The Rise and Fall of Scott Kazmir

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Devon just mentioned the two Scott Kazmir trades, bringing up a critical question: what in the world happened in between? In a span of a few short years, Kazmir went from the greatest pitcher in the history of the Tampa Bay Rays who was still adding to his resume to a pitcher who still hasn’t been signed for the 2012 season.

The Rays franchise has been around for just 16 years and has only fielded a major league team the past 14 years. So it’s pretty easy to divide the franchise into eras. From 1996 to 2004 was the Dark Ages, the Naimoli Years. Then from 2005 to 2008 was the Scott Kazmir Era. Now we’re in the Evan Longoria Age. For a few seasons, Scott Kazmir was the only ray of hope in a depressing organization. And then suddenly, for all intensive purposes, he fell off a cliff. What happened?

Let’s look back at Kazmir’s major league career. The young hotshot lefty who had been the Mets 15th overall pick in the 2002 draft was acquired at the trade deadline in 2004 in an absolute steal of a trade as the Rays acquired Kazmir along with a forgettable player named Jose Diaz in exchange for Victor Zambrano and Triple-A reliever Bartolome Fortunato. Kazmir’s major league career started in typical Devil Rays fashion before that 2004 season was through as he made 7 starts and a relief appearance in 2004 of very mixed results, posting a 5.67 ERA and a 4.22 FIP. He did throw 5 shutout innings versus the Seattle Mariners in his first major league start, allowing 3 walks and 4 hits while striking out 4, but his only other quality start was his 4th start and 5th appearance, when he threw 6 shutout innings allowing 3 hits and 3 walks while striking out 9 versus the Boston Red Sox in a start that first made Kazmir catch the public’s eye. His numbers weren’t good, but we saw the potential.

In Kazmir’s rookie season of 2005 at the age of just 21 years old, he got off to a rocky start once again. Through 8 starts, Kazmir had an 0-4 record, a 4.60 ERA, and a 4.20 FIP. His only quality starts were against the Red Sox (7 IP, 1 ER, 5 K’s) and Yankees (6 IP, 3 R, 1 ER, 9 K’s), but his overall performance still left something to be desired. But from that point on in the season, Kazmir put everything together. In his next 19 starts, Kazmir went 7-5 with a 4.03 ERA and a 4.03 FIP as well, striking out 8.6 batters per 9 innings, and in September, Kazmir was unhittable, posting a 1.71 ERA (3.26 FIP) in his final 5 starts of the season and posting a 3-0 record to put him at 10-9 on the season. Overall, Kazmir went 10-9 with a 3.77 ERA, 174 strikeouts (8.4 K/9), a league-leading 100 walks (4.8 BB/9), and just 12 homers allowed (0.6 HR/9) in 32 starts and 186 innings pitched. His FIP was around his ERA at 3.76 (his xFIP was 4.41, but Tropicana Field almost always makes pitchers outperform their xFIP). Most impressive was that Kazmir posted a 3.68 ERA in 5 starts against the Red Sox and a 2.77 ERA in 2 starts against the Yankees. Kazmir’s performance earned him exactly one Rookie of the Year vote and a 9th place finish in a race that was won by A’s closer Houston Street with Robinson Cano finishing second, although ironically, Kazmir’s bWAR (wins above replacement from Baseball-Reference.com) was the highest (3.7) of any player who received votes. Nevertheless, it was an excellent premier season for Kazmir, and he was already the undisputed ace of the Devil Rays’ execrable pitching staff. His 3.77 ERA and 3.76 FIP towered ahead of the rest of the Rays’ rotation (Mark Hendrickson, Casey Fossum, Doug Waechter, Hideo Nomo, and Seth McClung), who combined to post a 5.91 ERA and a (gasp) 5.22 FIP. The 21 year old Kazmir was the only beacon of hope in a rotation of horrors.

In 2006, Kazmir dealt with some shoulder pain that limited him to 24 starts, but when he was on the mound, he was absolutely lights out. He allowed 6 runs in 4 innings in his opening day start, but after that he was an AL All-Star as he went 10-7 with a 2.94 ERA, 159 strikeouts (10.2 K/9), 49 walks (3.1 BB/9), and 12 home runs allowed (0.8 HR/9) in 23 starts and 140.2 IP. His 3.14 FIP was outstanding, and he never really had a bad stretch all season even though he was placed on the DL twice (including in late August, ending his season). His 3.24 ERA overall on the season would have ranked 4th in the AL (behind some guys named Johan Santana, Roy Halladay, and CC Sabathia) had he qualified (he was 17.1 innings short). Once again, Kazmir dominated the Red Sox, going 3-1 with a 2.33 ERA in 4 starts, and he wasn’t too shabby against the Yankees, going 0-2 with a 3.97 ERA in two starts. Kazmir’s shining moment was on July 3rd versus Boston when he allowed just 2 hits in a complete game shutout, striking out 10 while walking just 2. He didn’t allow a hit from the 3rd to the 9th as he outdueled Josh Beckett. 2006 was an outstanding season for Kazmir once again, and he had blossomed into a true ace at the age of 22.

2007 was Kazmir’s best all-around season. He stayed healthy and he kept his performance just about up to par with his outstanding 2006. In the first half, Kazmir was pretty ordinary, going 6-6 with a 4.18 ERA and a 4.13 FIP as he failed to maintain a 2-1 strikeout to walk ratio. But in the second half, Kazmir was as good as he has ever been. He went 7-3 with a 2.55 ERA and somehow an even better 2.45 FIP, striking out 11.9 per 9 while walking just 2.8. He was especially ascendent against the Yankees and Red Sox, going 1-3 but with a 2.78 ERA and a ridiculous 1.99 FIP in 6 starts versus Boston and going 1-0 with a 2.66 ERA and a 3.54 FIP in 4 starts against the Yankees. Kazmir’s numbers on the season were superb once again as he went 13-9 with a 3.48 ERA, an AL-leading 239 strikeouts (10.4 K/9), 89 walks (3.9 BB/9), and 18 home runs allowed (0.8 HR/9) in 34 starts and 206.2 IP. His 3.45 FIP was great as well. Maybe you would want a bit lower ERA, but Kazmir was not only effective in 2011 but dependable as he went over 200 innings for the first time. Kazmir showed that he was not only a great pitcher, but the ace that could lead the Rays into contention. Kazmir was becoming a superstar right before our eyes.

2008 was the Rays’ year. And even though a big part of the turnaround was pitchers like James Shields and Matt Garza coming on, Scott Kazmir was still in the thick of things. Things got off to a rocky start for Kazmir as he was shelved for all of April with elbow issues. But when he came back in May, he was the pitcher we were used to, and in fact, better. He went 5-1 in 6 May starts with a ridiculous 1.22 ERA and a 2.20 FIP. He struck out a nice 9.2 batters per 9 innings while walking 3.2 per 9, but he suspiciously allowed 0 home runs. Because of that, his xFIP was a less impressive 3.54. That increasingly caught up with him as the season progressed. But on May 14th, the Rays signed Kazmir to a three-year contract extension, thinking he had regained his old form. But rather than maintaining stout performance, Kazmir’s pitching slowly deteriorated In June, Kazmir allowed 5 home runs in 5 starts as he went 2-2 with a 3.60 ERA and a 4.20 FIP. He posted a nice 10.2 K/9 along with a 3.3 BB/9, but his HR/9 was an awful 1.5. His xFIP was a bit better than his FIP at 3.85, but still worse than his career average. But at the end of June, Kazmir was 7-3 with a 2.28 ERA and a 3.10 FIP in 11 starts, and the Rays couldn’t have asked for anything more. But in 5 July starts, Kazmir slipped a little bit more, going 1-2 with a 4.18 ERA, a 3.52 FIP, and a 3.85 xFIP. He posted a nice 10.6 K/9 and a solid 3.5 BB/9, but his 0/9 HR/9 isn’t so great to begin with but was also a fluke. Kazmir’s ERA slipped to 2.84 by the end of July. This didn’t stop Kazmir from being an AL All-Star for the second time, but his performance continue to slip. Kazmir made 6 more starts in August, but he made it out of the 5th inning in just 2 of them and didn’t even make it through 5 in 2 of them as well. Everything basically fell apart for Kazmir. He managed a 4.02 ERA, but in this case that mark told no part of the full story. His 4.70 FIP was absolutely awful and his 4.55 xFIP wasn’t much better. His 10.1 K/9 was still impressive, but he lost his 2-1 strikeout to walk ratio as he BB/9 jumped to an absolutely horrible 5.7 while his 1.7 HR/9 was because of some bad luck but still inexcusably dreadful. (Somehow he went 2-1 in the month.) And Kazmir’s struggles came to a crescendo in September as he posted a 5.19 ERA, a number he was fortunate to manage. His FIP was one of the worst you’ll ever see, coming in at a nightmarish 6.28 as he posted a 9.0 K/9, a 5.2 BB/9, and the worse HR/9 you’ll ever see (for now), 3.1. His xFIP was certainly better at 5.01, but a mark that no one would be proud of. Kazmir got progressively worse as the year went on. He did experience a little bit of a resurgence at least on the surface in the playoffs, going 1-1 with a 4.21 ERA. But his FIP and xFIP were deplorable once again, coming in at 5.97 and 5.61 respectively. Watching Kazmir all season, you could see that something was always wrong. He was getting into huge troubles with his pitch counts and having nearly unremitting trouble with both his control and command, leading to walks and flyballs, which in turn led to home runs and a lot of runs allowed in general. As a Rays fan, you had to hope that Kazmir would solve his problems in 2009 and get back to the legitimate ace we had seen in 2006 and 2007.

But it simply didn’t happen. In 2009, Kazmir simply never got going. In April, Kazmir somehow went 3-2, but he posted a 5.40 ERA, a 4.89 FIP, and a 4.99 xFIP. He posted just a 7.1 K/9, a bad 5.40 BB/9, and a 1.0 HR/9. Three of his five starts were quality starts, including a 6 inning effort against the Red Sox in which he allowed just 1, but in two of his starts he went just 4 innings and allowed 6 earned runs each time. The Rays had to hope he just had a couple of bad starts bunched together he was going to fine going forward. But unfortunately, things only proceeded to get worse. In May, Kazmir was absolutely horrific. He posted a 10.89 ERA with his FIP and xFIP no better. At that point, he went down with a quadriceps injury, and the Rays had to hope the injury was the explanation for his problems and he would be fine when he was healthy. And when he came back, he was better. But nowhere near all the way better. After coming back in late June, Kazmir posted a 4.33 ERA in 6 starts taking him to the end of July, along with a 4.62 FIP and a 4.54 xFIP. His K/9 fell to just 6.9 although his BB/9 was solid at 3.1. The big problem for Kazmir was homers allowed as he posted a bad 1.3 HR/9, which wasn’t such a fluke because he was allowing so many flyballs. Kazmir was able to get some control, but he stopped missing bats and he still was giving up too many home runs. Kazmir’s first start in August was pretty good as he allowed 3 runs in 6 innings versus the Royals, striking out 5 while walking 1 (and hitting a batter), not allowing a single home run. But his second start in the month was not nearly as good.  He lasted just 4.1 innings, allowing 7 runs on 9 hits, striking out 3, walking 2, and allowing a home run versus the Seattle Mariners. Things were as bad as ever. That start moved his record on the season to 6-7 and raised his ERA on the season to 6.40. It was Kazmir at his absolute nadir. But then something changed, but not before it was too late.

On August 15th against the Toronto Blue Jays and Tropicana Field, Kazmir evened his record on the season, notching his 7th win with 6.1 inning, 3-run, 5 hit performance, striking out 7 while walking 3 and allowing 1 home run. (13 of the 17 batted balls against him were flyballs.) On August 21st, Kazmir faced off against the Texas Rangers at the Trop, allowing 3 runs on 5 hits once again, striking out 4 and walking 2 while allowing 1 home run. (17 of 23 batted balls were flyballs.) He improved his reward to 8-7 on the season despite a 6.17 ERA. But it all was the build up for Kazmir’s final start as a member of the Tampa Bay Rays. Kazmir went back up against the Blue Jays, this time at Rogers Centre. The Rays would lose the game 3-2. But Kazmir showed a final, transient glimmer of the pitcher Rays fans had adored. He went 6 innings against the Blue Jays, allowing just 1 run on 4 hits. He struck out 10 while walking just 1 and 5 of his 13 batted balls allowed were on the ground. His game score of 69 was his highest of the season. And that was it.

At the 2009 trade deadline, the Rays traded Kazmir to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim in exchange for three prospects: third baseman Matthew Sweeney, left-handed pitcher Alexander Torres, and the player to be named later, infielder Sean Rodriguez. The Rays traded Kazmir at the highest possible value he would ever have again. With the Angels, Kazmir was impressive in 6 September starts, going just 2-2, but with a 1.73 ERA. His FIP was a nice 3.03, but it’s interesting how he got there. His K/9 was just 6.4, but his BB/9 was an outstanding 2.5. His HR/9 was outstanding at 0.2, but unfortunately for him, that was the result of another fluke. His xFIP was nowhere near his FIP, registering at 4.79.  That caught up to him and then some in the playoffs as he was dominated by the Red Sox and Yankees he knew so well, posting a 7.59 ERA, a 5.92 FIP, and a 7.01 xFIP in 2 starts and a relief appearance totaling 10.2 IP.

In 2010, Kazmir struggled all season. He missed time in April with a strained left hamstring and in July with an injury to his left throwing shoulder. And the Angels were almost better when he was off the field than when he did start games. In the first half, Kazmir was absolutely horrible, going 7-9 with a 6.92 ERA, posting just a 5.8 K/9, a bad 4.8 BB/9, and a abysmal 1.7 HR/9 for a 6.11 FIP in 17 starts and 92.1 IP. His xFIP was moderately better at 5.56. In the second half, Kazmir showed some definite surface improvement, going just 2-6 in 11 starts and 57.2 IP in the second half, but posting a decent 4.37 ERA. But he posted just a 5.2 K/9, a 4.7 BB/9, and a horrific 1.8 HR/9, leading to a 5.68 FIP. Even more discouraging is that his xFIP was actually higher than his XFIP at 5.79. Kazmir simply wasn’t the same pitcher.

2011 was the end for Kazmir. He made his first start of the season on April 3rd, and he lasted just 1.2 innings, allowing 5 runs on 5 hits, walking 2 while not striking out a batter. He subsequently went down with a back injury, but he couldn’t even figure anything out while rehabbing at the Angels’ Triple-A Salt Lake, going 0-5 with a 17.02 ERA, not allowing a single home run but walking more batters than he struck out. The Angels had seen enough, releasing Kazmir in June, despite being on the hook for 12 million dollars, Kazmir’s 2011 salary from the extension he had signed with the Rays. What a sad ending- thus far- for a player who had such a promising start.

Kazmir resurfaced for one game in Winter Ball, but even there he couldn’t do anything, lasting just a third of an inning in his first and only start, allowing 4 runs on 2 hits and 2 walks. Kazmir turns just 28 next week, but it seems to be all over for him. The Rays have moved on and moved on well. Their rotation ranks as one of the best in baseball and their team has become a perennial contender. But we can’t help but lament the one Devil Ray who gave us hope for the future.

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Tags: Boston Red Sox New York Yankees Scott Kazmir The Devil Rays Years

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