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October 9, 2009

Player Profile

Scott Kazmir

by Marc Normandin

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Despite his age, Scott Kazmir has already had a career full of ups and downs. At just 25 years old, the former Tampa Bay Rays ace has an uncertain future ahead of him, as he could go in one of two directions: he could bounce back from a disappointing 2009 season to become the pitcher many envisioned him turning into, or he could continue to slip further from top-of-the-rotation relevancy with each passing year. The Angels dealt for him this summer, hoping that he can be more the former than the latter, especially over the next month, as they try to do something they have never done before-beat the Red Sox to advance in the playoffs.

Scott Edward Kazmir was a first-round pick of the New York Mets in the 2002 amateur entry draft, selected out of Cypress Falls High School in Houston, Texas. The 15th overall pick signed and was brought in to play for nearby Brooklyn in the New York-Penn League to close out the year, where he racked up 18 innings and struck out-wait for it-34 hitters. It's not surprising that he dominated like that, as he was arguably the best arm in the draft at the time-he had big bonus expectations that scared some of the first few teams off, which allowed the Mets to open their wallets for him.

Baseball America had already named him their High School Player of the Year in 2002, so it's not shocking he ranked as the second-best prospect in the Mets organization heading into 2003 after that impressive debut. It's also not surprising that Kazmir did well once he hit the minors, considering his arsenal: his fastball already sat in the mid-90s, and was capable of touching 97 with movement, and most kids in the low minors just don't have it in them to make contact with stuff like that consistently. Besides the fastball, he had a second plus-plus pitch in his slider, and was well on his way to having a consistent third offering in his changeup.

Baseball America had some minor concerns-perhaps as a product of years of dominance (and so few baserunners), Kazmir wasn't used to pitching from the stretch, and therefore was a bit slow with his delivery throwing from it. The Mets didn't want him giving baserunners an extra edge, so he tackled that issue in instructional league. His slight frame also presented an issue-quick, name me a short, lanky pitcher who isn't awesome. They have to be stunning to be given a chance.

Kazmir was held to 75 pitches per start in 2003 as the Mets assigned a workload designed to protect his promising arm. This resulted in 76 innings for Capital City in the Sally League (with 105 punchouts against 28 walks) and 33 innings for St. Lucie in the Florida State League to close out the year (with 40 more whiffs and 16 walks). Baseball America was impressed again, leaving him in the second overall slot in the organization, but they also passed along a few disconcerting tidbits in his profile. His slider had slipped from "plus-plus" to "well above average" in just one year, and while his changeup was occasionally a major league-caliber pitch, he wasn't always consistent with it, and his curve was much worse in this regard. He started the year with a tender elbow, which was worrisome given the concerns over his frame, and he wasted far too many pitches searching for the strikeout. Kazmir needed to learn that he had a defense behind him to get some of these guys, and that he didn't have to nail every hitter on his own while they were still at the plate.

Baseball Prospectus 2004 liked Kazmir, but left a warning message that summed up the situation appropriately:

Warning: This player comment contains future-looking information. Investing in any player, especially pitchers, involves an element of risk, and fans are encouraged to do their own research, as well as manage risk through a diversified portfolio of prospects to watch. Many pitchers suffer injuries that lower the rate of return or eliminate their worthiness as prospects entirely. These statements have not been evaluated by any oversight agency and may be entirely wrong. All projections are based on the best information available to Baseball Prospectus at press time, but we are limited by the accuracy of our statistical supplier and subject to change. Baseball Prospectus is not liable for damages, heartache, or money spent on player's minor league cards in the event that this or any other player fails to eventually realize his talent.

It's a good thing Prospectus covered their trail, as Scott Kazmir-the darling prospect and crown jewel of the Mets' minor league system-was dealt that summer in a deal that to this day is the subject of mockery and humor for media and fans alike. Leading up to the deal, he was the Kazmir you expected him to be-lots of strikeouts, a few walks too many, but still difficult to hit and score off of regardless. He put in 50 innings at High-A before moving on to Double-A and continuing his minor league successes, but then came El Terrible Intercambio.

At the behest of Rick Peterson, who claimed he could "fix" Victor Zambrano in 10 minutes and felt that Scott Kazmir was a few years away from being a successful major league pitcher, the Mets eventually made that very swap with the then-Devil Rays. It was thought to be a one-sided deal at the time, but it only got worse as Zambrano fell apart-he was out of the Mets organization after barely more than 200 IP and just two and a half years after the deal. After 25 more dominating innings at Double-A, Kazmir was brought up to the majors and struck out over 11 hitters per nine. Sure, his ERA stunk, but he also wasn't legally old enough to drink and had skipped Triple-A, so let's cut him some slack.

So what did Baseball America think of the deal? He was now the second-best prospect in the Devil Rays' organization, and was still essentially the best young left-hander in the game thanks to his mid-90s heat and biting slider. They also let it slip that Mets officials anonymously bashed Kazmir's build and makeup following the deal to Tampa Bay; they didn't think he would make it in a major league rotation for these reasons. Baseball Prospectus 2005 was curious as to just what was going through the Mets' collective noggin:

What were the Mets thinking? It certainly strikes us as a challenge trade, Rick Petersen's expertise versus overwhelming consensus opinion. Sure Kazmir struggled in the first couple of months-an abdominal strain is pretty tough to work around-but once healthy (and, note significantly this was not an arm injury) it was lights-out for the Florida and Southern Leagues from then on. He was called up prematurely, struggled with control in most games, but also managed a few gems. He's still only 21, so you want the team to be aware of his pitch counts, but there's a good chance that he'll be the team's best pitcher in 2005. Not to mention a potential All-Star for many years to come.

BP was on the ball, as Kazmir threw 186 innings and struck out 8.4 hitters per nine, posting ERA (3.77) and RA (4.35) marks that were well-deserved based on his DERA of 4.06. That's pretty great for a 21-year old in his first full season, and when you consider how well he shut left-handed hitters down (.174/.253/.201) you can see that, at worst, he had a dominating career as a reliever ahead of him should he have to bow out of the rotation. He did lead the league in walks, but these things happen with hard-throwing young lefties on occasion-given some more time, the hope was that he would rein the walks in and keep his punchouts up.

If Kazmir's 2005 was a stomach punch to Mets fans, his 2006 represented repeated blows to the head that stopped only when Kazmir complained of pain in his shoulder. Kazmir improved in almost every way: his strikeouts jumped to 10.1 per nine, he cut his walks from 4.7 per nine to just a smidge over three, and both his ERA (3.24) and his DERA (2.96) dropped into the range of an ace. He was placed on the DL twice with shoulder pain though, and then was shut down in September as the Devil Rays attempted to protect their young ace.

The 2007 season would be the first time (and as of now, the last) that Kazmir would cross the 200-inning threshold, and was his best full season in every way. He posted his best strikeout rate, and though his walks jumped back up close to four per nine, it was still tolerable given the lack of homers and his sometimes untouchable stuff. Sure, he allowed a .341 BABIP, but he was also pitching in front of the worst defense in Baseball Prospectus' database-that team was nearly six percent worse at converting balls in play into outs than the league average.

Despite the improvements to the defense-the Rays went from perhaps the worst ever to best in the league in one year, propelling them to their first playoff and World Series berths-Kazmir suffered the poorest season of his professional career in 2008. He still struck out nearly 10 per nine, but his walk rate was over four per nine, he was susceptible to the long ball for the first time in his career (1.4 per nine is nearly double what he allowed in 2007) and while his ERA was a sparkling 3.49, his DERA was 4.03, more than a half-run worse than his first full year, when he posted an ERA over five. Baseball Prospectus 2009 summed things up well:

On the one hand, Kazmir is a great pitcher. On the other, in many ways he's becoming a right-handed version of Rich Harden-he's an ace as far as his numbers go, but he doesn't do many of the other things one expects from an ace. He regularly misses time here and there (in 2008 it was an early-season elbow strain), he's so inefficient that he often hits 100 pitches before he's made it to the fifth inning, and he can become a scheduled strain on the bullpen. Don't get us wrong, he's great, and clearly worth the nearly $40 million he'll receive over the next four years, but he's far from deserving of the "ace" designation.

Kazmir was young-his 2008 campaign was just his age-24 season. At the same time, his strikeout rate had started to fall, he was not showing any improvement with his efficiency or his walk rate, and though left-handers get a bit more leeway in these regards during their younger years, it was impossible not to see that the defense carried him in 2008 even more than it hurt him back in 2007. The 2009 season would turn out even worse for Kazmir while he was with Tampa Bay, as he posted an ERA of 5.92 over 111 innings, whiffing 7.3 per nine while handing out free passes to 4.1 batters per nine. He also spent time on the DL with a strained quadriceps, but he wasn't exactly dominating when he returned from that either, though he was better than he had been.

The Angels dealt for him in late August, hoping to shore up their rotation as they headed for another postseason. Kazmir threw 36 1/3 innings for the Angels in six starts, striking out 6.4 per nine while walking 2.5 per nine-the tradeoff of strikeouts for fewer walks appeared to work, as Kazmir posted an ERA of 1.73 for the Halos. Of course, it's tough to get too excited, given those strikeout numbers and the limited body of work. His batted-ball figures for September with the Angels were the same as they'd been for the months preceding-he's still predominantly a fly-ball pitcher, and someone who needs to keep the ball in the park to succeed due to his walk rates. If he drops the whiffs and relies more on his defense while cutting out walks, he's going to end up in the same place he was before with baserunners and end up more hittable. Expecting him to be an ace going forward is asking a bit much, however. While there's still plenty of time for Kazmir to turn it around-as has been said a few times already, lefties occasionally take some time to get going on their career-the chances of his ever becoming the consistent ace that he was envisioned to be grow up to be becomes that much more unlikely with every inefficient plate appearance. He's also lost some velocity on his fastball over the years-whereas he sat in the mid-90s throughout his time in the minors and was still there as recently as 2005, he's fallen back towards the low 90s since and averaged just 91 mph on his heater this year. His slider has lost some velocity too, and he's dialed back his changeup in order to keep the differences relative.

All of which suggests an eventual future in relief to me-considering Baseball America said he was either going to be an ace or Billy Wagner, it would make sense-but it's tough to say if that switch will be made any time soon. He would pick some velocity back up though, and with that additional strikeouts. The walks could be problematic, but if he was just using his two best pitches, now back in their high-speed form, he may also make shorter work of hitters-a move to the bullpen could force some efficiency on him. Right now though, the Angels just want him to perform well as a starter. He's capable of that, even if he's not quite what he was expected to be at this point, especially if he had to trade in strikeouts to finally cut down on his walks.

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