Thursday, June 16, 2011

The Rise and Fall of Scott Kazmir

As you have probably heard, the Angels granted Scott Kazmir waivers today for the purpose of giving him his unconditional release. This cuts ties with a 27 year old who already has 66 career wins and 995 career strikeouts. After a dreadful first start of the season, the Angels had placed Kazmir on the DL with a severe case of "he's 27 and throws his fastball 7 mph less than he did when he was 23 and nobody can figure out why." After five "rehab" starts at AAA Salt Lake, GM Tony Reagins decided there was no place on the major league staff for Kazmir - an easy decision when you look at the fact that, in those five starts, Kazmir gave up 29 runs in 15.1 IP, walking 20 and striking out 14. He also had 5 WP and hit 6 batters. Never a control pitcher, Kazmir was all over the place, which was compounded by the fact his fastball, once one of the best in the league, is no longer even league average.

The story of Kazmir is a strange, often-repeated one. The Mets made him the #15 pick in the 2002 draft out of high school, and he signed quickly enough to make five excellent starts at Low-A Brooklyn, giving up only 1 ER in 18 innings while striking out 34. This debut performance was enough for Baseball America to make Kazmir the 11th best prospect in their 2003 pre-season rankings. In 2003, over two levels as a 19 year old, Kazmir continued to dominate, with a 2.65 ERA and 145 strikeouts in 109.1 innings. The 45 walks he had were enough to drop Kazmir to 12th in the Baseball America rankings. Still, being the #3 pitching prospect in baseball in nothing to sneeze at.

In 2004, Kazmir was excellent again. In 76 IP between high A and AA, he had a 2.84 ERA, 80 K, 31 BB and allowed only 3 HR. However, Mets' major league pitching coach Rick Peterson didn't like Kazmir's delivery - he thought it would be unsustainable over a long period of time, leading to injury and control trouble. A pitcher who Peterson DID like was Tampa Bay Ray starter Victor Zambrano. The 28 year old Zambrano had pitched for four years in Tampa, and was known mostly for his erratic (which might be too kind) control. In 481.2 IP with the Rays, he'd walked 288 batters. In 2003, he's led the AL with 106 walks (against only 132 strikeouts - this wasn't Nolan Ryan), and, at midseason 2004 already had 92 walks. Peterson liked Zambrano's stuff and general delivery and thought the control was the result of a correctable mechanical flaw.

So, what happened? The Mets traded the #12 prospect in baseball for the 28-year-old American League leader in walks at the trading deadline.

It seemed as dumb at the time as it does now. It would be like waking up tomorrow morning and finding out that the Braves had traded Julio Teheran to the Astros for JA Happ, and 28 other teams find out that not only was Teheran available, but all it would have taken to get him was a mediocre starter with serious control issues. This wasn't a contending team trading an unproven prospect for a proven veteran, like losing John Smoltz for Doyle Alexander. It was the Mets giving up on their top prospect because of one person's opinion, and getting nothing close to value in return. People jokingly asked whether Mets GM thought he was getting Cubs pitcher Carlos Zambrano and accidentally traded for the wrong Zambrano.

I should state that I've always thought Rick Peterson got too much of the blame for this turn of events. He's the pitching coach, not the general manager. The idea that Kazmir's delivery wasn't sustainable clearly has some merit in hindsight, and I'm going to bet that every pitching coach in the league has their eyes on a guy on another team who he things he can "fix." That's why it isn't the job of a pitching coach to make trades. The GM is in place to assess value, see what the best package he can get for a player, and Jim Duquette very obviously did not do that. That's why, personally, I view this as the worst trade in baseball history. If you analyze the long-term effect of a deal, clearly the Atlanta Braves getting John Smoltz or the Houston Astros getting Jeff Bagwell, or the Cardinals getting Lou Brock were enormous, but all of those were defensible. Trading your best prospect for one of the worst starters in the league?

Anyway, Victor Zambrano got hurt after three starts for the Mets. I suppose that Peterson was able to get him to lower his walk totals, as he walked 4.2 per 9 IP for the Mets, after walking 5.4 per 9 in his Rays career, but it had little benefit. Zambrano got hurt again in 2006, then bounced to the Blue Jays and Orioles in 2007 before falling out of the league.

Meanwhile, by 2007 Kazmir was turning into the best young pitchers in baseball. Called up only a month after the deal with the Mets, Kazmir, still only 20 struggled some at first. In 2005, he led the AL with 100 walks, but struck out significantly more batters than Zambrano, keeping his ERA down to 3.77, earning him 9th place in the AL Rookie of the Year voting. It was in 2006 and 2007 that Kazmir turned into the ace of the young (then Devil) Rays. In 351.1 innings pitched those two years, he struck out 402 and walked only 141. In 2007 as a 23 year old, he led the American League with 239 strikeouts. Kazmir for Zambrano was now a punchline.

In 2008, things started to go wrong for Kazmir. He strained his elbow in spring training, and while the issue was not reported to be serious, the Rays were still cautious, and Kazmir did not debut until May 4. Things went well enough from there, and Kazmir was named to his second straight all-star game, sporting a 3.05 ERA and a K/BB ratio of close to 3.0. In the second half, Kazmir appeared to be running out of gas - every indicator of effectiveness had dropped. He was striking out fewer batters, walking more, and giving up more home runs. His batting average against fell, a function of the Rays significantly improved defense behind him, but scouts were worried that his fastball was losing its bite.

In 2009, his velocity continued to drop, and Kazmir was now making serious money, having been signed before 2008 to a 4 year, $38.5M contract, was considered trade bait. Matt Garza, James Shields and David Price had already passed Kazmir, and the farm system was loaded with arms. At the trading deadline, Kazmir had a 5.92 ERA and was striking out barely 7 per 9 IP. Attributing the issues not to a termporary blip but to a loss in stuff, the Rays traded the 25-year-old Kazmir five years after acquiring him. He was sent to the Los Angeles Angels for utilityman Sean Rodriguez, minor league pitcher Alex Torres, and minor league first baseman Matthew Sweeney.

Kazmir improved upon being acquired by the Angels, but this was from a drop in his walk and home run rates rather than his stuff returning to its old level. In six starts, Kazmir had a 1.73 ERA in his first six starts, earning him a spot in their playoff rotation. This turned out to be a mistake, as in three playoff appearances he had a 7.93 ERA.

In 2010, Kazmir posted career worsts in nearly every category, and for the first time in his career, his fastball did not average 90 mph. By the end of the year, he had a 5.94 ERA, and in 150 innings pitched he struck out only 93, walked 79 and allowed 25 home runs - the highest walk and home run rates of any pitcher with 150 innings in the American League. Still hoping they could get something out Kazmir, and with him under contract for the season, the Angels broke camp in 2011 with him in the starting rotation. In his first start, he faced 14 batters - walking two, hitting two, giving up 5 hits including a home run, and allowing 5. He retired only 4 batters, none by strikeout. His fastball averaged 86 miles per hour.

It was at that point where the Angels decided to put Kazmir on the DL, because pitchers aren't supposed to throw 7mph slower at 27 than they did at 22 unless there is something physically wrong. Nothing specific was found, though, and with Kazmir getting lit up in 5 AAA starts, the Angels moved on.

At this point, I'm not sure where Kazmir can go. No team will put him in the majors. I almost think he'd be best off taking the rest of the year off, not pitching again until next spring, just throwing and playing long toss to build his arm strength back up. Still, we're not even sure that the issue is "arm strength." He may have just peaked athletically at a young age, and not have anything left in his 27 year old arm. If this is it though, Rays fans will always be able to remember him as one of the faces of the franchise in the mid-'00s when they actually began to improve.

Meanwhile, Rob Neyer recounts what Mets fans can remember (from his old ESPN blog):

In 2007 the Mets finished one game behind the first-place Phillies. In 2008 they finished three games behind the first-place Phillies. In 2006, their fourth starter in October was Steve Trachsel, who started twice and gave up seven runs in four-plus innings. It's not hard to imagine the Mets generating a great deal more income with Kazmir, because it's not hard to imagine them winning significantly more postseason games in those three years than they actually won.

And they didn't even get the right Zambrano.

No comments: