Scott Kazmir is not unlike the little girl with the little curl. When he’s good, he’s very, very good. When he’s bad, he’s usually out of the game with a high pitch count by the end of the fifth inning. The Angels left-hander has unquestionably flashed brilliance since coming up with the Rays as a 20-year-old wunderkind in 2004, but just like the girl in the nursery rhyme, he has been maddeningly inconsistent. His first seven starts this year tell the same story, but the hard-throwing southpaw sees a light at the end of the tunnel. Only time will tell in which direction that train is headed.
David Laurila: How do you identify yourself as a pitcher?
Scott Kazmir: I am basically the leader of the game. I’m the guy that’s out there controlling the tempo; I’m the guy who is out there controlling the entire game. I like to consider myself a competitor, a bulldog. I want to go out there and attack the strike zone and get the opposing hitters to swing, just because of the past, for me personally. You kind of look at scouting reports, or you look at this or look at that, and you just try to play the cat-and-mouse game. That’s all it is.
DL: Are you trying to set the same tempo in every game?
SK: Oh yeah. That’s quick [snaps fingers] and attack the strike zone. You want to get your guys in the dugout and hitting as quickly as possible. You want it to seem like the entire game we’re in the dugout, instead of long innings with you taking time between pitches. You kind of wouldn’t have your good defense if you take too much time between pitches—guys get on their heels and they’re not as fresh. It really changes the outcome of the game.
DL: Have you always had that approach, or did you have to learn it?
SK: I had to learn it, but to be honest it didn’t take me very long. As soon as I got to pro ball, I had some good coaching, some good tutoring, from legends. There was Bobby Ojeda—everyone that was in the Mets' organization when I got drafted there. I learned pretty quickly that that’s the key. You’ll find that your teammates will like you a lot better, too.
DL: What did you learn from Bob Ojeda?
SK: Pretty much everything about the game. You can go as far as preparation, before a game, preparation the day of, before a game, preparation the four days in between. Even during the game, like how you approach hitters. How you breathe out there, how you relax and how you slow the game down when times get tough out there. With runners on and nobody out, you want to slow the game down a little bit. You don’t want it to start snowballing and get overwhelmed.
DL: Did that knowledge come gradually over time or from specific sit-downs?
SK: You realize it from sit-downs. You understand where they’re coming from, but you don’t actually buy into it, I guess you could say, until you actually have the experience, until you actually go through the times where you have bad games and realize what you did wrong. You’re like, “Oh, I’ve been told this before and that’s what happened.”
DL: Veteran pitchers often talk about the point in their career where they went from being a thrower to being a pitcher. Are you there yet?
SK: I think I’m getting there. I think it’s always a process where you’re never really going to perfect that. But I am definitely a different pitcher from, say, my first two years in the league where all I really cared about was throwing as hard as I could. I worried about a vicinity and not really a specific location.
DL: With your stuff, is specific location important?
SK: I think that it’s always really important. With my stuff, though… if someone has an above-average fastball, or above-average off-speed, the margin for error is a little bigger, but at the same time, these are big-league hitters. They hit mistakes and they get advance scouting that is so high-tech… they’ll be able to hit those things. All I’m saying is that when you have good stuff, you have a lot more margin of error, but at the same time you can still get hit, so location is everything.
DL: Your ball moves quite a bit. How much can you control just where a ball that moves a lot ends up?
SK: From experience. Once you have a consistent delivery, you’ll know what your ball does. Any pitch, any grip that you have, you’ll know what it does if you have the same delivery every time. If you’re falling off the mound or something, trying to throw to a certain spot, it’s going to do different things. Sometimes you’re going to cut off the ball and it’s going to cut. You open up your front side and the ball will leak away—it has a tailing action. You learn from actually pitching with good mechanics and the same delivery every time. Then you can pinpoint your movement.
And it comes with grip—different pitches, different grips. You can tilt a ball half a degree of an angle and you can have less movement, or more movement—more depth or more tailing action. That’s something that, with experience, you find out for yourself. But everyone is different. Everyone’s arm angle is different; everyone’s release point is different. It’s something where you just need to know yourself, so experience is everything.
DL: Some pitchers feel they get more movement by taking a little off certain pitches. Is that the case with you?
SK: You know what, I don’t really buy into that—if you take a little off. What I find makes a difference is shortening your stride. Maybe not shortening your stride, but rather getting on top of the ball more. You get more rotation, more spin; you just get way better action. That’s why you see sinkerball pitchers—most of them, they shorten their stride just so they can get really on top of the ball, almost like they’re spiking the ball down. You get a good release off the fingertips and a lot more rotation and a lot more action. Guys that have real long leg kicks and long strides, they come out and it’s almost like they’re throwing uphill. That’s where you see a flat baseball. You don’t see the movement that you want to see.
DL: What kind of movement do you get on your fastball?
SK: It depends. With my sinker, if I stay on top of it, it’s real late, probably only about four or five inches. But it’s real late, with more depth than tailing—I would say inside, to a lefty. That’s my two-seamer. My four-seam, the way I throw it, with my grip, it will almost have more of a cut. That’s when everything is good, when I have a good release point and stay on top of the ball.
DL: When you get out of sync, do you tend to retain command of either the two- or four-seamer or do you lose command of both?
SK: When you’re out of sync, you lose both. You can kind of tell from the get-go. Once you see the ball travel, you see how flat it is. It kind of feels like you’re going uphill and that’s when you know something’s not right. You’ll be flying open, your delivery’s not right.
DL: Can you talk a little about your slider?
SK: My slider… you know, it took me a long time to figure out what was wrong with my slider. I would look at video; I would look at everything just to kind of see if there was something here. It kind of felt like I was just flicking the ball and not throwing through, just like a fastball. Then I looked at my video and saw 2006, and we put it side to side with this year, and it was night and day. I’m starting to get into the video a little bit more. But [Angels pitching coach Mike Butcher] saw it right off the bat. In 2006, I was right on top. Perfect. Now I’m borderline sidearm and with that comes me not being able to get on top. I’m trying to throw the slider from right here. I’m trying to get it from [a lower angle] and it’s not going to happen. You’re not going to get that good snap. All you’re going to get is a lazy slider spin that has no movement at all. But if you’re [up] here with it, “Bam!” you get a snap action where you’re basically behind the ball the entire time and it has late action. It looks just like a… it feels like a fastball when you throw it.
DL: Do you know why your arm angle has dropped?
SK: I have a good idea. Back in 2008, I hurt my triceps in spring training and to compensate… for the first four or five weeks, in which I actually had pretty good success, I was compensating and ended up going a little lower and not knowing it. I was going a little lower and kind of abandoning my slider.
DL: Was your arm angle dropping on all pitches, or just your slider?
SK: Apparently it was all of them. I would be in and out, inconsistent. For the most part, it would be on all of my pitches. I had a little bit of success with me not feeling 100 percent, and as soon as I started feeling better, it was almost like it’s tough to get right back to where I came from. I felt like I was right—I felt like everything was good—but I was still sidearm, throwing side to side. It’s kind of like teaching bad habits and trying to get out of them.
DL: How would you describe the movement on your slider?
SK: When it’s going right it’s very tight, with almost a fastball spin. Normal sliders have a dot on the baseball whenever they throw it. For me, it looks more like a four-seam fastball late and then about, I’d say, a six- or- seven-inch depth of drop, more like a back-foot-on-a-righty slider. It ends up looking like a fastball inside and then it breaks to the back foot of a right-handed hitter.
DL: Do throw your slider differently to right-handed and left-handed hitters?
SK: Oh yeah, but I think it all depends on how you’re pitching a guy. If you’re pounding the fastball in, a back-foot slider is going to be good. But if you have a lefty… a lefty has a little bit different approach. Most of them don’t really stay in there as good, because it’s coming from a lefty—it’s lefty on lefty—and they see the ball and it looks like it’s almost coming out from their shoulder. It’s a whole different approach, so you do have to throw a different slider. For me, it’s more of a catching-more-of-the-plate, straight-down kind of action. With the left-handers who are stepping out, almost in the bucket, as you would say—kind of bailing a little bit—the slider you throw to righties, they’re not going to swing at that, because it looks like it is way off the plate. To righties it’s going to look good, because it’s right in there for them. So you do have to have a different slider.
DL: Where is your changeup right now?
SK: That’s one of my best pitches right now, surprisingly. I mean, I just learned that thing two years ago. I’d find myself slowing down my mechanics—I’d telegraph my pitch—but the end of last year, and this year especially, I’ve had good arm action and a lot of depth to it. It’s like a split-finger, because it has a lot of depth.
DL: Do you throw it with a split-finger grip?
SK: No, it’s just a circle change—it’s a circle-change grip. I throw it with a lot of arm action and I don’t pronate; I just let it do it on its own. When it’s going good, it’s very late. It’s like a fastball almost, until it gets almost to the plate, and then it drops straight down.
DL: Where did you learn it?
SK: I’ve learned it kind of over the years, to be honest with you. I never found a grip I liked. I came into pro ball in 2002 and had the privilege of being around John Franco, Al Leiter, and guys like that, and I’d kind of just look at their grips. I’d look at what they had and how they threw it, but to be honest, I didn’t know the first thing about how to throw a changeup. But once I realized that it didn’t really matter about the grip as long as it doesn’t have the same fastball grip—all you have to have is the arm speed. I just kind of found a grip that is comfortable in my hand and played catch with it. That’s how you pretty much learn how to throw a changeup, from throwing it long, from over 90 feet, 100 feet, 120 feet. You’re just throwing it so you’re not making the action with your hand, you’re just letting the grip do the work. You’re just throwing a fastball and letting the grip do the work and the action will be there.
DL: With variations in mind, how many different pitches do you throw?
SK: If you count the different kinds of pitches with the same grip, basically, I would say that I have two sliders, three fastballs and two changeups. There will be one [changeup] to get it over for a strike where you don’t really get after it too much—it doesn’t have that much depth—it’s more of an 0-0 pitch. The same with my slider. You have the short, tight spin and then you have the strikeout pitch. You have the changeup that you throw really hard that has a lot more depth, and the slider that you try to bury into the dirt, that has a lot more depth to it.
DL: What is your third fastball?
SK: Fastball number three is more of just a different grip. It’s almost more of a riser fastball. The way I throw it is almost more of a flick action. When I have two strikes and I want to elevate a little bit more, it seems like it has almost a low trajectory and then it kind of comes up a bit. So I have the four-seam straight at you, the two-seam with a little bit of depth, and then the one that I wouldn’t necessarily call a rise ball, but the way I grip it, it kind of shoots up a bit.
DL: You have a reputation of being a pitcher who can be dominant but is also maddeningly inconsistent. Are you on your way to becoming more consistent?
SK: I feel like I am. The walks are still an issue, definitely. But at the same time, I’m feeling very confident with where I’m at. It’s frustrating that I’m not at the point that I want to be, had you talked to me three years ago, but I feel that all the stuff I’ve gone through has made me stronger as a pitcher. It really has. And I actually changed my delivery. Normally I was just kind of stationary, right here [in front of his body]; I didn’t really have too much movement, too much rhythm. Now I’m over my head and more free and easy. I feel more relaxed. Everything is coming out a lot better and I have a lot more action on my pitches. I feel that I also have a lot more accuracy.
DL: When did you start going with the over-the-head windup?
SK: Just this season. In 2006 and 2007, when I really felt good, any time that I would be out of my delivery I felt like I was more robotic and more mechanical instead of just going out there and being an athlete. I would throw a bullpen, a couple of pitches, where it was almost 1950s style, like Sandy Koufax, over the head with a big leg kick. I don’t have that much movement, like they did in the past, but just the same movement, same rhythm, never stopping, good tempo. It feels almost effortless. It really does. The past couple years, I felt like I was fighting myself the entire time. Now everything feels on point.