that maturity, it seems, is Mayo’s understanding that everything he does now sets the foundation for what he hopes will be a long career. A fourth-round pick who signed for an above-slot $1.75 million in the shortened 2020 draft, Mayo has consciously sought to fill out and solidify his 6-foot-5 frame to put on the kind of muscle that can sustain one through a summer-long baseball season in the time since.
His pro debut was delayed with a spring knee injury in 2021, though he finished with a .981 OPS over two levels once he got on the field. In 2022, he had an .820 OPS and 14 home runs in a half-season at High-A Aberdeen before he was promoted to Double-A Bowie where a back injury in his first week ended up derailing his season.
Mayo returned to Bowie this month with perspective on how to improve on last year’s mixed results at the level.
“Last year, joining twice after getting called up and then after I got hurt a few games in, I think I was just trying to find my spot on this team and trying to get a groove going, and was trying to do a lot,” Mayo said. “I think this year I’m going to the box more confident, feeling like the pitcher can’t get me out, and I’m better than you. Having that mentality in the box, it does help a lot when you go into the box with a positive mindset instead of being a little bit more timid.”
The level proved challenging as well. Mayo’s strengths when you watch him play are evident — he can turn on a fastball with the best of them, but that swing has left him vulnerable when opposing pitchers’ channel pitches on the outer half of the plate or moving away from him. When pitchers come into his hot zone, Mayo typically ends up back in the dugout shortly thereafter, being congratulated for a home run and telling teammates and coaches they shouldn’t have come into the “Coby Zone.”
The scouting report on him, naturally, is to not go there. Bowie manager Kyle Moore said when there are runners in scoring position, Mayo gets fed sliders away.
“That’s a beautiful part of his development — how do you hit one when you know it’s coming, but how do you also maintain your strength?” Moore said. “His strength is hitting a fastball 110 mph. You can’t forget about your strength, but he also knows he’s getting a heavy dose of sliders, so it’s a good time for him in his career. This is really somewhere where he can really start to turn some corners.”
Mayo, too, is aware of that balance. He said he didn’t want to spend his whole offseason focused on simply hitting sliders down and away “because everyone struggles with those kinds of things,” but instead worked on that in the context of finding the swing that helped him be successful up until he arrived in Bowie and the back spasms hit.
“Sometimes during the season, your swing can change a little bit, level out, get a little more rotational,” Mayo said. “I saw that during the end of last year. I wasn’t hitting for the power after I got back from the injury, so I think it’s just getting back to those habits and continuing to work on things that were working well for me.”
Pitchers began 2023 hammering those same areas for Mayo. Moore said the level is now defined by pitchers who can locate at least one, and more often two, pitches in the types of areas they want to challenge Mayo in, but he’s noticed a more committed effort from Mayo to work on that in BP.
“We hit off a machine yesterday and the old Coby would have been hunting the foul pole, hooking balls off the clubhouse,” Moore said. “I think he actually stayed inside a few and got jammed on a couple of balls yesterday that you would have never seen 20-year-old Coby Mayo do and he was OK with it. Normally that would really upset him but I think he’s already starting to mature as far as what his approach is.”
Mayo’s return to Bowie has been mixed so far — he has a home run and a .678 OPS in 41 plate appearances — and he is continuing to get exposure to first base as the Orioles try to expand his positional realm beyond just third base.
He’s doing it all with a maturity that impressed one of the most well-regarded big leaguers around, and at a stage in his career where the Orioles have seen plenty of players make tremendous strides.
Moore said: “I think back to different players that I’ve seen make that jump and I think sometimes, this is where you see the most development in the human being, grown-man sort of perspective. We saw Gunnar Henderson do the same thing — he was a child when we left Aberdeen [in 2021], and all of a sudden, came back the next year as a man and dominated Double-A. I think Mayo has some of that in him. He was so young. He’s still so young. He’s just over 21 years old, so you see giant physical jumps, and I think it’s real important that we also hammer the development in that little window we get when you’re in that giant physical maturation stage, if you will. It’s been fun to watch him. He’s a specimen.”