I saw Scott Kazmir pitch in person once. It was at Yankee Stadium, the old new one, in July 2008. He threw 97 pitches (64 strikes) in five innings, struck out nine and gave up two runs on five hits. A classic Kazmir outing—it was dazzling, it was a lot of fun, and it was all too brief.
That was the year the Rays went to the World Series, and their anchor, the guy who had led the rotation and team through the wilderness and into the limelight, was 24 and without him knowing it, his best years were already behind him. He’d led the league in strikeouts the year prior but numbers were down from 10.4 K/9 to 9.8 K/9. It wasn’t a shocking drop, but it was a sign of things to come.
He was dinged up all season the first in a series of years where he slowly worked his way out of baseball because of injuries, ineffectiveness, and ultimately uselessness. By the time the Los Angeles Angels brought him back in 2011 for depth only to cut him after one game, his fastball was down to an 86.5 mph average, where it was 91.7 mph in 2008. As a two-pitch pitcher who lost the velocity on his fastball and the feel of his slider, he was done in Major League Baseball.
Through all this, we forget, Scott Kazmir is only 28 years old. We talk like he’s this old, washed up veteran trying for one last shot at glory, but he’s still in the years many consider the prime of a career. Shoot, I’m 26, and I haven’t accomplished anything except college and moving out of my parents’ house. I’m still not sure if I put that apostrophe in the right place in “parent’s house.” See? What I’m saying is, unless a guy’s arm is about to fall off like Sandy Koufax, there’s no reason someone a former phenom who once nearly caused riots in Queens when he was traded for Victor Zambrano should just be finished. He’s barely even a grown man, and we’re washing our hands of him? It feels like that’s just a bonehead decision.
One constant story we see every year though, is regardless of what your body allows you to do we’ve seen time and again guys can’t get away from baseball. The Indians just signed 42-year-old Jason Giambi, a guy who hasn’t played a whole game in years it seems like, and has been drifting south through the standings since his Yankee contract ended. Scott signed with the Atlantic League’s Sugar Land Skeeters last summer and was pretty bad, going 3-6 with a 5.34 ERA. He spent the winter in Puerto Rico with the Gigantes de Carolina, and his velocity is back up to 94-95 mph, or so they say. Scott was once one of the best, a legitimate ace in what was the best division in baseball.
When he was a Ray, Scott never showed much evolution in his game because he didn’t have to. A.J. Burnett is the same type of pitcher, and he’s at least average. This intrigues me because unlike Burnett, Kazmir has faced adversity. Burnett was able to carve a solid career for himself, and how he’s just too old to change his ways. He doesn’t need to. He could get by on raw stuff, and that went away so he turned sour.
It makes me think of another pitcher I’m rather enraptured with, Brandon McCarthy. McCarthy was never the pitcher Kazmir was, he got by on location and stuff that was just good enough, and had to rebuild his entire repertoire before he could become what he is: a borderline ace. With he and Ian Kennedy in the fold, I almost like the Diamondbacks this year, if it weren’t for that pesky Kevin Towers always foiling their plans. For a competitor like Kazmir losing what was his meal ticket, giving up is not going to be that easy.
Kazmir’s four-seamer was never as flat as McCarthy’s was, and his control (career 4.2 BB/9) has never been spectacular. He was great, but it’s evident now his methods weren’t tenable. That doesn’t mean he couldn’t remake himself, realize a career isn’t built on blowing guys away but on getting out of innings and find a way to get it done. It’s been done before, and considering the fall from grace he’s suffered, it makes sense he’d fight to get back and find the way to long-term success.
We don’t know what Kazmir spent his time in Houston with the Skeeters or in Puerto Rico doing. It’s a little amazing a former ace was so blown away by independent league hitters, unless he was relearning how to pitch, or fiddling about, or just teaching himself how to accept losing. Maybe he just got healthy again. I’m excited to see what he’s turned himself into this season. Maybe it’s the same old Kazmir, or maybe we’re about to get our faces melted.
This is why I love Spring Training, and why I know you love it too. These redemption stories, these second chances, the game is replete with them. If Kazmir has found his groove again, or found something new and better, perhaps the Indians are on to something. I just can’t give up hope on a guy who is barely older than I am, and by all indications still can’t grow facial hair. It could all come to nothing, but as it stands, I believe in Scott Kazmir.