January 5, 2016
Free Agent Roulette: Scott Kazmir
The Player: Scott Kazmir
The Terms: Los Angeles Dodgers for 3 years, $48 million
After nixing the Hisashi Iwakuma deal, the Dodgers turned to Scott Kazmir to take over the second spot in the Los Angeles rotation. The Kazmir signing gave the momentary impression that the Dodgers were aiming to field an all-lefty rotation, that is until the next day when it was announced that the club had agreed to a deal with Japan right-hander Kenta Maeda.
It's been a tale of two careers thus far for Kazmir. His early career featured a high ceiling with K rates to match but a lack of control that kept him off the roof. His 2011 season was a disaster, as he broke camp with neither the velocity nor even the modest level of command that he had once put on display. A trip to the minors to iron out the wrinkles didn't take, and he was released by the Angels mid-season despite still being on the hook for more than $14 million. He then disappeared from the baseball landscape, pitching in the independent leagues in 2012 before reemerging with Cleveland in 2013.
Kazmir has been quite consistent since then, striking out more than 20 percent of the batters he faced and walking fewer than eight percent in three consecutive seasons. Through a more pessimistic lens, we also see that the walk-rate improvement of the last three years has still only brought him to a league-average level and the strikeout rate is in the midst of a three-year decline. Regardless of lens, his numbers over the past three seasons have demonstrated improvement over his career marks, with a 3.54 ERA and 1.225 WHIP across 531.3 innings since the start of 2013.
Opponents stack lineups with right-handed bats against Kazmir, who has had the platoon disadvantage in 77 percent of his career matchups with an OPS split that favors righties by 88 points. The platoon split has actually been reversed over the past two seasons, but sample size caveats raise questions of whether that trend will carry forward.
*He was hurt in 2011-12; the data set from '11 includes just 63 total pitches
The troubling decline of velocity that marred his 2011 spring training and brief regular season has been corrected, and though Kazmir still lacks the firepower of his youth (as most pitchers do), he has now given us three consecutive seasons with above-average velocity from the south side of the rubber. His reliance on the heat has waned as he has introduced a cutter into his repertoire, though the frequency of the fastball/cutter combination envelopes more than two-thirds of his throws.
The expanded use of his cutter has also put a dent into his slider usage, which dipped below the 10-percent threshold for the first time last season. His usage pattern with the secondaries is pretty strict, such that the sliders are employed almost exclusively against left-handed batters while the cambio is used only against right-handed bats. He goes to the cutter against hitters from both sides of the plate, but his platoon-specific deployment of the other secondaries makes for an easier chess match for opposing batters.
The changeup has been Kazmir's go-to secondary pitch when a strikeout is in order, a necessary development given the heavy dose of right-handed bats that the southpaw faces on a regular basis. His fastball and el cambio have been responsible for the vast majority of his strikeouts over the past two seasons, accounting for 80.9 percent of the K's that have been registered at Brooks Baseball, and his success with the changeup has aligned with recent improvements versus right-handed batters.
Mechanics Report Card
Kazmir's mechanical grades have stayed especially consistent – for better or for worse - in the power categories over the past three seasons, while the stability categories of balance and posture have wavered during his return to prominence. Let's turn back the clock a bit further, and compare his delivery from 2009 to last season:
(Video quality has come a long way, hasn't it?)
His delivery hasn't undergone as much change as his stat profile might suggest, but there have been some adjustments that support his statistical improvement. The first thing that strikes attention is the altered leg lift, as Kazmir raises the leg much higher in 2015 than he did back in '09. While the exaggerated lift doesn't help his stride as much as it would aid a pitcher with a bigger charge to the plate, the lift pattern is part of a kinetic sequence that is both more efficient and easier to repeat than his delivery from earlier in his career.
Kazmir had decent balance as a younger lad, an element which typically supports a low walk rate, but his struggles with repetition effectively unraveled his release point. The hips and the trunk each fired late in the kinetic chain and within close time proximity when looking at the above clip from 2009, while the '15 clip involves a more pronounced delay of trunk rotation that Kazmir has been able to repeat with greater ease. As a result, his torque is much more efficient now than it was earlier in his career, an encouraging sign with respect to his ability to hold velo over the next three years.
Looking at his modern-day delivery, Kazmir's plus torque comes from a 50-50 combination of upper-body load and delayed trunk rotation. The momentum component of his power repertoire can be a bit misleading; don't be fooled by Kazmir's quick leg kick nor the height of his lift, elements that are quite often paired with a plus grade on the momentum scale, but in the case of Kazmir he makes minimal forward progress with his center-of-mass during the lift phase of his delivery. He keeps his weight back through lift and stride, with most of his dents to the balance grade coming in the Z direction as he trails behind the center-of-mass.
The overall balance is considered plus thanks to improvements in his side-to-side and vertical balance. His ability to maintain that stability improved last season via stronger posture through release point and follow-through, spiking a 55-grade for posture on his best deliveries.
The Verdict: The Piece Fit the Puzzle
The Dodgers needed a patch for the rotation and have the financial resources to dip into the free agent market. With a dwindling pitcher pool, having whiffed on Zack Greinke and passed on Hisashi Iwakuma, the Dodgers might be forgiven if they felt the need to overpay a bit in order to secure Kazmir's services; instead, they paid Mike Leake money ($16 million per season) for two fewer years in order to secure a superior pitcher. At that cost and with such a modest commitment, Kazmir made a good signing for any ballclub with room in the rotation. His signing certainly results in a starting staff that leans heavily to the left, though the Dodgers have already made a move to address the issue and have plenty of talent in the organization to continue to retool.