Everything has come crashing down for Scott Kazmir. He was the first great Rays pitcher, the first harbinger of a Rays turnaround. But as I talked about ad nauseum yesterday, it all came to a screeching halt for Kazmir before he began gliding into a protracted free-fall that may very well end his major league career. Is this the way his story ends?
Especially now that his career is if not over, in a state of indefinite suspension, every Rays fan that has been loyal since the Naimoli years has to be tempted into romanticizing Kazmir. When I think of Kazmir, I only think of the moments where for the first time, I was proud to be a Devil Rays fan. Kazmir’s steep career incline may have shifted downwardly in 2008, the year everything changed in the Rays organization, but the entire upheaval was inspired by his performance in 2005, 2006, and 2007. We all try to forget the frustration in Kazmir’s later years and simply focus on the happiness he gave us. But these past few days, as I’ve evaluated Kazmir’s career for the first time as a baseball writer, I’ve had to remember all of it. In 2008, we were all too caught up in everything to care about Kazmir’s home rate and FIP. In 2009, we knew the situation was bad, but we thought for sure he could get through it. All of a sudden in July, he was starting to turn it around…but then the Rays pulled off the defining trade in their history, trading Kazmir to the Angels. They showed they weren’t going to be sentimental and sympathetic to former greats- they were going to do everything in they could to be a contending team every single season. Find me a Rays fan who wasn’t in shock at that moment.
When Kazmir rebounded in August and September for the Angels, it left us all shaking our heads. But then in 2010, he began to struggle more and more. We knew the Rays had made the right move in trading him exactly when they did, but it struck us how quickly our former had fallen apart. His one start for the Angels in 2011 almost made me cry when he allowed 5 runs in just 1.2 innings, not even striking out a batter. We heard about Kazmir going to Winter ball and thought maybe he could rediscover something. Instead, he lasted just 0.1 innings in his only Winter start, allowing 4 runs. Is this the way it ends?
Kazmir turns 28 in 5 days. He’s right at the point when most pitchers would be entering their prime. But we saw in his one 2011 outing that his once dominant fastball was struggling to hit 90 and often settling for 87 or 88 MPH, sometimes lower. He had started using a two-seamer, a pitch he never used at all while on the Rays. His changeup lost its bite and his slider was no better than the fringe-average pitch it was virtually his entire career. The Scott Kazmir we knew is gone.
But that doesn’t mean he can’t reinvent himself. Look at this graph of the Pitch F/X data from Brooksbaseball.net of what is as of right now the last quality start of Kazmir’s major league career, September 8th, 2010 versus the Cleveland Indians.
Looking at the key, Kazmir’s average fastball velocity was below 90 MPH in that start. But what he did was he mixed his pitches well. He built off his four-seam fastball, which he was able to get some nice movement on, and then he messed with hitters by variating the movement with his two-seam fastball. His fastballs weren’t quite knockout pitches on the day, but they kept hitters off balance. Using his two fastballs, he got hitters thinking fastball all game and was able to get swings and misses with his changeup. And then he threw in a completely different look with his slider, leading hitters to take the pitch 6 of the 7 times he threw it, and getting 3 called strikes in addition to a swinging strike.
Scott Kazmir has always built off his dynamic fastball. The pitch was hard enough to hit by itself, and when hitters always thinking fastball, his secondary pitches often were effective. Without the dominating four-seam fastball, Kazmir will have to completely remake himself as a pitcher. Scott Kazmir was a thrower but he was so good that no one could hit him. Now he’ll have to become a pitcher. He’ll have to pitch to contact more and go for groundballs. Even in the best-case scenario, there’s absolutely no chance Scott Kazmir ever strikes out a batter per inning again. He can’t blow hitters anymore. He has to just keep them off balance. With the two fastballs and his changeup, Kazmir has three similar-looking pitches out of his hand whose differences in movement can lead to weak contact and the occasional swing and miss. The slider is a pitch that will throw hitters off just because it’s so completely different. And then there’s a pitch that Kazmir stopped using years ago: his curveball. Way back at the time of the fabled Kazmir for Zambrano trade, Baseball America remarked “He throws a mid-90s fastball and a curveball that’s well above average at times.” What ever happened to that curveball? Kazmir threw the pitch just under 3% of the time in his 8 appearances (7 starts) in his big league audition in 2004 before basically abandoning it until Pitch F/X saw it 0.8% of the time in 2007. The 2007 Pitch F/X data is sketchy, but the pitch does look an awful lot like a 1-7 curveball. Here’s a movement graph of the pitch from the 2007 Pitch F/X data from Fangraphs.
There’s some definite 1-to-7 movement on that pitch. Here’s the problem: look at the scale on the graph. The length to width ratio of the graph still approximates the strike zone, but instead of being the 28 inches by 24 inches that I usually use, I had to bring it down to 1.5 inches by 1.25 inches. Kazmir’s curveball moved just 0.4 inches towards a lefty batter and 0.7 inches down. Here’s the pitch in the regular 28 by 24 scale. (You might want to get out your magnifying glass.)
Any big league hitter could destroy that pitch because it was an 80 MPH pitch that didn’t move. Pitch F/X goofed in this case (see the graph here if you like) because the pitch was basically an errant slider. Nevertheless, it’s never too late to learn (or relearn), right?
In order to get back to the big leagues, Kazmir is going to have to morph from a 3-pitch thrower that just blew hitter after hitter away into a 5-pitch crafty pitcher who mixes his pitches well and pitches to contact. Kazmir might be one pitch away from being able to do that, with his curveball being nonexistent. Kazmir needs a team that is willing to sign him to a minor league contract and teach him one more pitch and be patient with him as he tries desperately to completely reform himself as a pitcher. And that brings us to this post’s title, whether the Rays should give Kazmir that opportunity.
Does Scott Kazmir still have the will to pitch? It tells you something that as a guy who has made over 30 million dollars in his career, he still went down to Winter ball to try. What do the Rays have to lose by giving Kazmir one more chance? It would be a minor league deal, so money wouldn’t be a factor. Do the Rays need a pitcher right now? Absolutely not, but Kazmir needs them, and they’re not going to discount everything he did to make the Rays the team they are today. Kazmir will be back in familiar territory going back to Central Florida with his old manager, Joe Maddon. A lot has changed with the Rays, but some things never change. If Kazmir is willing to work, why not give him another chance? Let him work with the coaches and see if anything is left in his left arm. And while he’s there, let Kazmir talk to Matt Moore. Let Kazmir tell Moore what it’s like to carry an entire fanbase on your back. Let Kazmir tell Moore how quickly things can end and how he has to take advantage of every opportunity he gets and refuse to take anything for granted. The Rays made Rocco Baldelli into a hero and have let him come back time after time. They need to give Kazmir one more chance. And while he’ll never be the same pitcher again or anything close to it, maybe, just maybe, he has something left.