Last week, for Clayton Kershaw Day, I examined his dominance over baserunners. I concluded that Kershaw's left-handedness, quickness to the plate, feel for shortening leads, and deceptive mechanics make him as tough to steal a bag on as he is to reach base against.
Today is not Scott Kazmir Day, but Kazmir is a worthy foil to the otherworldly Kershaw for reasons that extend beyond their shared "Kid K" moniker. In 2014, Kazmir allowed the third most stolen bases among left-handed starters (18), behind Francisco Liriano and Cole Hamels, and the highest stolen-base success rate against among all left-handers (90 percent). Unlike Liriano and Hamels, whose troubles are rooted in their slowness to the plate, Kazmir's failings with basestealers requires a nuanced explanation. In short, Kazmir allows stolen bases because he doesn't make baserunners think.
It's not that Kazmir is inattentive or otherwise unconcerned with the running game. He'll throw over and he employs a slide step when there's a threat on first base, allowing him to deliver the ball in a timely manner despite his long arm action. Unfortunately, the slide step is part of Kazmir's problem, since it enables baserunners as much as it limits them.
Part of what makes Kershaw so effective is the similarity between his pickoff move and his delivery from the stretch. Kazmir lacks the requisite body control and compact delivery to maintain such deception. That wouldn't be so bad on its own—Kershaw is special for a reason—but Kazmir's pickoff move looks more like the normal, leisurely delivery he uses whenever a non-threat is on base than the truncated version. Here's a side-by-side comparison of all three at the highest point in the leg kick:
Since Kazmir only breaks out the slide step for stolen-base threats, the switch effectively tip off runners that Kazmir is about to throw over. Add in that it's not a quick sequence—he brings his leg up, puts it down, then throws over—and you get scenes like this one, from a June start in Detroit:
There you see Rajai Davis, one of the game's best thieves, a good ways from first base at the point when Kazmir releases the ball. Davis had seen Kazmir deliver a few pitches from the slide step as well as throw over a couple of times, so he decided to go on first movement, forcing the A's to make two strong, accurate throws instead of one—a strategy borne from probability. Davis' decision pays off. Oakland first baseman Stephen Vogt delivers the ball to the third-base side of the bag, allowing Davis to slide in just ahead of the tag.
Kazmir's pickoff move didn't prove any more effective when paired with his high leg kick. Believe it or not, the same game featured a similar instance to the one above. Ian Kinsler, a daring and sometimes misguided baserunner as it is, channeled his inner Lou Brock by inching closer and closer toward second base. Kazmir finally decided to throw to first, but Kinsler was off with the first move and would swipe the bag after Vogt bobbled the ball. Here's the play at full speed:
Between the defensive support in those cases and Kazmir's career numbers—his caught stealing rate remains a respectable 30 percent and he has 24 pickoffs to his credit—it's worth wondering if the A's contributed to his poor standing. Yet some basic with-or-without-you analysis suggests no. In addition to posting the worst caught-stealing rate among A's starters, Kazmir also posted a worse percentage than any individual catcher did—meaning he got swiped on regardless of who was behind the plate. What's more is the A's without Kazmir on the mound threw out 24 percent of baserunners and saw 0.76 stolen-base attempts per nine; those rates went in the wrong direction with Kazmir on the hill, as they retired 10 percent on 0.95 attempts per nine. One plausible explanation—Kazmir's mechanical overhaul worsened his pickoff move—is tough to test. Yes, he finished with a worse caught-stealing rate in 2013 than the Cleveland team average that year, but it came on just eight attempts; then again, he didn't have to face the Astros and Rangers so much, and last season they combined to go nine-for-nine against him.
When Kazmir's lack of physical deception and defense isn't betraying him, his tendency to fall into predictable patterns is. Kazmir appeared reluctant to use his slide step once a runner advanced past first, even if the runner had previously swiped second. Likewise, he'd offer the baserunner one look (albeit of varying length) before coming to the plate. Only once in the observed sample did Kazmir give a baserunner multiple looks, and that was after the runner (Jonathan Villar) had a successful steal recalled due to interference. Villar would steal the base again after few pitches and pickoff attempts.
The differences in results between Kazmir and Kershaw are proof positive that there's more to controlling the running game than being quick to the plate and cognizant of the baserunner's leads. Deception in movement and strategy are just as, if not bigger factors than the brevity of delivery.