When Scott Kazmir said that the Tampa Bay Rays had a realistic shot at the playoffs in 2008, the media still found it hard not to laugh. Even so, Kazmir seemed among the best players to deliver the message that things were changing in Tampa. Outside of Carl Crawford, no player personified the Rays’ future more than Kazmir. Since joining the Devil Rays in 2004, Kazmir compiled 13.5 WAR on his way to becoming the Rays ace. Kazmir was coming off his best season as a pro — and he was still only 24 years old — so there was a legitimate thought that he was still improving. Three and a half seasons later, Kazmir is currently looking for a job.
The 2008 season appears to be the start of Kazmir’s decline. Not only did Kazmir start the season on the disabled list, but his velocity began its decline as well. Unfortunately for Kazmir, these trends stuck with him through this season.
As Jack Moore outlined in February, declining velocity became a major problem for Kazmir during his career. From 2007 to 2011 Kazmir’s fastball velocity dropped each season: from 92.4 mph to 86.8 mph- a pretty precipitous fall. Kazmir’s fastball rated as his only positive pitch, according to pitch-type values. But as his bread-and-butter pitch started to go, Kazmir stopped being a viable major league starter.
The reasons behind Kazmir’s declining velocity are unclear, but there are some factors that stand out. First, Kazmir has dealt with injuries every year since 2008. While arm injuries forced him to miss the starts of the 2008, 2009 and 2010 seasons, he finally appeared healthy entering 2011. But one start — and 1.2 innings later — and Kazmir found himself on the DL, then off to the minors.
Injuries clearly took a major toll on Kazmir in the past several years. Since he was injured at the start of each season, can anyone say with confidence that Kazmir has been healthy since 2008? We’ll never know if that was the case, but his statistics during that period indicate that something was wrong — and was getting worse.
Kazmir threw a bunch of innings during his age 21 to 23 seasons, so perhaps that was the cause of his injury. The data, however, isn’t helpful in this area. Kazmir threw 536.4 innings in that time but, according to pitcher-abuse points, he wasn’t abused that much. The only season Kazmir rated in the top 30 was in 2007, when he finished 12th among all pitchers. Pitchers react to abuse in different ways, and, in hindsight, it appears Kazmir was the wrong guy to push.
Ultimately, it’s sad to see a pitcher with promise suffer such a poor fate. Multiple arm injuries and declining velocity (which likely are related) appear to be the reasons for Kazmir’s decline. Though he might have thrown his last meaningful innings of professional baseball, he deserves to be remembered better. Scott Kazmir was the first true ace for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. He — along with Carl Crawford — will likely go down as some of the best Rays of the 2000s. It’s sad to see what’s happened to him now, but it’s important to remember that Kazmir experienced great success early in his career.
Chris is a blogger for CBSSports.com. He has also contributed to Sports on Earth, the 2013 Hard Ball Times Baseball Annual, ESPN, FanGraphs and RotoGraphs. He tries to be funny on twitter @Chris_Cwik.