You're a nerd. There's nothing wrong with that. In fact, if you weren't a nerd, you wouldn't have been browsing stats leaders in a variety of areas. Suddenly, you spot something strange. You've seen the name before. Scott Kazmir. He was force with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays/Rays. You remember him being an impressive young pitcher, the kind of player the Rays needed to help pull them out of the cellar. But he flamed out. You think to yourself that you must be reading the current stats wrong. How in the world can Kazmir have the fifth-best ERA in the American League?
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The stats are true. Scott Kazmir has posted an impressive ERA so far this season. Through 16 games this season, the 30-year-old lefty has a 2.66 ERA. Your eyes are not failing you, my friend. That's a two leading off Kazmir's ERA, not a three. But, like I already mentioned, you're a nerd. You know that simply relying on a player's ERA is to ignore the rest of the story. Let's uncover that story together to see if Kazmir has recaptured some of his old glory days or if he is just plain lucky this year.
Before we hit on where Kazmir is now, let's take a look at where he's been. It's kind of like a spin on that old phrase, "you can't know where you're going until you know where you've been." And Kazmir has been some places, man. Some dark, dark places.
Kazmir was drafted by the New York Mets in the first round in 2002. He was the 15th overall pick. Yet, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays managed to convince the Mets to trade Kazmir and Jose Diaz for Bartolome Fortunato and Victor Zambrano. Clearly, things worked out better for the Rays in that deal. Kazmir shot up through the prospect rankings within the Rays organization. Baseball America had him listed as the 11th-best prospect prior to 2002, he was the 12th-best prior to 2003, and finally he hit 7th-best prior to 2004. That happened to also be the year Kazmir made his debut with the Rays (or Devil Rays, or whatever sea creature you want to call them).
In 2005, Kazmir got some American League Rookie of the Year votes, finishing ninth overall. In 2006, he made his first All-Star Game. He made another in 2008. Kazmir also helped the Rays make it all the way out of the cellar and into the World Series in 2008. In total, Kazmir spent nearly six seasons in Tampa. The Rays eventually would trade Kazmir during the 2009 season because, quite honestly, they couldn't afford to extend his contract. He maxed out at $6 million in any year with the Rays, but he gave them 16.1 rWAR in his 144 starts.
Kazmir was a really good pitcher with the Rays. It's easy to forget that after all he's been through. He always hung around the mid-to-high 3's in FIP with the Rays. He wasn't great, but he was, as I said, really good. The Rays seemed to have unloaded Kazmir at the right time, though. In 2009, the year of the trade, his FIP jumped to 4.26. The following year, Kazmir's first full year with the Los Angeles Angels, his FIP jumped to 5.83. In 2011, Kazmir made just one appearance for the Angels. He did not do well in that appearance. Then, in 2012, he was out of baseball.
That seemed to be the end of Kazmir's career. He suffered a back injury during that 2011 season, and he simply couldn't come back. It seemed his career was doomed to flame out just as quickly as it began. He missed nearly two years of Major League action before attempting a comeback in 2013.
Kazmir was signed by the Cleveland Indians in December of 2012. He started the 2013 season in the minors, but he was called up and pitched well for the Indians that year. In total, Kazmir made 29 starts and threw 158 innings for Cleveland in 2013. He posted a 4.04 ERA - a bit high at first glance which may have contributed to the Indians' decision to let him walk that winter. They may have made a mistake, though. And their mistake could be the Oakland Athletics' success story.
This season, Kazmir's 2.66 ERA is probably a bit low considering his peripherals. He will likely regress a bit, but I wouldn't expect to see his numbers shoot way up. His FIP of 3.35 this year is very much in line with his total for last season (3.51), and it's in line with the numbers he saw while pitching for Tampa. In his time with the Rays, Kazmir had just the 2008 season in which his FIP was over 4.00 for a full season with the club. Unless, of course, you count his eight games in 2004. It wasn't until those 2008 and 2009 seasons that things started to come unraveled.
The first indication of problems may have been Kazmir's K/9 rate. In 2006, Kazmir posted a rate of 10.14. In 2007, that rate jumped to 10.41. Then, in 2008, it fell back to 9.81. His K/9 rate fell even further in 2009 as he split time between the Rays and the Angels. In 2009, Kazmir finished with a 7.15 K/9 rate. It got worse in 2010. That season, Kazmir was able to muster just 5.58 strikeouts per nine innings.
Clearly, he had lost something. It wasn't necessarily his control as Kazmir's walk rates weren't terribly impacted during this time. However, his velocity was declining rapidly between 2007 and 2010. In 2007, Kazmir was averaging 92.1 mph on his fastball. By 2010, that was all the way down to 90.5. The drop in velocity could have been from any number of outside variables. He could have been purposefully reducing his velocity. There are times when pitchers will dial it back to focus on command. He could have been battling the back injury that sidelined him in 2011 for longer than he or anyone else let on. Or, Kazmir could have simply lost arm strength.
But if he lost arm strength, how is he suddenly pitching well again? Well, Kazmir's numbers last year and this year show that his velocity is back. We can probably rule out a prolonged arm strength problem. Last season, Kazmir averaged 92.5 mph on his fastball. This season, he is averaging 90.5. That's a big difference compared with last season, but he's only half-way done with this year. That number may creep up still.
Perhaps the biggest development that has set Kazmir back on a path of success is that of his cut fastball. Kazmir didn't have such a pitch from 2004-2011. Last year, he started throwing it. He threw the cut fastball 6.0% of the time with the Indians. That allowed him to use his fastball less and potential preserve some of his velocity. This season, he is throwing the cut fastball 7.3% of the time. He's using his fastball a career-low 53.9% of the time.
It's been an interesting run for Kazmir, but one thing is for certain: We are seeing a pitcher in Kazmir much more like the one we saw from 2004-2008 than the one we saw from 2009-2011. That's a good thing for the A's considering that have him signed to a two-year, $22 million contract. Kazmir has already out-performed his salary this season. Unless he regresses significantly, he should be able to outperform his contract on the whole by the time he finishes the 2015 season.
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All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference.
Justin Hunter is a contributing writer for Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @the5_5hole. He also co-founded Sports Injury Alert and is bringing The 5.5 Hole back to life for all the Padres fans out there.