The Unthinkably Exceptional Scott Kazmir

Wouldn’t you know it, but Scott Kazmir is relevant again. Jeremy Bonderman is relevant again, too, and that’s also amazing, but Kazmir’s actually got himself a big-league rotation job and that gives me an opportunity to talk about an incredible Kazmir fun fact. I could’ve talked about it anyway, even if Kazmir were completely off the radar, but now it’ll be less insignificant. You’re thinking about Scott Kazmir, and here’s another thing to think about him.

Pitching with the bases empty is different from pitching with at least one runner on. For many pitchers, the delivery changes, and of course the situation and the intensity changes. The defense changes. Things change when there are people on base, so it can be informative to look at the base-state splits. In such situations it’s always important to remain aware of small sample sizes, but when you get to talking about whole careers, those concerns by and large go away.

Just the other day, I discovered the Baseball-Reference Split Finder. Since then I’ve practically worn it out, checking in on splits for both hitters and pitchers. I got to looking at base-state splits, and in particular I was curious about pitching with the bases empty versus pitching with men on. To cut a long story short, I examined the window between 1973-2012, for which Baseball-Reference has complete splits data. I set a minimum of 1,000 overall innings pitched, and I looked at OPS allowed, since OPS is kind of all-inclusive. I could’ve looked at just walks or strikeouts or hits or home runs, but everything matters and everything goes into OPS, even if OPS is clearly imperfect. It’s the best I could do, so I did it.

I wanted to know about guys who were better and worse with runners on base. Since 1973, 462 different pitchers have thrown at least 1,000 innings, and their average OPS allowed with no one on was .708. Their average OPS allowed with runners on was .740, or 104% the bases-empty OPS. We’ve known for a while that pitchers put up worse numbers with runners on, for a variety of reasons.

I sorted by what we’ll refer to as “OPS_on%”. OPS_on% is simply (OPS_on / OPS_empty) *100. With nothing further, the top 10 in terms of lowest OPS_on%:

Player OPS_empty OPS_on OPS_on%
Scott Kazmir 0.805 0.670 83.2%
Doug Davis 0.802 0.738 92.0%
Shane Rawley 0.761 0.707 92.9%
Steve McCatty 0.749 0.696 92.9%
Eric Plunk 0.735 0.689 93.7%
Steve Trachsel 0.798 0.749 93.9%
Randy Lerch 0.808 0.761 94.2%
Esteban Loaiza 0.798 0.755 94.6%
Bob Wickman 0.726 0.687 94.6%
Freddy Garcia 0.750 0.711 94.8%

Within the sample, 74 pitchers allowed a lower OPS with runners on than with the bases empty. The second-best ratio belongs to Doug Davis, at 92.0%. The best overall ratio belongs to Scott Kazmir, way down at 83.2%. To give you a visual sense of how weird Kazmir is in this regard:


Kazmir doesn’t only lead — he leads by a statistical mile. In the sample, his OPS allowed with the bases empty is tied for the sixth-highest. His OPS allowed with runners on is the 31st-lowest. If you don’t care for OPS, you can look at wOBA; he’s at .354 with the bases empty, and .297 with runners on. That comes out to 83.9%, which isn’t meaningfully different.

If it’s more splits you’re after, with runners on Kazmir’s strikeout rate has gone up from 21% to 24%. His FIP has gone down from 4.79 to 3.51, and his xFIP has gone down from 4.66 to 3.94. Not that we should be looking at xFIP that much — Kazmir has samples of more than 500 innings for each split, and he’s allowed far fewer dingers with at least one runner on base. Most pitchers pitch worse with runners on. Kazmir has pitched markedly better, and exceptionally better.

In every single individual season, ignoring Kazmir’s one start in 2011, he’s allowed a lower batting average with runners on. In every single individual season, he’s allowed a lower OBP with runners on. In every single individual season, he’s allowed a lower SLG with runners on, so therefore in every single individual season, he’s allowed a lower OPS with runners on. Only once did Kazmir allow a higher BABIP with runners on, and that was in 2008, and it wasn’t by much. Overall, Kazmir’s allowed a .325 BABIP with the bases empty, and a .292 BABIP with the bases not empty.

There are three ways to interpret this. One is that it’s all meaningless statistical noise. Congratulations, you might be right, and you suck. Kazmir’s numbers do have to be regressed some, but he’s so far out there that the broader point remains. Another interpretation is that Kazmir really bears down under pressure. A third interpretation is that Kazmir doesn’t bear down when he’s not under pressure. The last two are related, and it has to do with whether you have a positive or negative perspective. Should Kazmir be praised for pitching better when it’s mattered most, or should he be criticized for maybe being too careless with the bases empty?

It might all be a mechanical thing. Kazmir has never been blessed with outstanding command, and that usually comes down to inconsistent mechanics. It’s possible Kazmir has been more consistent from the stretch, allowing him to pitch with better polish. With the bases empty, under 62% of Kazmir’s pitches have been strikes. With runners on, over 63% of Kazmir’s pitches have been strikes. And then there’s the whole wOBA difference thing, and the home-run-rate difference thing. Maybe this is the most likely explanation, but I don’t know, and research didn’t help.

Somebody else can worry about the why, I suppose. Maybe somebody could ask Kazmir himself. That’s more feasible today than we would’ve expected it to be a year or two ago, when Kazmir seemed like toast. It’s 2013 and he’ll be in a big-league clubhouse! The difference between Scott Kazmir with the bases empty and Scott Kazmir with runners on is historically exceptional. Even without an explanation, that’s wild.

In closing, just in case you’re curious, here’s the opposite of the table above — the top 10 in terms of highest OPS_on%:

Player OPS_empty OPS_on OPS_on%
Mike Timlin 0.639 0.772 120.8%
Mark Redman 0.717 0.866 120.8%
Eric Milton 0.726 0.868 119.6%
Chris Hammond 0.683 0.812 118.9%
Willie Blair 0.745 0.876 117.6%
Steve Avery 0.673 0.789 117.2%
Jake Westbrook 0.693 0.806 116.3%
Woodie Fryman 0.669 0.777 116.1%
Reggie Cleveland 0.654 0.759 116.1%
Randy Jones 0.636 0.734 115.4%

With runners on, Timlin lost a lot of his strikeouts. Redman, meanwhile, saw his home-run rate go up by 44%, while Milton saw his home-run rate go up by 23%. “How is Mike Timlin the opposite of Scott Kazmir?” is a really terrible riddle. But at least now you know the answer to a question no one would ever ask.

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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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Kiss my Go Nats
Kiss my Go Nats

This was cool stuff! thanks!


Agreed. Great find, Jeff, and great job laying it out there.