- FanGraphs Baseball - http://www.fangraphs.com/blogs -

A Tale of Two Cities and Their Broken Pitchers

14 batters faced, 5 hits (1 HR), 2 walks, 2 hit batters, and, just for fun, 1 balk.

17 batters faced, 6 hits (2 HR), 5 walks, but hey, a strikeout!

One of these lines was posted by Scott Kazmir this weekend, the other by Javier Vazquez. I would ask if you could tell which was which, but in reality, it doesn’t matter – they were equally abysmal, and while you should never get too worked up over the results of one start, fans in Anaheim and Miami have all kinds of reasons to be worried about the process that led to those results.

Let’s start with Vazquez since there was a bit more optimism surrounding him this year. He retreated to the National League after a disastrous year in New York, and the Marlins gave him $7 million on the hopes that he would pitch much more like the 2009 version than the one that pitched for the Yankees last year.

┬áBut in his first start of the year, Vazquez showed the same lack of velocity that led to his downfall last year. After averaging 91.1 MPH on his fastball in 2009, Vasquez averaged fell to just 88.7 MPH last year, and after one start this year, he was at just 89.4. Velocity is lower for most pitchers at the beginning of the season, but Vazquez needs those missing MPH more than most pitchers, and it’s unlikely that the Marlins will run him out there every five days on the hope that his velocity eventually creeps back up in a few months.

As a high-80s pitcher, Vazquez is basically throwing meatballs. It’s easy to point to the five walks and say that command was his issue rather than stuff, but when you’re throwing 88 MPH four-seamers, you don’t really have the luxury of pounding the strike zone. Without the stuff that he had two years ago, Vazquez has to live on the corners if he doesn’t want to get pounded. Of the 59 pitches he threw, only two generated swinging strikes, so even being around the zone more often wouldn’t have helped all that much.

Yes, the walks are problematic, but the underlying problem is that Vazquez simply doesn’t have the kind of repertoire that will allow him to get ahead in the count right now. If he throws a first pitch strike, there’s a good chance it’s going to get whacked, so he nibbles, falls behind in the count, and then he has to throw a pitch that gets whacked later in the count. It’s the epitome of a lose-lose situation.

If Vazquez wants a look at his future if his velocity never does return, he simply needs to look west, where Scott Kazmir was making sure that everyone noticed the giant fork sticking out of his back. Kazmir’s early career success came off a fastball that sat in the low-90s, but more importantly, a biting slider that averaged 84 and was nearly impossible to hit.

Yesterday, Kazmir’s fastball averaged 86 MPH and only used his once-great slider twice, just 3.2 percent of the 63 pitches he threw. It’s tough to use the slider when you’re perpetually behind in the count, but like Vazquez, Kazmir simply lacks the kind of oomph on his fastball to allow him to get ahead in the count. He tries to spot his fastball to either side of the plate, but he’s never been a good command guy, and that hasn’t improved even as his stuff has eroded.

Like Vazquez, he got a hitter to swing and miss just twice, so even setting aside the walks and hit batters, he wasn’t fooling anyone when he was around the zone. Kazmir was bad enough last year when his fastball averaged 90.5 MPH – he certainly couldn’t afford to lose another 4 MPH off that pitch, and yesterday, the Royals beat him mercilessly. At this point, running Kazmir out there every five days isn’t helping anyone, and Tony Reagins has to seriously consider an alternative fifth starter. Kazmir was among the worst pitchers in baseball last year, and that version was far superior to the one who took the hill for the Angels yesterday.

For some pitchers, velocity comes and goes, and in most cases (Phil Hughes, for instance), you shouldn’t get too worked up over a starting pitcher who is sitting a tick or two lower in April than they were last year. For Vazquez, though, he needs that velocity to come back sooner than later, and Kazmir probably shouldn’t throw any more meaningful innings for a team trying to win games. He’s simply broken, and hoping he figures out how to get batters out with Barry Zito‘s fastball is probably just wish-casting at this point. The Marlins can afford to have a longer leash with Vazquez, but if that fastball doesn’t come back soon, the pain that Kazmir is going through now will be the end result.

This wasn’t just two bad starts to begin the season – this was two guys who are getting a painful reminder that they aren’t now what they once were. One will likely never be again, while the other needs to get the ship righted quickly before find himself on the road to early retirement.