In 2005 and 2006, Scott Kazmir emerged as the Tampa Bay Devil Rays’ ace. However, it was more de facto than anyway- no other Devil Rays starting pitcher who made as little as one start in 2005 managed an ERA below 4.90, and no pitcher minimum 100 innings for the 2006 D-Rays was below 4.80. Kazmir averaged just 165 innings over those two seasons, not only far from what an ace would put up but a number that would have ranked fifth on the Rays’ 2012 and 2011 pitching staffs and just 6th in the Rays’ 2010 rotation. In 2007, though, Kazmir finally broke through and established himself as one of the best pitchers in all of baseball. Kazmir went an outstanding 13-9 with a 3.48 ERA, striking out an AL-leading 239 batters while walking 89 in 34 starts and 206.2 innings pitched. His 239 strikeouts remains the Rays record for a single season, and his 10.4 strikeouts per 9 innings are the team record even setting the minimum as low as 75 innings. And combining such a high strikeouts per 9 innings ratio with the fact that he pitched 200 innings put Kazmir in a unique class of pitchers.
In the history of baseball, just eleven pitchers have managed a season with 10.4 or more strikeouts per 9 innings in 200 or more innings pitched. The three who did it three or more times are all no-doubt Hall of Famers: Randy Johnson (who did it nine times!), Nolan Ryan, and Pedro Martinez. Curt Schilling another player with an excellent chance of getting in, did it twice. After after that, you have six players who are almost a who’s-who of what could have been. All six of them had their 10.4 K/9 season when they were 26 or younger, and all of them watched their careers come apart. You have Dwight Gooden in 1984. You have the pairing of Mark Prior and Kerry Wood on the ill-fated 2003 Chicago Cubs. You have Johan Santana, whose career appeared to be on a Hall of Fame trajectory before a series of injury-riddled season have just about ruined his hopes. You have Sam McDowell, the first pitcher ever to have a season with a 10.4 K/9 or greater way back in 1965 at age 22, and he had several great years, going 103-80 with a 2.73 ERA from 1964 to 1970, but he won just 9 games after age 30 as he finished with just 141 wins for his career. And there’s Scott Kazmir. The good news for Kazmir is that his career isn’t quite over yet- he’s back in big league camp with the Cleveland Indians and pitching well. But even in the best-case scenario, Kazmir’s four-year run of dominance from 2005 to 2008 will never be something he can even come close to getting back to, and like so many others on this list, the question will always be just how could have been had he not gotten injured.
I only listed ten names out of the eleven- one more is active and whether he ends up on the list of greats or the list of could-have-beens is very much in question. That pitcher is Tim Lincecum, who joined the four Hall of Famers with two seasons of 200 innings and a K/9 of 10.4 or greater in his Cy Young seasons of 2008 and 2009. But while Lincecum has never gone on the disabled list his entire career, his fastball velocity has declined from 94.74 MPH in 2008 to just 91.06 MPH in 2012 according to Brooks Baseball, and that’s despite the fact the Lincecum is still 28 years old. That steep decline in fastball velocity combined with an even greater loss of control and command (4.4 BB/9, 1.1 HR/9) led to Lincecum being among the worst players in baseball in 2012 as he went just 10-15 with a 5.18 ERA in 33 starts and 186 innings pitched. However, Lincecum proceeded to be huge for the Giants on their run to the World Series championship, managing a 2.55 ERA and a 20-5 strikeout to walk ratio in 6 appearances and 17.2 innings pitched, and there’s renewed hope for the Giants that he’ll be able to start pitching more like he did in those two Cy Young seasons and in 2011 (2.74 ERA, 220-86 K-BB ratio in 217 IP). Simply the fact that Lincecum managed two 10.4 K/9 seasons of over 200 innings pitched tells you how high his long-term potential is considering that every other pitcher who did that will end up in the Hall of Fame over the next five years. But Lincecum can’t afford to take anything for granted anymore as his career has begun to fall apart even accounting for his big performance in the postseason, and if he can’t turn himself around, he will end up like Kazmir and the others before he knows it.
When a pitcher puts up a season where he strikes out 10.4 or more batters per 9 innings, it indicates a level of dominance that few pitchers can reach, but also a substantial amount of risk as a result. When pitchers throw that hard, they’re always at risk of losing control, and even more importantly, they’re putting so much stress on their arms that an injury could be a second away at any time. And even if a pitcher can stay healthy and locate his pitches, eventually his velocity goes down and he has the adapt to survive. The greats are able to do all of that- but for most pitchers, they can only get a transient glimpse of the view from the top of the mountain before they quickly and perilously plunder down. Rays fans had the pleasure and the misfortune of seeing that happen with Scott Kazmir. Watching him and James Shields pitch great in 2007 gave Rays fans hope that the Rays could put together a strong starting rotation after years of pitching futility, but then seeing Kazmir come apart like he did makes us wonder whether it’s worth it to get our hopes up knowing that 95% of even the pitchers who reach the pinnacle are bound to implode. All we can do is appreciate greatness when we get the chance knowing that in all probability it’s going to disappear before we know it.