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.
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.
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.
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:
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.