Among famous baseball quotes, perhaps none applies better to Scott Kazmir than “The game is 95 percent mental; the other half is physical.” The Cleveland Indians left-hander has had an enigmatic career. From 2006-2008 he represented Tampa Bay in a pair of All-Star games and once led the American League in strikeouts. In 2009, he began a downward spiral that saw his overpowering stuff become pedestrian, his command abysmal. He passed through Anaheim on his way to oblivion.
In a May, 2010 interview, Kazmir told me, “The past couple years, I felt like I was fighting myself the entire time. Now everything feels on point.“ Looking back, that feeling was fleeting — or perhaps he was in denial — because a year later he logged a 17.02 ERA in five Triple-A appearances and found himself out of affiliated baseball.
Some soul-searching followed. Kazmir wasn’t sure if he was done with the game or not. And if he did return, could he solve the puzzle — equal parts mental and mechanical — that had been his undoing?
Last season he returned to action with the independent league Sugar Land Skeeters, and this spring he overcame long odds by earning a spot in the Indians’ starting rotation. Showing flashes of his old self, he has a 9.1 K/9 and 3.3 BB/9 in eight appearances. His velocity is back to where it was five years ago.
Kazmir talked about his struggles and the road back — including the mental challenges — when Cleveland visited Boston in late May.
Scott Kazmir: “It started out as more of a physical thing. I had a couple of small injuries that I played through, and I compensated my delivery. After kind of the halfway point, things got kind of mental. Things start snowballing physically, and then you mentally try to figure stuff out to the point that they actually get worse.
“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. I hoped it would just come.
“Having these two years off and basically going back to square one, I understand my mechanics a little bit better. I’m able to fix myself; I’m not depending on other people to try to help me. Mentally, I know if I get out of rhythm for one hitter, I can get back on track with the next hitter. I’m thinking on more of a positive level when it comes to making adjustments. It’s ‘I know how to [make] this better,’ not ‘What can I do so I don’t mess up?’
“Back when I was having my struggles, I was getting feedback that everything was great, everything was fine. A lot of people thought it was mental, when the fact of the matter is, it wasn’t that simple. It was that something mechanical just wasn’t there. It was something you almost couldn‘t see on video; it was something only I could feel.
“I watched a lot of video to try to pick up things with my delivery, but at the same time, I didn’t know what I was looking for. I had no clue what I was looking for. I was watching video almost blind, like ‘OK, maybe I did this or maybe I did that.’ That’s kind of how I got to where everything just kind of fell apart.
“Pitching coaches are there to help you get back on track, but as far as I went… that’s not what they’re there for. They’re there to kind of keep you on the road — keep you going forward — but what I needed was time to figure things out on my own.
“There were things going on in my life. I don’t want to get into it too much, but there was some stuff that became overwhelming. It was stuff that would have been fine had everything been going fine in baseball, but things weren’t going fine in baseball. Things started snowballing in my life.
“There were a lot of questions I had to answer after I got released. What am I going to do? How am I going to go forward in life? At the time, I was — for lack of a better word — angry at the sport. When things aren’t going well, this game can humble you and make you think twice about pursuing your career. When you’re out on the mound, scuffling, it feels like you’re on an island by yourself.
“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.
“I didn’t really ever lose arm strength, it’s more I lost my ability to use my body. I lost my ability to use my lower half — everything was upper body — and everything started swinging side to side; I didn’t have a good direction to the plate.
“It was brought to my attention quite a bit that I’d lost arm strength, and would never get it back, but I knew that wasn’t the case. There were just things I had to figure out, and piece by piece, I started to do that. It’s taken time, but I think I’m in a pretty good place now.”
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