May 9, 2013; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Indians starting pitcher Scott Kazmir (26) delivers in the third inning against the Oakland Athletics at Progressive Field. Mandatory Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

Starting A New Life: Scott Kazmir’s Unlikely Comeback

When I hear that robin sing
Well I know it’s coming on spring
Ooo-we and we’re starting a new life

-Van Morrison, “Starting A New Life”

During a year where expectations have been exceeded all around, Cleveland Indians lefty

Jul 13, 2013; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Indians starting pitcher Scott Kazmir (26) pitches in the third inning against the Kansas City Royals at Progressive Field. Mandatory Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

Scott Kazmir is a great example of exactly how much the team has improved from previous seasons. After an off-season where many criticized the Tribe’s lack of focus on starting pitching, the team has been able to rely on unheralded players like Kazmir, Corey Kluber, and Zach McAllister to consistently win games. These pitchers were expected to be weak points but have been extremely productive thus far.

Kazmir’s minor league deal with the team this winter was looked at with skepticism by the fan base and media alike.

But if there’s any sport that champions second chances, it’s baseball. Whether it be a team rising from the depths of mediocrity to win it all not only once, but twice (the Florida Marlins) or a player squandering a scholarship on substance abuse before fulfilling life long goals (the Atlanta Braves’ Evan Gattis) redemption is attainable on the diamond. Dreams can be realized even after years of failure.

Just look at R.A. Dickey, a pitcher who spent year after year bouncing around before  finding success with the New York Mets at age 36. Dickey faced failure after failure before finally proving to his team, the fans, and himself that he could be a productive baseball player. Now he’s making 12.5 million dollars a year, was the centerpiece of a high-profile trade, and has a shiny Cy Young trophy sitting on his shelf.

But unlike Dickey, Scott Kazmir nearly seemed to be on the right path to superstardom. His career looked to be following the same arc that everyone thought it would when he was drafted fifteenth overall by the New York Mets in the 2002 MLB Draft. Kazmir used his absolutely electric stuff to dominate batters in high school, striking out a remarkable 172 batters in 75 innings. At one point, he threw four straight no hitters. It’s easy to see why the Mets would be high on him.

When examining a prospect, it’s easy to forget that these young players almost never pan out into what conventional thinking expects them to be. “He’s our next ace,” fans proclaim. “He’s a potential number one starter,” scouting reports sometimes say. But if the number of players thought to be number one starters actually fulfilled that perceived destiny, each team in the majors would have several.

This snippet of a scouting report by ESPN’s John Sickels shows exactly how high scouts were on Kazmir just a year into his minor league career:

Although Kazmir isn’t a big guy, he has an electric body that produces thunderbolt fastballs. He hits 95 mph consistently, and has been clocked as high as 97. His fastball isn’t straight, either; it has a lot of movement, yet he’s able to hit spots with it much of the time. Complementing the heat is an overpowering slider, devastating to left-handers. He’s working on a change-up, and will need it at higher levels, though for now the fastball/slider combination is enough. Kazmir is a good athlete, with mobility on the mound and solid field presence. He isn’t just a thrower, and has pitching instincts rare in a young power hurler. He still has control problems at times, but that should ease with experience.”

Simply put, Kazmir looked to be all you could want in a top of the rotation type – great stuff, the stamina to last late in games, and the intelligence to put his tools together and succeed on the field.

Kazmir seemed to be the complete package. Mets fans were itching to see him pitch in the big leagues, hoping he could anchor their pitching staff for years.

However, the front office had other ideas. Kazmir was traded to the Tampa Bay Devil Rays for pitcher Victor Zambrano, a talented but unpolished 28-year-old who had yet to prove he could be anything more than a back-end starter. Zambrano never had a season with an ERA below 4.20 before his time with the Mets, and his strikeouts per walk hovered around one his entire career.

Despite being traded from one of the biggest media markets to one of the worst teams in the league, expectations for Kazmir only rose in Tampa Bay. The Devil Rays had yet to have a winning season at that point in their short history, and Kazmir was one of a few players who Rays fans theorized could turn things around.

May 25, 2013; Boston, MA USA; Cleveland Indians starting pitcher Scott Kazmir (26) pitches during the first inning against the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park. Mandatory Credit: Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

Whether Kazmir was ready or not is unknown, but he was called up in 2004 at just 20 years old. Kazmir struggled in his first season – he allowed 21 earned runs and 4 homers in just 33 innings – but the flashes of what he could be were there. Despite his struggles, he still struck out 41 batters in those 33 innings. Major league batters were surely tougher than their minor league counterparts that Kazmir feasted on for two years. But the potential was there.

Kazmir made his first All Star game in 2006 just two years later at the age of 22. And in 2007, he struck out a remarkable 239 batters in 206.2 innings (10.4 per nine). His 2007 season is also a great example at how nonsensical award voting can be – Kazmir failed to receive a vote for the AL Cy Young despite leading the league in strikeouts.

Despite elbow issues in the 2008 season, he helped lead the Rays to their first ever winning year, division title, and AL pennant. Kazmir still dealt with the control issues that Sickels mentioned back in October 2003 – he often struggled to last more than 5 or 6 innings – yet it was undeniable that Kazmir was displaying phenomenal stuff. If he learned how to further harness it, he could be a nightmare to face.

But 2009 saw further injury issues and a large decrease in production from Kazmir. His decline was total. Not only did his numbers drop in every category, his velocity was down as well. The fastball slipped from 92-95 in 2007 to 90 in early 2009. The slider that scouts raved about lost the movement and speed that previously fooled hitters.

When Rays general manager Andrew Friedman said “We envision Scott being here for a long time, and being a leader for a long time” I doubt that he expected to be trading him just a few years later.

But that’s what happened in the 2009 season. The Rays shipped Kazmir to the Los Angeles Angels for minor league prospect Matt Sweeney and current member of the Rays pen Alex Torres. Kazmir was relatively successful in his first few starts with the Angels, but the 2010 and 2011 seasons saw him decline even further.

His 2011 season is a mark of exactly how far a player can fall. Kazmir worked all offseason to improve his game, yet he seemingly lost any command or velocity that he had previously. He was sent to extended Spring Training, and later the Angels’ AAA affiliate where he failed to show any sort of improvement mechanically or statistically. He was eventually released by the team early in the year after making just one appearance in the majors.

At just 27, it seemed like Kazmir might never pitch in the major leagues again. In an interview with Fangraphs, he had this to say about his rapid decline:

I got back physically, but was going out there every five days not throwing with good mechanics. I was trying to compensate to get hitters out — to actually throw strikes. Basically, I ended up building bad habits. Once you do something over and over, it’s hard to get back where you were. You’re healthy, but you don’t have that feel anymore.

“I thought I was right again when we talked [in 2010]. There were still a couple of things to clean up, but you can be so erratic, and not consistent, to where… I would have it for a second, and then it would completely leave me. The main thing is, I didn’t know how to get it back.”

It could have easily been the final chapter in Kazmir’s career. Plenty of players burn out quickly. But Kazmir almost instantly went back to work. He signed with the Sugar Land Skeeters of the independent Atlantic League, where he was relatively unsuccessful. But it quickly became clear to MLB franchises that at the very least, Kazmir was showing the dedication needed to get back to the Show.

In late 2012, Kazmir played winter ball in Puerto Rico. He displayed a definite improvement in his fastball velocity. After hitting just 87 mph on the gun in his final year with the Angels, Kazmir had raised the speed of the pitch up to 95 mph. Kazmir seemed to not only be improving physically – according to him, his head was in the right place as well (once again, from Fangraphs):

Taking some time away from the game, I fell in love with it again. I went back to play independent ball, just because I love the game. We were staying at the worst hotels — no AC with 90-degree heat — but I was actually fine with that. The grinding was okay, because I’d found that love again.

Thankfully, the Cleveland front office took notice of this change in attitude.

The Indians signed Kazmir to a minor league deal in December 2012 with an invite to Spring Training. Kazmir impressed in the spring and made the rotation out of camp. At the very least, he made it back to the big leagues.

Despite low expectations, Kazmir has been solid thus far. After a stretch of less than impressive play that left many (including some of us at Wahoo’s On First) calling for a move to the bullpen, Kazmir has lowered his ERA to below 4.00. His last three decisions have been wins, and he’s allowed just eight earned runs in seven starts. His last start – an eight inning, seven strikeout, one hit game – was his longest since his time in Tampa Bay.

The Scott Kazmir currently pitching for the Indians may not be the same one who batters couldn’t figure out in 2007. But he sure as hell isn’t the same Scott Kazmir who seemed to have lost his way in 2011 either.

Yes, this version of Kazmir may not be sustainable in the long-term. But at this point, he’s been an important cog in the Indians’ starting rotation. He’s not the ace that was promised to Mets fans or Rays fans at the beginning of his career. He’s not what scouts imagined he would be. But right now, that’s not a bad thing. All that matters is that he’s here.

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