Welcome Back, Scott Kazmir

Scott Kazmir‘s return to Major League Baseball has been pretty well documented at this point. After bottoming out by pitching in independent ball, Kazmir’s velocity started to pick back up this winter, and the Indians brought him to spring training on a non-roster invite. The velocities continued to impress and he pitched extremely well in Arizona, and with the Indians in need of useful starting pitching, they gave him a spot in their rotation, but then a strained ribcage forced him to begin the season on the DL. In his first start of the year, he gave up six runs in 3.1 innings, beating back some of the spring optimism about whether or not Kazmir could ever get back to what he used to be.

In the two starts after his debut, he was better, but neither the Royals nor the Twins are offensive juggernauts. There were encouraging signs, as his velocity was picking up and he was getting strikeouts again, but he hadn’t really put it all together yet. Until yesterday.

Facing an A’s team that has a 105 wRC+ this year — though it’s worth noting that several of their regular outfielders are on the DL — Kazmir was fantastic: 6 IP, 5 H, 1 R, 0 BB, 10 K. It was the first time he pitched in a Major League game without issuing a walk since April 20th, 2010. It was his first double digit strikeout game since August 26th, 2009. But maybe more important than the performance was how he did it.

Here’s a plot of Kamzir’s fastball velocity from yesterday’s start, in chronological order.

KazmirFB

Kazmir threw 73 fastballs yesterday, and they were getting progressively harder as the game wore on. The last three fastballs he threw were all 96 mph, and they were pitches 101, 102, and 103 on the day. A guy who lost his spot in Major League Baseball because his fastball was sitting at 86 ended yesterday throwing 96.

Kazmir hasn’t thrown this hard since his early days with Tampa Bay, and yesterday, we saw what Scott Kazmir with a lively fastball can look like. 72 of his 103 pitches were strikes, and 13 of his 19 swinging strikes came off the fastball. The slider is his swing and miss pitch, but he has to get ahead in the count in order to get people to chase it. Yesterday’s fastball got him ahead in the count all day long, because he was able to pound the strike zone with confidence.

Kazmir5913

That’s Kazmir’s strike zone plot versus right-handed batters yesterday. There are a few pitches up and away that weren’t close, but it’s mostly fastballs in the zone, sliders down and in, and change-ups at the bottom of the strike zone. That’s the strike zone plot of a guy with command who isn’t afraid to challenge hitters. And Kazmir was throwing pitches that were a challenge, even in the strike zone.

If you watch the MLB.com video of his 10 strikeouts yesterday, you’ll notice that most of them come on fastballs. There’s a few sliders in there, but it’s a lot of hit-this-if-you-can heat, and Oakland’s hitters couldn’t hit it. To show the difference in his fastball, here’s a table of opposing batters plate discipline stats against his fastball (FA and FT labels combined) from 2008, 2009, 2010, and now 2013.

Season Pitch Pitches O-Swing% Z-Swing% Swing% O-Contact% Z-Contact% Contact% Zone% SwStr%
2008 Fastball 2,053 30.1% 64.6% 49.9% 68.9% 80.8% 77.7% 57.3% 11.1%
2009 Fastball 1,726 23.0% 62.7% 46.2% 82.4% 86.6% 85.7% 58.6% 6.7%
2010 Fastball 1,905 18.2% 61.0% 42.2% 79.1% 85.8% 84.6% 56.1% 6.5%
2013 Fastball 256 23.6% 66.0% 50.0% 78.4% 78.0% 79.1% 61.7% 10.6%

Kazmir’s decline corresponded directly to when he stopped getting swings and misses with his fastball. He lost the ability to throw it by hitters, and they started making contact on anything straight he threw in the strike zone. Through his first four starts of 2013, opponents are making contact with his fastball at nearly the same rate they did in 2008, when Kazmir was third in the majors in strikeout rate.

One last note, to put Kazmir’s 2013 performance into some context. Here are the five lowest Z-Contact rates for starting pitchers in the Majors this year:

1. Yu Darvish: 74%
2. Scott Kazmir: 78%
3. R.A. Dickey: 79%
4. Max Scherzer: 79%
5. Matt Harvey: 79%

It’s just four starts and 20 innings, but Kazmir is showing the tools that make up a quality starting pitcher once again. His fastball again appears to be a real weapon, and it was a weapon that got better as the game went on yesterday. Kazmir’s never been a strike thrower, so we shouldn’t assume that his walk problems magically went away, and as a fly ball pitcher, he’ll always give up his fair share of home runs, but the strikeouts make the rest of the skillset work. When the strikeouts went away, so did Scott Kazmir.

Well, based on what he was throwing yesterday, the strikeouts may very well be back, and the Cleveland Indians might have found themselves a pretty decent starting pitcher.




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Dave is a co-founder of USSMariner.com and contributes to the Wall Street Journal.


70 Responses to “Welcome Back, Scott Kazmir”

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  1. Turbo Sloth says:

    Even in his start in Minnesota, the gun was reading between 91-94 on his fastball, and of course this is even better. I wonder if now that he seems to have improved his control as well if his best years are yet to come.

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  2. MLB Rainmaker says:

    It truly is an inspiring comeback and a great story. I still have to wonder how long he can hold up though.

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  3. Spacelord says:

    Anyone have any idea how this happened? I haven’t followed Kazmir much since like 2006. Injury problems? A 10mph decrease and then increase back up to 96 is pretty incredible.

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  4. Frank says:

    I think we all know how this happened…

    Good for him though, hopefully he keeps pitching like this for my fantasy team.

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    • Jaack says:

      Yeah, witchcraft is some serious shit.

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    • BJsWorld says:

      You must be in an AL Central only league with 12 managers to have room for Kazmir at this point.

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      • Ty Cobb says:

        That or a Dynasty League with 24 or more owners….like some of us. This guy is very pleased to have signed him a FA this offseason.

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      • mr says:

        10 team AL only… took him on a flyer in the late rounds of an auction. I probably didn’t need him for $2 next year, but maybe that will look good.

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    • cass says:

      I certainly hope so. Your fantasy team needs him to pitch well a lot more than Cleveland does.

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    • l1ay says:

      Next time you want your comment to solely revolve around your fantasy team in a non-fantasy article, remember that no one else cares.

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    • Scraps says:

      I don’t know which one is worse: the first sentence with its implied accusation but no evidence, or the second sentence with its tiresome “yeah and what’s more he’s pitching for my fantasy team!” I wish I could give it -2.

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  5. Rick Peterson says:

    Wait, I finally fixed Victor Zambrano.

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  6. Cody says:

    I think it is too easy to assume something fishy is going on with Kazmir and his return regarding PEDs.

    However, if I had my money on anything, it would be the few years off from pitching to recover strength in his arm. I bet that is probably a huge reason he has gained his velocity back. Kazmir has always said he has pitched in pain. I have to imagine that only gets worse over time without an extended break that he has essentially had now.

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    • vivalajeter says:

      Did he have an extended break though? I thought he pitched (poorly) last year in independent ball, and he also pitched in winter ball. I have no idea how many innings he through, but he’s been throwing throughout the year.

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      • Cody says:

        I am assuming that 100 official innings pitched or less at any level is a significant break from a 200 official innings pitched season on a Major League roster. However, as some one who has never pitched ever, I could be very wrong.

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      • supershredder says:

        Kaz looked pretty good when I saw him pitch for the Skeeters down in Sugarland, TX last year…granted it was independent league ball. Of course, so did Roger Clemens.

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    • isavage30 says:

      I believe the deal with Kazmir’s problems with his velocity, was that it was less physical than mechanical. He had some leg and arm injuries and his mechanics got out of whack. I don’t think it has as much to do with arm strength, as it does a mechanical correction.

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  7. Richie says:

    In that motion picture “The Rookie” (I think), isn’t that what happened to the guy in real life? After however many years of not pitching, his velocity just returned? My understanding is that it can and does work that way, more often than you might think. The arm does regenerate. Just nobody with a career behind them bothers to keep at it long enough.

    Jim Palmer claimed the same that I recall in his comeback bid, but by age 46 or whatever it exactly was he no longer had the leg drive and flexibility and other parts of the entire package needed.

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  8. LandoRaysFan says:

    that first graph is terrible.

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    • Blofkin says:

      No you’re terrible.

      OHHHHH!!!! Hitch a ride on the back of that paddy wagon and alert the hospital ward cuz you just got burned!!!!

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      • WIlliam says:

        I think the line on the graph should be for average velocity up to that pitch instead of just a connect the dot between each pitch. It would be more pleasing to the eye.

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        • Phrozen says:

          I don’t know about that, but a simple best-fin line would have made it easier to understand.

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        • Phrozen says:

          Or a best-fit line. Those are good too.

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        • JKB says:

          or an Additive Winters forecast trend line, so we could have estimated what the speed of his next pitch would have been had he been allowed to throw it. Or a spectral decomposition, that would have looked good too…

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    • Jon L. says:

      It’s as difficult to read as this sentence.

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    • Lumens66 says:

      It’s not terrible. He just should have included a trend line.

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  9. Blofkin says:

    Being an A’s fan, I hated to see him carve up those hitters, but damnit if I can’t be thrilled to see Kazmir pitching well again. I heard nothing but good things about the person and am jazzed to see the pitcher coming back into form. Here’s to hoping it will last.

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  10. 8nthatk says:

    It’s a great comeback story…I hope he can keep it up.

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  11. White Blood Cells says:

    Is this without precedent? Has a guy ever lost 10 mph and essentially leave baseball, only to get the 10 mph right back and return?

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    • Wobatus says:

      Joquin Benoit was hurt for a year and came back throwing 2 mph faster than he ever had (and he’s still doing it). But 10 is likely unprecedented in the fangraphs era.

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    • GenYJaysfan says:

      Steve Delabar. Throws 10 MPH harder now than he did as a prospect. Was cut by the padres and had a brutal elbow injury in independent ball so he was completely out of the game essentially. But he credits his velocity gain to a weird work-out regimen.

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  12. ODawg says:

    Based on the group in the Z-Contact % table, he is showing the tools of something more than just a “quality starting pitcher.” That’s quite a group!

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  13. Could somebody please reply to my comment with an explanation of the difference between “FA” and “FT” for strike zone plot graphs? It feels like “FA” might be swinging and missing fastballs? And “FT” is just every other fastball (fouled off, hit in fair territory, and taken)? Is that right?

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    • Dave says:

      FT = two-seam fastball. FA = four-seam.

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      • Wobatus says:

        Why A for four seam? I knew that was the case but didn’t know why.

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      • MGL says:

        I think that FF is four seam and FA is generic fastball, but I could be wrong. Trust me, it is confusing and not so easy to find the answer on Fangraphs (Dave?)…

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        • wobatus says:

          No, it’d be FA for generic fastball (which I suppose is the four seamer) and FT for two seam.

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        • vivaelpujols says:

          yup. FA is probably something between a FF (fourseam) and FT (twoseamer). There’s also a SI (sinker) and FC (cut fastball).

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  14. Skating Tripods says:

    Here’s a post from February by the trainer who worked with Scott Kazmir: http://dynamicsportstraining.com/blog/lees-blog/scott-kazmir

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    • jon says:

      Wow. That’s quite an article. How much of it do you think is the trainer puffing himself and how much is genuine affection for and belief in Kazmir? Can you imagine if he returns to Top-20 SP status?

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      • Nick says:

        “returns”?

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        • That Dude says:

          Return: to go back or come back again

          He was an all-star twice with the atrocious Devil Rays and led the AL in 2007 with 239K’s. Yes, RETURNS.

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      • Skating Tripods says:

        I have an acquaintance who knows Kazmir’s trainer and was telling me things before the season even started. Hard to take me at my word, but, I have every reason to believe it’s pretty legit.

        He’s getting stronger with every start and his command has improved right along with it. I think it’s important that he got results very quickly from what he did to battle back. If he came back and hung a 10 ERA in four starts, he might have gotten discouraged. Instead, he’s getting more and more confidence.

        Hopefully it continues. It’s very easy to root for a guy who rebuilt himself pretty much from the ground up.

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  15. za says:

    “Why didn’t my GM sign him?” say fans of 29 other teams.

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  16. Ruki Motomiya says:

    I loved Kazmir back when he was on the Rays, so I love seeing him do this good with the Indians now. I hope he has many good years ahead of him.

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  17. yancyeaton says:

    How long can we expect him to reasonably perform at a high level? It feels like he is just so much oder than he actually is.

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  18. Brandon says:

    Couple of questions… not saying that Kazmir did use PEDs — there are lots of new experimental treatments out there for people with millions of dollars at their disposal — but if you use “PEDs” to overcome an injury while out of baseball… stop… get clean… then resume your career…. have you broken any MLB rules? Seems to me that as long as you are clean while playing, you are legal and we should STFU.

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    • The Truth is Out There says:

      Maybe it is the absence of a non-PED, for example quitting a Performance Diminishing Drug, that is helping him rather than the presence of a PED. Absence, or abstinence, may make the arm grow stronger in that case.

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    • tickle me elbow says:

      well, i guess a player could “roid up” for a few years (while out of baseball) and pack on the muscle and then stop using around Spring Training, and play a few years at a high level while slowly deflating (how long did it take Bonds to fully deflate?). with your logic this player passes all PED tests and “never cheated”.

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  19. Kevink says:

    I wrote that piece and I can tell u I’m not puffing myself. I don make much money and don’t need to. As u can see I follow Scott closely and he is the man. He could’ve done it without us but he used us and I just happened to document it. It was a long road and by no means easy. Velocity didn’t just come back. Not peds not magic. It was working at it every day for about two years. He’s finally found it and watch out cuz he’s got a chip.

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    • jon says:

      Hey man – cool to hear from the author. How is Kazmir different from other guys you’ve worked with? I’m not even an Indians fan, but Gosh it’s hard not to root for the guy. What do you attribute the 10 mph of velocity return to? That seems pretty unprecedented.

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      • noseeum says:

        I hope we hear from the author RE your question, but looking at it as simply recovering 10 MPH is kind of an oversimification. Kazmir is not Jamie Moyer. He had an injury that sapped some life from his fastball and it seems he then had a double whammy of completely losing any sense of reliable mechanics. I don’t think he ever lost the physical ability to throw 90. He just forgot how. To get all the way back up to 96 is super impressive, but I have to think that most of that 10 MPH comes from restoring his mechanics, not repairing his arm. No training regimen could EVER get Jamie Moyer up to 96!

        Maybe I’m wrong. Regardless, kudos to Kazmir. Let’s hope be keeps it going all season and then some.

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    • wobatus says:

      A real Best Shape of His Life Story.

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    • tickle me elbow says:

      why does he have a chip? nobody burned him. he only has himself to blame for any or all of his previous problems. nobody is entitled to be an MLB pitcher and he’s lucky for the physical gifts he’s been given (that 99.999% of the population don’t have).

      Also, he’s already made $30 mil according to BB Ref. Lol at Kazmir having a chip. Who’s next, Bill Gates, Warren Buffet?

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  20. Burds! says:

    Now will we see a Welcome Back, Francisco Liriano story?

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  21. rich harden says:

    me next!!

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  22. Bippidty says:

    Relevant story regarding Kazmir’s comeback.

    http://dynamicsportstraining.com/blog/lees-blog/scott-kazmir

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  23. chief00 says:

    You know, with a surname like “Kazmir” I’m not really surprised. I’d expect someone known as “The Mysterious Kazmir” or “The Great Kazmir, Master of Deception” to pull a rabbit out of a hat or saw a lady in half. Scott Kazmir unexpectedly and unexplainedly going from 86 mph to 96 mph seems right in line with that.

    **Disclaimer: No offense is intended to anyone of the same ethnic heritage as Scott Kazmir (or anyone else, for that matter).

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  24. DeeEmm1 says:

    I saw some GIFs of him pitching for us and for the Indians. Night and day. Another indictment on our terrible management (this includes the FO). The Angels tried to make Kazmir into something he wasn’t, a left-handed compliment to Weaver. The Indians are helping him be the pitcher he is, a power left hander with an over-the-top delivery with lots of movement.

    It disgusts me to be honest. I hope more people see this so they can stop thinking Mike Scioscia and his staff aren’t a big reason why the Angels are struggling.

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