This past Saturday, Scott Kazmir took the hill versus the Houston Astros for his first major league start since April of 2011. It did not go well. Kazmir lasted just 3.1 innings allowing 6 runs on 7 hits, striking out 4, walking 3, and allowing 2 home runs. In fairness to Kazmir, he may have been thrown off completely by the fact that he had extremely long layoffs between innings as the Indians scored 18 runs in the brief time that Kazmir was in the game, but nevertheless, he looked terrible. Just 49 of his 89 pitches were strikes as he missed a few bats but threw few strikes and missed way too often up in the zone. It was only one start, but we have to ask the question: is Scott Kazmir a good enough pitcher at this point in his career that his comeback to the majors can last?
Let’s look at the Pitch F/X data on Kazmir from his first start for the Indians as well as the data we have from spring training to evaluate his pure stuff. The results aren’t really what matters here–anything he did in the spring can be basically dismissed and the same can be said of his first start because no pitcher as bad as their worst game–so what we’ll do is look at the velocity, movement, and usage of his pitches and attempt to analyze whether it’s good enough for Kazmir to keep going as a major league pitcher. The data is courtesy of Brooks Baseball while the graph is of my own creation.
Your first reaction looking at that has to be that this is a different Scott Kazmir we’re looking at here. Gone is the pitcher who pumped electric mid-90′s fastballs, devastating sliders, and solid changeups by hitters on his way to well over a strikeout per inning. In his place is a pitcher with the ability to miss some bats with a still very good slider and a changeup that isn’t all that far off but who also works harder to force weak contact and keep the ball on the ground a little more frequently. Kazmir still primarily throws his low-90′s fastball with good late life but has been mixing in a two-seamer with outstanding movement towards right-handed batters and has also been resorting to his secondary pitches much more often. And between his four pitches, there is plenty of concern for Kazmir but also reasons for optimism.
Even with his Pitch F/X-described sinker, Kazmir will remain a flyball pitcher on the whole. To beat hitters on his fastball despite just average velocity, Kazmir resorts to two different types of movement: the late life on his four-seamer and the big horizontal run on his two-seamer. Neither one of Kazmir’s fastballs has all that much sink and when he’s successful he’s going to be allowing a lot of routine flyballs and pop-ups as opposed to contact on the ground. But with not as much velocity at his disposal, Kazmir has to do a better job keeping the ball down in the zone because mistakes at 91 MPH can go a long way. Another concern lies in throwing his two-seamer within the zone. Kazmir’s four-seamer has always been his bread-and-butter and the pitch he can throw for strikes the most easily, but his two-seamer is a pitch he isn’t used to throwing and its substantial movement and the result of that has been extremely inconsistent command. It doesn’t matter how well it moves if Kazmir can’t throw it for strikes. Kazmir’s four-seam fastball is not a good enough pitch for him to use it 50 or 60% of the time anymore, but when he doesn’t know where his two-seamer, he’s forced to rely on it far too often. The continued development of Kazmir’s two-seamer to take the load off his four-seamer is going to be critical to his success.
Kazmir’s slider is no longer the unhittable pitch in the mid-80′s that it once was, but even in the low-80′s it still shows dynamic late bite with the ability to force plenty of swings-and-misses. However, for that to happen it has to be set up by his fastball. Kazmir doesn’t do a great job throwing his slider for called strikes and he has to get ahead in the count for it be a real weapon. Kazmir has always been an orthodox pitcher, working with fastball-slider instead of fastball-curveball or sinker-slider, but now with his two-seam fastball coming into play, Kazmir could beat hitters with a tantalizing combination of big movement on his two-seamer and sharp action on his slider. Kazmir’s slider was especially effective in the past because he was throwing his fastball so much more often that hitters couldn’t sit slider and saw it jump on them whenever he delivered it. Kazmir has to be careful not to fall in love with his slider even if it might be his best offering at this point and simply use it another pitch in his arsenal or his inability to throw it for called strikes could get him into serious trouble. If he keeps his slider usage right around the 17% clip that it has been his entire career, it can resume being a great put-away pitch for him and a pitch that hitters quickly learn to hate once again.
Then there is the changeup, the pitch Kazmir learned from James Shields to complement his fastball and slider back in the day. Kazmir doesn’t locate it nearly as well as Shields does, but he’s able to get nice sink on it and it could be even more effective since its movement mirrors his two-seamer. Kazmir’s changeup is especially important as a weapon against right-handed batters. Elite fastball velocity can beat anyone, but now that Kazmir’s fastball isn’t as hard, he’s going to depend more on deception, something he has less of against righties. Kazmir’s slider is relatively split-neutral, but his changeup is an asset as a pitch he can both throw into the zone and out of it, and retire hitters even when they’re laying off his slider down in the zone. Kazmir does need to work on throwing it for strikes consistently as its great movement makes it another pitch Kazmir struggles at times to control. What Kazmir really needs to finish off his arsenal is a groundball offering, and his changeup is decidedly not that. However, it gives him yet another swing-and-miss pitch and another thing for hitters, especially from the right side, to think about, and as a fourth offering, it can more than fill its role for Kazmir moving forward.
Scott Kazmir has clear work to do commanding his two-seamer better to reduce the load on his four-seamer and not falling in love with his slider. He has never been a pitcher who has done a great job throwing strikes, and with reduced stuff, that becomes even more important. However, he still has a plus offering in his slider and three more pitches that can still be effective, and with that in mind, Scott Kazmir could still have several more promising years in his career. Kazmir has always been inconsistent and that might be even more the case now as he won’t be able to get away with nearly as many mistakes as he used to. But on the whole, Kazmir has enough left to be at least a 4th or 5th starter in the major leagues who may be far from the most dependable pitcher in the world but delivers flashes of dominance. There are no guarantees of that happening, but if a few things go right, Indians fans and Rays fans rooting for their former ace could have something to be excited about.