Can Scott Kazmir repeat 2014 success?
By DAN BERNSTEIN
College Contributor Network
Scott Kazmir made the All Star team for the Oakland Athletics last year, but his first half (11-3 with a 2.38 ERA) far outpaced his second half production (4-6 with a 5.42 ERA). Still, it was a strong season for a player who has endured plenty of hardship over his ten-year major league career.
Kazmir's journey began as an erratic but talented 20-year-old in Tampa Bay. The team was still known as the Devil Rays then, and besides his emergence, there wasn't any good baseball going on in St. Petersburg, unless the Boston Red Sox or New York Yankees were in town. In his first four seasons in Tampa, the Devil Rays went 264-383, which amounted to a measly .408 winning percentage.
However, Kazmir dazzled fans with a string of excellent seasons on the mound. In his age 21-24 seasons, Kazmir racked up 14.6 wins above replacement (Fangraphs), which equated to 3.65 WAR per year.
Walks were a problem for Kazmir, as he had below average BB/9 rates throughout his years in Tampa Bay. But when on his game, he was electric. In three of his first four full seasons he struck out more than a batter an inning, and in 2007 he led the AL in strikeouts.
He gave an excitement-starved fan base something to talk about. Kazmir could strike out eleven or he could melt down and walk six, but either way it was a can't-miss spectacle.
But even back in 2006, the optimism that surrounded the then-22-year-old southpaw was tainted by repeated trips to the disabled list. On Sept. 19 of that year, after two previous stints on the DL, Kazmir was shut down for the rest of the season with left shoulder inflammation.
In 2008, it was Kazmir's elbow that kept him out until the first week of May. By the time he was traded to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim in 2009, continued elbow issues had eroded his on-field performance level.
In his first full major league season, Kazmir's average fastball velocity was 92.6 MPH and he threw the pitch almost 68% of the time. By 2010, his average fastball velocity was down to 90.5 MPH. It was no coincidence that the 2010 season was the worst of his career, as his FIP (a measure of defense independent pitching) leapt to an ugly 5.83.
With things looking increasingly bleak for Kazmir in 2011, the Angels decided to cut him. "When I got released, I felt like I let my family down," Kazmir said in an article on SFGate. "But my dad reassured me that it was OK if I didn't play any more. They'd still be proud of me. It meant a lot."
"I just knew as long as I stuck with it and kept progressing, it would come back. I knew something wasn't right with my body and I just wasn't using all my ability. I knew my arm felt great. And I was just determined to figure it out."
His journey back to the big leagues took time. Kazmir spent 2012 playing independent league baseball with the Sugar Land Skeeters before pitching in Puerto Rico that fall.
Kazmir's second chance came with the Cleveland Indians, who offered him a minor league contract before the 2013 season. He surpassed expectations, posting a 4.04 ERA and 3.51 FIP, and earned himself a two-year, $22 million contract from the A's in the following offseason.
Many thought that Kazmir's resurgence in Cleveland was unsustainable because of his injury history and reputation as a wild pitcher, but his first year in Oakland was arguably his best statistical season ever, poor finish included. The seasonal totals: 15-9, 3.55 ERA, 3.35 FIP, 3.3 WAR.
How has Kazmir rediscovered his form over the last two seasons?
One reason is that the velocity has returned to his fastball. As mentioned earlier, his fastball velocity was 90.5 MPH in 2010. But with improved health, that number jumped to 92.5 MPH in 2013 with the Indians.
While Kazmir's fastball velocity dipped back to 91 MPH last season, he used it only 54% of the time compared to his 65% career usage rate, demonstrating how the fastball has become a less-essential aspect of his repertoire.
In its place, Kazmir leaned on a newly developed cutter and refined change up. He used both pitches more than ever before, and to great effect -- the change up led to a 17.4% swing-miss percentage.
Early in his career, Kazmir was a power pitcher. He threw lots of hard fastballs, racked up huge strikeout totals, and allowed too many walks. Since his return to the major leagues, he's become more control oriented, and it's made a big difference.
With a cutter and improved change up now in his arsenal -- two pitches associated with a more finesse style -- Kazmir has slashed his walk rate. In 2013 his BB/9 was 2.68, and last year that number dropped to 2.36.
The above graphic from Fangraphs shows Kazmir's dramatic transformation into a pitcher with good command. Throughout his first stretch of time in the major leagues with Tampa Bay and Los Angeles, Kazmir lived well above the league average BB/9 rate, but in the past two years he's actually been better than average in terms of walks.
Kazmir's improved control makes hitters more willing to chase when he does leave the strike zone. Coupled with a career-low walk rate last season, Kazmir posted his best ever O-Swing percentage (percentage of swings at pitches outside of the strike zone) with a 31.1% mark. Low BB/9 has some correlation to heightened O-Swing%, as seen in this article. The reason for the connection between these numbers is that pitchers with good control become reputed strike throwers, and therefore fool hitters when they do throw outside of the strike zone. Additionally, these pitchers are able to miss near the strike zone, leading to pitches that are hard to lay off.
Because of his poor second half last season, there are questions about whether Kazmir can continue to pitch at a high level in 2015. But looking into the numbers, there's reason to believe that his rough patch was the anomaly rather than the early stretch that sent him to his third-career All Star appearance.
On the surface, Kazmir's second half was atrocious -- he posted a 5.42 ERA and 1.45 WHIP. However, those numbers do not tell the full story. His BABIP (batting average on balls in play) against was .333, much higher than his .302 career mark. That indicates that he was the victim of bad fortune, although it should be noted that the jump in BABIP was influenced in part by a 4% jump in line-drive percentage compared to his career 19% LD rate (read: his pitches were more hittable in the second half).
Kazmir was also unlucky in the second half with runners on base. Throughout his career, his LOB% (left on base percentage) has rarely fluctuated from his 73% lifetime average. But in the second half of last season, Kazmir's LOB% was 59.4%. That number should normalize in the future, which will lead to less runs allowed.
While Kazmir's ERA might have been abysmal in the second half of last season, his FIP (3.61) and xFIP (4.03) were actually decent. FIP and xFIP are better indicators of future performance than ERA, which bodes well for the lefty going forward.
It's reasonable to wonder whether Kazmir's body will continue to hold up after various injuries nearly cost him his baseball career in 2011. The numbers indicate that he's primed for another strong campaign, and he's only 30, but people will still second guess him. Kazmir has grown up though, and the second guessing won't stop him.
"With all I've been through, I'm a better pitcher," he said. "I was determined to figure it out, and I'm twice as strong a person."
Dan Bernstein is a freshman at the University of Maryland. He is romantic about the Oakland Coliseum (where he grew up) and Anfield (where he's never been). Follow him on Twitter: @danbernsteinUMD