Scott Kazmir was magical. At one point in his time at Cypress Falls High School when he was in the midst of throwing four straight no-hitters, his team wouldn’t even take ground balls in practice. He toyed with batters, and struck 172 in 75 innings as a senior. He verbally committed to play for the Texas Longhorns, but the signed with the Mets after the team drafted him 15th overall in the 2002 MLB Draft (Oddly, Kazmir wasn’t the highest player drafted from his own high school that year. The Expos took pitcher Clint Everts with the fifth pick).
Kazmir’s first stop was in Brooklyn in the New York-Penn League. He struck out 34 batters in 18 innings. Kazmir cruised through the minors, displaying his nasty strikeouts skills all the way. His fastball had movement and sat in the mid-90′s. His slider simply looked unfair at times. Things couldn’t get much more promising.
The first warning signs showed up in 2003 when he started the season with a sore elbow. Scouts also expressed concern that he used too many pitches, always looking for the strikeout. No one took much notice as he went on to dominate minor-league batters again. Between three stops in 2003 he struck out 104 in 101 innings with an ERA of 2.50.
In 2004 the New York Mets traded Kazmir to the Tampa Bay Devil Rays for Victor Zambrano and Bartolome Fortunato. The Mets were six games behind the Braves and looking to close the gap. Zambrano, then 29, had a 4.43 ERA and a 109:96 K:BB ratio through 128 innings. At the time Kazmir had struck out 259 in 203.1 career minor-league innings. The deal was universally panned as one of the worst in recent memory. Zambrano went on to finish the year with a 4.37 ERA. He was at least useful in 2005, when he threw 166.1 innings with a 4.17 ERA. He would never pitch more than 23 innings in a season again.
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Kazmir made his major-league debut Aug. 23 that year against the Mariners. He struck out four, walked three, allowed four hits and no runs in five innings. He was uneven through 33.1 inning in 2004, but provided enough to keep the promise of future excellence alive.
With rotation mates like Casey Fossum, Mark Hendrickson and Doug Waechter, Kazmir was expected to be the young ace of the Rays staff at 21 in 2005. He delivered with a 3.77 ERA and 8.49 K/9 in 186 innings. At 22 years old, Kazmir was Tampa Bay’s Opening Day starter in 2006. He was markedly better than 2005. He reduced his walks while increasing his strikeout rate to 10.14. He finished with an ERA of 3.24. In August of that year he became Tampa Bay’s all-time leader in strikeouts. There were more concerns however as Kazmir twice hit the disabled list with shoulder pain. Meanwhile, back in New York, Zambrano had pitched just 21.1 innings for the Mets with a 6.75 ERA.
Kazmir’s best season (to this point) was undoubtedly 2007. He pitched 206.2 innings (the only time he’s topped 200) with an elite 10.41 K/9 and a 3.48 ERA. At 24 years old, 2008 was Kazmir’s fourth full season in the majors and the last time he would show greatness. He missed time again and pitched 152.1 innings. His strikeout rate slipped some to 9.81, and he continued to struggle with walks, posting a 4.14 BB/9. Kazmir produced a 3.49 ERA.
The numbers looked great, but something wasn’t quite right. The Rays and fans expected Kazmir to be an ace by now, but he was still struggling with his control and throwing too many pitches. He averaged 5.64 innings per start in 2008. Kazmir also continued to miss time with nagging injuries.
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Things broke down in 2009 when he struggled to a 5.92 ERA through 111 innings with Tampa Bay before the Angels acquired him in August. From that point he gave a glimmer of hope. In 36.1 innings with the Angels, his ERA was 1.73. But things still weren’t right. He struck out eight in his debut with the team, but didn’t top five in any start the rest of the season.
Simply put, 2010 was a disaster. He started the season on the DL. He returned to throw 150 innings, but his strikeout rate slipped to 5.58 while his ERA rose to a bloated 5.94.
He started 2011 in the same fashion, lasting just 1.2 innings in his season debut against the Royals. He allowed five runs, walked two and didn’t strike anyone out. The Angels put him on the DL and sent him to extended spring training. A month later, Kazmir failed to get out of the third inning in his first two minor-league starts, allowing 16 runs in a total of four innings. After he lasted 1.2 innings and gave up six runs in Triple-A June 14, the Angels released him with $14.5 left on his contract.
So how did Kazmir travel from one of the most promising pitchers in all of baseball to unusable in just four years? Maybe it was the injuries finally adding up. Maybe it was his stubbornness and refusal to be more efficient with his pitch count. Maybe it was a combination. The point remains that Kazmir is 27 years old and some team will surely take a shot on him to see if they can recapture his once massive talent.
Personally, I think the best option is to stick Kazmir in a relief role. In the bullpen he wouldn’t have to worry so much about pitch counts and could possibly regain some of his missing velocity (his fastball averaged 86.5 mph in his 2011 start, down from 90.5 in 2010 and 93.7 when he debuted back in 2003). The only question is whether Kazmir, who showed an apparent unwillingness to change his approach and be more efficient with his pitch counts through his career, would be open to the move. If he is, there could be plenty of baseball left on the horizon for Kazmir.
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