July 3rd, 2006
Scott Kazmir toed the rubber, staring down Red Sox outfielder Gabe Kapler. It was a typical start for Kazmir—dominant, electric and a win for the Devil Rays. With a man on second, Kazmir got Kapler to roll over a pitch and ground out to shortstop. It was a complete-game shutout.
Nine innings, 10 strikeouts, two hits, two walks. It was an incredible illustration of Kazmir's talent. There were mid 90s fastballs. There were sliders that seemed to fall off the face of the Earth. Devil Rays fans with their chests painted "K-A-Z-M-I-R" cheered, as did the rest of the crowd. It was Scott Kazmir's finest work, and he was all of 22 years old. His potential was sky-high.
May 24th, 2011
Scott Kazmir toed the rubber, staring down a minor-league hitter for the Memphis Redbirds. This was a rehab outing for the Triple-A Salt Lake Bees. He's in the Los Angeles Angels organization, where he's been since 2009, when he was traded by the Tampa Bay Rays. This start did not go so well.
He threw just short of two innings, allowing six runs on two hits, four walks and a hit batter. Of his 50 pitches, 26 were balls. This was the polar opposite of his start against the Red Sox nearly five years prior.
The potential was there. The result was a disaster.
Scott Kazmir is 27 years old now, far from being washed-up. He is, by any measure, still a young pitcher. But this is not a story of a player who lost control. This is not Rick Ankiel's story, nor is it Josh Hamilton's. Scott Kazmir's story is simply one of high expectations and disappointing results.
The story of Kazmir really doesn't start until July 30th, 2004. Much had been made of Kazmir to that point. He was a blue-chip prospect coming out of Houston, a classic hard-throwing lefty with plus breaking stuff. The Mets considered him a future ace of their rotation. He was the 15th overall selection of the 2002 MLB draft, a testament to his promise.
But for some inexplicable reason, Mets GM Jim Duquette agreed on that July 30th to trade Kazmir and Joselo Diaz to the laughingstock of baseball, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. In return, the Mets got erratic pitcher Victor Zambrano and minor leaguer Bartolome Fortunato. It was a true head-scratcher, a trade on which Duquette's career hinged.
Needless to say, the trade was found to be lopsided fairly quickly. Zambrano went on to win a total of 10 games for the Mets until he left the organization after 2006. Meanwhile, in St. Petersburg, the Scott Kazmir show was just beginning.
In his limited time in the majors in '04, Kazmir struggled some but showed incredible potential. He struck out over 11 batters per nine innings and showcased his tremendous repertoire of pitches. From there, it was all uphill for Kaz.
Over the next four years with the Rays, Kazmir went 45-34. Keep in mind that three of the four years (excluding 2008) were years in which the Rays won no more than 70 games and the offense was equivalent to a Little League squad. Had he pitched for a legitimate team, he may have won 60 games over that stretch.
He was the unquestioned star of the pitching staff, the one reason Devil Rays fans had to believe that their organization had a commitment to winning. He, B.J. Upton and Carl Crawford were the D-Rays' tickets to the big time.
When looking at Kazmir's statistics during his time in Tampa Bay, a very interesting trend emerges. Anyone who knows Kazmir and his stuff knows that, at one point, he had the potential to throw baseball's best slider. It was a nasty pitch with 10-4 movement that absolutely fell off the plate.
His first two years with the Devil Rays, his slider was over eight runs above average in terms of value. But after the 2005 season, the value of the pitch started to slowly decline. But at the same time that Kazmir's slider went into decline, the value of his fastball rapidly increased.
Take 2008, for example. During the magical World Series run of the Rays, Kazmir was the unquestioned ace of the staff. That season, his fastball value was 17.1 runs above average, an incredible mark good for ninth in the majors. But his slider's value was 3.3 runs below average. This was a radical shift from earlier in Kazmir's career.
So what happened? It's anyone's guess. One concrete piece of evidence is that Kazmir lost the ability to command his slider. As his career progressed, Kazmir's slider went from an elite pitch to just an average one. The movement didn't go away, but the command did. No longer did the pitch start in the middle of the plate and drop away from lefties. Instead, it stayed in the zone.
Maybe the Rays saw the drop in fastball velocity. For a kid who boasted a mid 90s fastball coming out of high school to be topping out at 91 MPH in 2009, something had to be wrong. Kazmir had dealt with some injuries with the team, but nothing that could have been considered a major warning sign. But another underlying trend with Kazmir was a steady drop in fastball velocity.
Maybe it was all psychological. Maybe it was the sudden rise to stardom that got to him. Devil Rays (and Rays) fans were crazy about Kazmir. He was that team's savior. He could be counted on for a couple of truly electric starts per year, and they were almost always at Tropicana Field. Maybe, for Scott Kazmir, baseball had become a platform to show off instead of a profession.
The Rays' brass saw this happening. They knew that Kazmir was a disaster waiting to happen. As the 2009 season progressed and the Rays' chances of going back to the postseason started to look dimmer and dimmer, the Rays pulled the trigger. His final start in a Tampa Bay uniform was a brilliant no-decision: six innings, 10 strikeouts, one run. Two days later, he was a Los Angeles Angel.
Most everyone knows what happened to Kazmir once he got to L.A. He closed out the 2009 season brilliantly. He posted an ERA under 2.00 with the Angels to help them win the AL West. But in the playoffs, he struggled, and that carried over in a major way to 2010.
In all effect, when Scott Kazmir's career is reflected upon in years, 2010 will probably be the most scrutinized year. With the Angels, he went 9-15 with a 5.94 ERA. He was, simply put, a disaster. All of his pitches had below-average value. He had the lowest swinging strike percentage of his career. He threw only 36 percent first-pitch strikes.
Halfway through the season, he had a DL stint for "shoulder fatigue." When he came back, nothing had changed.
On April 4th of this season, Kazmir's only start of the season to date, he lasted just short of two innings. He gave up five runs, walked two batters and hit two batters. After that start, Kazmir left the Angels to spend the next month or so working on his mechanics. That leads up to May 24th, when Kazmir struggled in his appearance with the Memphis Redbirds.
At this point, it seems foolish to think that Kazmir will ever return to being the pitcher he was in Tampa Bay. There is no guarantee he will ever pitch for the Angels again. Quite honestly, there's no guarantee he'll ever be in the majors again.
The Angels have given him another month to straighten things out. No matter what happens, they owe Kazmir his 2011 salary. But chances are that if he shows no signs of improvement in that month, he will be released from the team. At that point, what happens to Kazmir can only be speculated.
The great irony of all this is that, at the end of this story that is still writing itself, Kazmir became the man he was originally traded for. Victor Zambrano was noted for his erratic pitching despite having a high ceiling. He, too, had once been great for the Devil Rays. But just as Kazmir has, Zambrano slowly deteriorated into a mediocre pitcher at best.
It is really sad when you think about it. Here was a kid who was having his arm compared to some of the greats. He was going to be a Cy Young winner. He was going to be a player who kids modeled their deliveries after. But now, Scott Kazmir is simply a disappointment. He is an example of great potential not translating into great results.
Who knows when Scott Kazmir will toe a major-league rubber again? Who knows if he will ever get back to being half the pitcher he was?
But what is clear is that the fall of Scott Kazmir, the slide of the kid with the slider, is a tragic example of unmet expectations.