You want to know how the sausage is made? It’s the holiday season, which means there’s not a lot going on. Sure, there can be moves like the Mike Leake signing, but the league overall is about to mostly shut down for a short while. But we’re supposed to write anyway, so I got to thinking and I decided to try to write something about Scott Kazmir. The only question was, what about him? What, that is, besides a simple WAR analysis, which could be done in a paragraph. So I searched and I searched until I found something of moderate interest. I hope that you end up moderately interested.
In a sense it’s funny to have to search for something interesting to say about Scott Kazmir. To the average person, what’s interesting is that he’s a major-league baseball player, and more than that, he’s one of the good ones. To the average baseball fan, what’s interesting is the course that Kazmir’s big-league career has taken. By that I mean he was out of affiliated baseball in 2012. Of the general population, Kazmir is one of the most interesting people. Of the general population of baseball players, Kazmir is one of the most interesting players. Yet this stuff is a given. We’re all familiar with his history. Kazmir is a free agent, and what’s of greatest significance is what he’s become.
I can tell you — he hasn’t become brittle. When you think about Kazmir, you think about risk, because of where he’s been and what’s taken place. It’s not totally unjustified, because Kazmir has washed out of baseball before. But since he came back in 2013, he’s been on the disabled list once, with a strained rib cage. He’s been healthy enough to clear 90 starts, and 8 WAR. He’s been almost as durable as you could ever expect him to be.
There’s a small amount of concern regarding his stamina. Kazmir was bad last September. He was also bad the previous August. Yet in 2013, Kazmir was terrific down the stretch, so you can’t dismiss the chance it’s nothing. Maybe it’s not about fatigue. Maybe it’s about how sometimes good players have bad games. You don’t want to fall into the trap of making assumptions about Kazmir based on his unusual past.
The best assumption is that Kazmir is all right. He’s worth a multi-year contract, and he’ll get one. He’ll get paid something in the neighborhood of J.A. Happ money, possibly with fourth-year language. It won’t be the safest contract ever awarded, but it’ll be fine. On the surface, Kazmir is perfectly effective. What I’m struck by is what he’s done to get here.
I don’t mean the whole thing about disappearing from the major leagues for a little while, although of course that’s fascinating. I want to show you something about Kazmir’s pitches. Specifically, I want to show you something about his fastball and his changeup. Kazmir has always thrown a changeup. Now, this is a day and age where pitchers are increasingly willing to throw their changeups hard. Maybe that’s anecdotal, but it helped turn Zack Greinke into what he is. Kazmir has gone the other way. Since his debut, he’s had a pretty large velocity gap between his fastball and his change, but recently the gap has grown enormous.
Here’s a table showing Kazmir’s career. There’s average fastball velocity, then average changeup velocity, then the difference between the two. After that, there’s the league-average difference, and finally Kazmir’s difference over the league’s difference, expressed as a percent.
Kazmir’s fastball is down two and a half miles since he was a rookie. But his changeup is down more than seven ticks, and you can see the recent trend in the Difference columns. Used to be, Kazmir’s speed differential was something like 20 – 30% greater than the average. Two years ago, it got close to 70% greater. This past year, it was almost 90% greater. Kazmir’s average fastball was more than 15 miles per hour faster than his average changeup.
Now for some 2015 league context. Here are the starting pitchers with the biggest differences, setting the lowest possible minimum of 0 innings pitched.
Kazmir just had the biggest difference by a large margin, as starters go. The next-biggest difference was more than a mile and a half behind, making Kazmir out to look rather exceptional. He’s lost a little bit off of his fastball, sure, but it seems as if he’s deliberately taken some heat out of his changeup. That makes for a massive change of pace, and you have to think this isn’t something that’s just gone on by accident. This is probably something like the game plan.
As Kazmir’s speed difference has grown, the numbers suggest his trust in the changeup has grown. It’s become more of a strikeout pitch, where earlier in his career Kazmir would allow righties to see a lot of his slider. This could be a coincidence, or this could be very much not a coincidence, but the last two years, Kazmir has shown a reverse platoon split. He’s had some struggles against lefties, but he’s limited righties to a .285 wOBA, and he’s used plenty of this changeup. Could be the speed differential has helped Kazmir conquer opposite-handed hitters. If nothing else, it hasn’t hurt. And it certainly makes Kazmir more interesting. As if he needed the help.
This is the new stage of Scott Kazmir: pretty good, somewhat durable, with the biggest fastball-changeup gap in the game as far as starters go. That last quality could conceivably allow Kazmir to age better than he might’ve as a fastball/slider guy. The changeup seems the best it’s ever been, and Kazmir got here by slowing it down. That makes him very different from Zack Greinke. Lots of things make him very different from Zack Greinke. Add the changeup thing to the list.
Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.