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September 20, 2010

Fantasy Beat

Slowing Down With Scott Kazmir

by Craig Brown

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I’m not ashamed to admit this:  Once upon a time, I had a fantasy crush on Scott Kazmir.  You know what I’m talking about when I say fantasy crush...  I had to have him on my roster.  In every league.  I was probably guilty of raising his ADP by five to ten places.  If some other owner grabbed him before I had a chance, I immediately sprang into action formulating a potential trade.  Auction league? Let’s just say I had my own little “Kazmir Allocation Fund” at the ready.

Why did I like Kazmir so much?  The strikeouts, the strikeouts and the strikeouts.  He led the AL in strikeouts in 2007 with 239 and from 2005 to 2008 he averaged 9.7 SO/9.  Among starters that threw in all four seasons and tossed at least 500 innings total, that strikeout rate was the tops in baseball.  And it wasn’t even close.  In fact, only three pitchers struck out more than a batter an inning during those four seasons.

Kazmir - 9.7 SO/9
Jake Peavy - 9.4 SO/9
Johan Santana - 9.1 SO/9

That’s it.  That was your cream of the fantasy crop from 2005 to 2008 as far as strikeouts are concerned.  Kazmir was blowing hitters away.  

Then came 2009.  Kazmir battled mechanical problems, decreasing velocity, injury…  Basically, everything unravelled.  His strikeout rate dropped from 9.8 SO/9 to 7.1 SO/9 - a huge decline. 

He opened the 2010 season the same way he closed 2009 - struggling with mechanical problems, injury and another decline in velocity.  After missing the first two weeks of the season while he was recovering from a hamstring strain, Kazmir was rocked in his '10 debut and then struggled through May.  At one point, according to Pitch f/x, it looked like Kazmir was experimenting with release points.  

The above chart is a bit misleading.  Closer inspection showed it wasn’t his arm angle that changed, but where he stood on the pitching rubber.  Beginning in his start on May 22 to when he went on the disabled list with a sore shoulder in July, Kazmir shifted his plant foot to the middle of the rubber.  You can see the shift in the following photos.  Note the position of his left (or push) leg in relation to the Angels logo on the back of the mound.  (I knew those logos were there for a reason.)  The photo on the left is from his start on May 11 against Tampa and the photo on the right is from his start on June 30 against the Rangers.

In his starts early in the season, Kazmir was much more centered on the pitching rubber.  Then, he shifted his position to the left, or first base side of the mound.  The next photo combines the above two into a single image and kind of reinforces how much more centered he was from the beginning of the season to the middle of May.  Although the camera depth for the two stills are slightly different (note the halo effect around the mound or the blurry Angels logo behind the plate) it’s close enough to convey the point.

Unfortunately for Kazmir, the change in positioning on the pitching rubber did not lead to a change in his results.

Kazmir is now back to his original, more centered positioning on the rubber.  Since his return from that mid July turn on the DL, Kazmir has posted a 3.83 ERA - which is good.  However, he also owns a 4.9 BB/9 and a 5.7 SO/9 since then.  Closer examination shows Kazmir’s strand rate since his return from the disabled list is close to 80%, way above his career rate of 73%.  Plus, he’s throwing even fewer strikes (59%), and of those strikes only 6% are swing and misses.  That’s an astonishing drop for someone who used to have a swing and a miss strike rate of around 20%.  Despite the solid ERA, there's no reason to believe he can sustain that kind of quality given the peripherals. 

It should be noted that Kazmir’s fastball still features exceptional movement.  According to Pitch f/x, this pitch averages around seven inches of horizontal slide and about nine inches of vertical rise.  It’s one of the more lively fastballs in the game.  While the amount of movement varies slightly from year to year, his fastball has always possessed plenty of action. That’s a double edged sword in Kazmir’s case.  On one hand, he used to get a bunch of swing and misses.  Now, hitters are laying off and taking more pitches out of the zone which means his swing and misses are way down, accentuating his lack of command and elevating his walk rate.   

The following table shows how Kazmir has basically devolved as a strikeout pitcher.  The first column is percentage of total pitches that were strikes (Str%). The next column is the percentage of pitches where the hitters are swinging (AS/Pit).  The final two columns are contact rate and strikeout rate as a percentage of all plate appearances.

It doesn’t help that Kazmir’s velocity has decreased in each of the last three seasons.  Here are his average fastball velocities going back to 2007:

2007 - 92.1 mph
2008 - 91.7 mph
2009 - 91.1 mph
2010 - 90.7 mph

While the movement is still there, the decrease in velocity has been enough to make his fastball into much less of an asset.  Where Kazmir once owned the advantage with his explosive fastball that topped out around 95 mph just two years ago, the decrease in average speed is just enough to transfer the edge to the hitters.  While he won his start on Sunday in Tampa, his highest recorded fastball clocked in at 91.7 mph.  That was his average fastball velocity just two years ago.

While his fastball has always been his money pitch, Kazmir also used to possess a decent slider and change-up.  As his fastball has lost it's bit, those pitches have become a lot less effective as well.  His slider, his preferred weapon against left handed batters, has lost the "snap" that made it a decent complimentary pitch to his fastball.

Going forward, apart from a miraculous rediscovery of his velocity, it seems there’s little Kazmir can do to recapture his past successes.  He can move all over the pitching rubber, go to an overhead windup or recover his secondary pitches.  Without the velocity, he’s not worth having on your fantasy roster.

So farewell to Kazmir as a fantasy option.  I’ll post this article now and revisit it in February when I find myself undoubtedly wavering and thinking maybe, just maybe Kazmir can recapture past glories. Heck, as long as I play fantasy, I'll probably have to resist the temptation of rostering Kaz...

Hey, what about Bud Norris?

Craig Brown is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Craig's other articles. You can contact Craig by clicking here

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