Schlepping From Sugar Land: Scott Kazmir Once Again Tries a Comeback

Non-roster invitation season is prime time to Remember Some Guys, players who had their moments in the sun in some hazy but not-so-distant past before slipping beneath the radar for one reason or another. A subset of those Some Guys are left-handed pitchers, and as discussed here previously, lefties who can throw strikes have a chance to stick around forever, at least in this NRI limbo if not on a major league roster or, at the very least, its fringes. Within this subset one finds Scott Kazmir, a onetime fireballer who last appeared in the majors with the Dodgers in 2016. The now 37-year-old lefty agreed to terms on a minor league deal — and of course the requisite NRI — with the Giants earlier this week.

Kazmir, a 12-year veteran and three-time All-Star who owns a career 108-96 mark with a 4.01 ERA, 4.01 FIP, and 25.2 WAR, is no stranger to comeback attempts. After his career deteriorated during his run with the Angels, the former Mets-prospect-turned-Devil-Rays-phenom was released following his lone appearance in April 2011; he was still owed nearly $14.5 million through the following season. Just 27 years old when he was released, Kazmir overhauled his mechanics, restored some lost velocity, spent a season with the Sugar Land Skeeters of the independent Atlantic League, and resurfaced with Cleveland in 2013. Thus began a four-year, four-team run during which he was nearly as effective as ever, posting a 3.75 ERA and 3.79 FIP in 667.2 innings with additional stops with the A’s, Astros, and Dodgers. In that time, he made his third All-Star team and landed a pair of lucrative multiyear deals: a two-year, $22 million one with Oakland after the 2013 season, and then a three-year, $48 million one with the Dodgers two years later.

Alas, back and neck issues limited Kazmir to 136.1 innings with a 4.56 ERA and 4.48 FIP in 2016 with the Dodgers, including just one inning on September 23 after a month-long absence. Tightness in his left hip forced him to shut down in the spring of 2017, and he managed just 12 innings, all during abortive rehab stints at High-A Rancho Cucamonga, for the entire season. In December of that year, he was traded to the Braves as part of a five-player deal that brought Matt Kemp back to Los Angeles but mostly amounted to two teams shuffling bad paper for Competitive Balance Tax purposes. Though at one point Kazmir appeared on track to make the Braves out of spring training in 2018, diminished velocity and a bout of arm fatigue led to his late-March release.

Kazmir planned to throw for teams in mid-February last year, but I can’t find a single report indicating that he did so. He did not get a deal, obviously, but he wasn’t idle during the pandemic. He made three starts and one relief appearance for a team called the Eastern Reyes del Tigre of the Constellation Energy League, and you’re forgiven if that sounds like the famously poignant epilogue of Ball Four, where Jim Bouton learns from his cab driver that Jim O’Toole, a 10-year major league veteran who had been in camp with the expansion Seattle Pilots alongside Bouton in the spring, had been spotted pitching for the Ross Eversoles of the Kentucky Industrial League.

The Constellation Energy League was one of a small handful of ad hoc independent leagues that sprang up last summer to fill the void left by the cancellation of the minor league season while adhering to more restrictive travel constraints. Before I elaborate, it is here that I must interrupt this tangent to provide a disclaimer based upon my own hard-won experience: FanGraphs will not be held liable for any injury or lost productivity associated with clicking the following links. I spent multiple hours down in this rabbit hole on Wednesday afternoon, awash in a flood of neurotransmitters that turned me into a jabbering idiot frantically DMing friends across multiple platforms as I indulged in Remembering Some Guys, each Some Guy more surprising than the last. It wasn’t pretty.

A non-exhaustive list of these pop-up pandemic leagues included the six-team New York/New Jersey-based All-American Baseball Challenge, which incorporated teams from the Frontier League while adding some whose mere existence strains credulity, such as the New York Brave and the New Jersey Wise Guys (home of KBO returnee Taylor Motter, one of two major league veterans in the league); the Huntingburg, Indiana-based Liberation League, whose four teams sound like an intramural softball bracket (Baseball Resume Bandits, Indiana Barn Owls, Indy Windstorm, and California Dogecoin); and the Sugar Land, Texas-based Constellation Energy League, also with four teams.

Of those leagues, the CEL was populated with by far the most former major leaguers, and its four teams were helmed by famous managers. The Skeeters, previously of the Atlantic League, were piloted by Pete Incaviglia, and from among their 15 ex-major leaguers received a one-inning cameo by 43-year-old Fernando Rodney, an inning from Brandon Beachy, two from Bud Norris, and three from Felipe Paulino, not to mention extensive playing time for Gavin Cecchini and Dustin Peterson after they were released by their respective teams in the spring. The Sugar Land Lightning Sloths (!) were managed by Greg Swindell and featured Joe Wieland , who led the league in innings (37.1, across a 23-to-25 game schedule) and ERA (2.41); Zac Rosscup, who soon landed work with the Rockies, and David Huff as relief aces; Henry Owens being lit for a 22.09 ERA in all of 3.2 innings; and Johnny Barbato, who also played in the Liberation League (what’s it like to be a two-timing indy leaguer during a pandemic? I’d read that article). Eastern Reyes del Tigre, who finished first with a 14-9 record, were led by Dave Eiland and included pitchers Aaron Blair and TJ House as well as Kazmir, not to mention outfielder-turned-pitcher Brett Eibner, who later made three appearances with the Marlins, and a catcher named Jaxx Groshans, whose mere existence demands acknowledgment.

I’ll return to Kazmir and the Reyes del Tigre momentarily, but first, the piece de resistance of the CEL: a squad called — wait for it — Team Texas, co-managed by Roger Clemens and his son Koby, an eighth-round pick by the Astros in 2005, and a Skeeter from 2012-14. That run, you may recall, included the pair teaming up twice when dad was 50, fueling speculation of yet another major league comeback that would reset his Hall of Fame eligibility. But wait, there’s more! Team Texas’ roster also featured Kacy Clemens, an eighth-round pick by the Blue Jays in 2017, and Kody Clemens, a third-round pick by the Tigers in 2018, as well as major league vets Tommy Joseph and Cameron Rupp. Alas, Team Texas finished last at 9-15.

Anyway, it was within this fertile soil that the latest Kazmir comeback began; he pitched to a 4.20 ERA but just a 15.9% strikeout rate in 15 innings and according to one report showed fastball velocity in the 90-92 mph range, a bit lower than the 92-93 mph he reportedly reached in a recent showcase. According to The Athletic’s Andrew Baggarly, Kazmir has been training with Kevin Poppe of DST Performance, who helped with his previous comeback as well. The lefty built a pitching lab in a Houston warehouse and pored over video as he tinkered with his grip, his mechanics, and his tempo.

Eiland, who spent a dozen years as a major league pitching coach with the Yankees, Royals, and Mets, winning two World Series rings along the way, described Kazmir’s performance and the surrounding conditions to Baggarly:

“Let’s face it, it was a bare-bones league… You can’t base anything off the hitters he was facing. But if you were halfway paying attention, you could see the way his arm was working. In the beginning, it was like early spring training for him. He’d only been throwing sides and bullpens. But each start got better. The command got better. The velocity picked up and the delivery got more consistent. You could see it coming.”

…“It would have been nice to have more time with him. But you could tell he wasn’t protecting anything. He’s always had that beautiful arm stroke and that finish where the ball would jump out of his hand. He wasn’t the Scott Kazmir of 10 years ago. But that arm stroke was there. You could see there was enough to get big league hitters out.”

As you might imagine, there aren’t a tremendous number of precedents for players returning from long layoffs from the majors and enjoying success. With the help of Dan Szymborksi, I found 13 from the Wild Card era who were gone for at least four seasons and returned to throw at least 50 innings in a season:

Wild Card Era Pitchers Returned From Long Absences
Pitcher Depart Return Layoff Yrs G GS IP ERA FIP WAR
Ryan Vogelsong 2006 2011 4 30 28 179.7 2.71 3.67 1.7
Geremi Gonzalez 1998 2003 4 25 25 156.3 3.91 4.84 1.7
Darrell May 1997 2002 4 30 21 131.3 5.35 5.45 0.4
Travis Blackley 2007 2012 4 28 15 107.7 4.10 3.96 1.1
Robert Ellis 1996 2001 4 19 17 92.0 5.77 5.09 0.5
Burch Smith 2013 2018 4 38 6 78.0 6.92 5.38 -0.5
Ramon Garcia 1991 1996 4 37 2 75.7 6.66 6.11 -0.7
Joe Roa 1997 2002 4 14 11 71.3 4.04 4.57 0.6
Brad Thomas 2004 2010 5 49 2 69.3 3.89 4.39 0.2
Ken Ray 1999 2006 6 69 0 67.7 4.52 5.08 -0.2
Tim Harikkala 1999 2004 4 55 0 62.7 4.74 5.31 -0.4
Gregory Infante 2010 2017 6 52 0 54.7 3.13 3.58 0.6
Dave Stieb 1993 1998 4 19 3 50.3 4.83 4.93 0.0
Jose Rijo 1995 2001-02 5 44 9 94.0 4.60 4.95 0.2
Pitchers who have returned to the majors since 1995 and thrown at least 50 innings in a season following absence of at least four years, except Rijo, who did so over two seasons and is too interesting to miss via an arbitrary cutoff.

Six of the players on that list spent time in foreign leagues during their absences, including Vogelsong and Blackley, two of the most successful ones. Most of the others were knocking around the minors in the interim, perhaps with an injury or two thrown in. The closest thing to worthy comparisons here are Stieb and Rijo, both former All-Stars but almost certainly occupying a tier above Kazmir on the career scale, in that they each received Cy Young votes in multiple seasons. Stieb, the former Blue Jays ace, was a seven-time All-Star before back problems drove him away at age 35, curtailing a career that might have been Cooperstown-bound; he didn’t have much left when he returned, but he did get a last hurrah. Rijo, whose 17-inning late-2001 showing and entire ’02 campaign I lumped together so as to shoehorn him into this conversation, was the MVP of the 1990 World Series as he led the Reds past the A’s. After pitching through elbow pain in 1995, he underwent at least three elbow surgeries, including one documented Tommy John surgery. He was gone so long that he even received a vote on a Hall of Fame ballot; his return at age 36 reset his eligibility.

Those guys at least provide a frame of reference for Kazmir’s comeback, even if they aren’t exact parallels; the lesson to take, probably, is that relatively famous guys have a chance. Perhaps less informative is Szymborski’s ZiPS projection for Kazmir, which is downright brutal…

ZiPS Projection – Scott Kazmir
1 1 6.33 5 4 21.1 25 15 4 12 13 1

…to the point that Dan suggested the lefty’s spring stats might have more meaning given how far in the past his previous performance was.

Anyway, the cost of the Giants taking a look is merely the minimum salary, and Kazmir has his eye on starting, not working out of the bullpen, though one has to figure that he’d bite at any kind of major league opportunity. The Giants have Kevin Gausman and Johnny Cueto at the front of their rotation, but of the three other pitchers penciled into the starting five, one (Aaron Sanchez) is coming off a season lost to surgery to repair a torn shoulder capsule, and the other two (Anthony DeSclafani and Alex Wood) totaled 45.1 innings with ERA and FIP numbers that it would be impolite to print. Logan Webb, a 24-year-old righty who pitched to a 5.47 EA and 4.17 FIP in 54.1 innings, almost certainly will figure into the equation given the propensity for injuries demonstrated by most of the aforementioned hurlers, and after that, there’s a grab bag that includes 27-year-old lefty Anthony Banda, a former Top 100 prospect; Sean Hjelle, a 23-year-old 6-foot-11 righty; and Shun Yamaguchi, a 33-year-old NPB veteran who put up an 8.07 ERA in 25.2 relief innings with the Blue Jays last year. The Blue Jays released Yamaguchi and are paying most of his $3.175 million salary; he’s in camp on a minor league deal and NRI with an opt-out date.

All of which is to say that a refurbished Kazmir would hardly be out of place if he were to join this motley assortment of pitchers. In a season where every team will face concerns about how to parcel out innings as they ramp their pitchers up from 60-game workloads to 162-game workloads — not to mention the still-real risk of COVID-19 sidelining multiple pitchers on a team at the same time — the odds of Kazmir returning to major league action appear to be higher than normal. The hitters will let us know whether he has anything left, but at the very least, he’s worth a look.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
3 years ago

That identical career ERA and FIP is super satisfying; not sure I’ve ever seen that before for a guy with so many innings. Love it.
Also rooting for him; was always a big fan of his since MVP Baseball 2005 on the Play Station lol

3 years ago
Reply to  Jay Jaffe

As if I needed more reasons to love our resident weirdo, Zack Greinke.

3 years ago
Reply to  puddle

Lets go “ERA=FIP” Greinke!!!

3 years ago
Reply to  Jay Jaffe

Wow! That’s awesome! Keep going, Zack!

3 years ago
Reply to  Jay Jaffe

It looks like the key to keeping your ERA and FIP in synch over 2000+ innings pitched is being an actual threat on offense:

White: .217/.298/.259 with 80 wRC+, 32 career SB (!!)
Greinke: .225/.263/.337; 60 wRC+, 9 HR, 9 SB
Rhoden: .238/.253/.323, 58 wRC+, 9 HR, one start at DH (!!!)
Peters: .222/.253/.347, 70 wRC+, 19 HR

3 years ago
Reply to  tz

I had to look up Rhoden since he was before my time and found out that he once had an 11 game hitting streak. How bout that!

3 years ago
Reply to  SirCharlesK

I recall Rhoden from the 76-78 Dodgers. They had a great rotation all through those years. Rhoden would have been considered the #3 behind Sutton and Hooton back then. Doug Rau looked promising but got hurt and Tommy John came back and became a miracle.

Rhoden was the only good hitting pitcher of that group. He was more athletic than the average pitcher. I recall that his image as portrayed by the beat writers at the time was of a scrappy battler

3 years ago
Reply to  gtagomori

Rhoden was a scratch golfer.

3 years ago
Reply to  Jay Jaffe

Greinke is going to be the sneakiest HOFer of modern times. Given two more seasons of productivity you’ll look at his record one day and say “huh, when did that happen?”

Adrian Beltre kind of did the same sneaky thing. But, then he continued to play forever and it became a moot point.

3 years ago
Reply to  gtagomori

Right now, he’s the #36 pitcher by JAWS, and that doesn’t include the ~8 wins he’s added with his glove. Another 5 wins and he’s closing in on top 25 all-time there.

Plus, he’s already crossed 200 wins and is a good bet to retire with a winning percentage above .600, so old-school stats look good (he’s in good shape on the Bill James HOF Monitor and Standards).

So, the Beltre analogy is pretty damn good.

3 years ago
Reply to  Jay Jaffe

Actually, it doesn’t look like the pitcher’s fielding is incorporated anywhere in bWAR or fWAR. Baseball Reference adjusts the pitchers raw RA/9 by taking the team’s total DRS and allocating it to all pitchers on the staff based on the number of balls in play.

For example, in 2018, Arizona had a great team defense (+148 by DRS, including +7 for Greinke). Greinke allowed 3.34 runs per 9 IP, vs. a ballpark/opponent adjusted average of 4.83 runs per 9, a difference of 1.49 runs/9. However, BB-Ref attributes 0.84 runs of that difference to the DBacks’ defense, and only gives Greinke credit for 0.65 runs/9 towards his pitching WAR. Like FanGraphs, BB-Ref does not credit Greinke’s 7 defensive runs saved in either his pitching WAR or hitting WAR.

The simplest solution for this would be for both sites to plug in the pitcher’s defense into their respective version of hitting WAR. For now, unfortunately, neither site is reflecting pitcher fielding within WAR.

3 years ago
Reply to  tz

Redacting most of the above comment:

Now that I think about it, Baseball Reference isn’t really ignoring Greinke’s defense because it’s embedded in his actual RA per 9 innings (along with the rest of the team defense, LOB%, and other non-FIP items). It would be missing if they backed out the actual DRS from the games Greinke pitched, because that defensive adjustment would be including Greinke’s actual defensive contribution. But because they are using an estimate of the impact of defense (team DRS x the % of BIP created by Greinke) instead of the game-specific impacts, Greinke’s defensive contributions are mostly buried in defensive adjustment, so the impact’s a nit.

The fWAR calculation, however, still is missing any impact of pitcher’s defense. Not a factor for the vast majority of pitchers, but for the Greinkes and Buehrles of the world it is meaningful.

3 years ago
Reply to  tz

You mentioned Buehrle. Somewhere there a Hall of Tough. And Buehrle and Radke are in it.