Here is a link to my Friday column about Scott Kazmir. The full text appears below:
PHOENIX — One day Scott Kazmir forgot how to pitch.
His rise and fall and potential re-rise are important to you. In the offseason, the A’s signed him for two years at $22 million total. And they think — well hope — he can maybe, sort of be their ace.
Kazmir, a lefty, made his major-league debut for Tampa Bay in 2004 when he was 20 and his fastball intruded on a batter’s life at 97 mph, a hair-raising number, and his slider was world-class and he was the real thing. Think young Tim Lincecum.
His best year was 2007. He led the American League in strikeouts (239), and games started (34), and won 13. He was a beast, if you can call a soft-spoken 185-pound man a beast.
Then he lost it. Just like that. He was a man with a gift for pitching who misplaced the gift. And then his life became hard.
He was hurt in 2008. Still won 12 games. Got traded to the Angels during the 2009 season. Had a losing record in 2010.
He would desperately ask teammates, “Hey look at video. Tell me what you see.” But it didn’t help. “It would be a quick fix and then I would go right back to declining in my velocity. I took video of myself. A lot of stuff I was doing wrong I couldn’t see on video. It’s more of a feel, more weight on one side or a little bit more balance. It’s hard to pick up on video.”
In 2011, he won no games. As in none. The Angels, stupefied, sent him to the minors to work things out. He worked out nothing. His earned run average in the minors was more than 17. The Angels released him, had to pay him $14 million in guaranteed money. See you later, Scott.
In 2012, he was out of baseball. Rock bottom.
There’s more and it’s not all grim. This story may, in fact, have a happy ending, although Kazmir has not written the ending yet. Let’s pick up his narrative in his words as he discussed his life in baseball Thursday morning at his locker in the A’s clubhouse.
“It takes awhile to explain all that,” he said, sounding like a man who still doesn’t have the full explanation. “I lost my way towards the end of my time with Tampa Bay and ended up being a little tight or inflexible. I ended up compensating for things, manipulating my delivery. I taught myself bad habits. My velocity went down. All my pitches went down. Just my direction towards the plate was off. I wasn’t using my legs. I couldn’t find it, I couldn’t feel it.”
In 2012, he was on no team and he started working out on his own. In his backyard. He has a mound in the backyard of his house in Houston and he would throw to a friend from the mound. It’s not like big-league teams were sending coaches to Kazmir’s house. He was as alone as a ballplayer can be. He did yoga. Trying to get his body to feel right, flexible. He was so out of whack. He couldn’t even get his leg kick right.
And then he joined a team in 2012. We’re not talking the Yankees or Dodgers or A’s. He joined the Sugar Land Skeeters of the Atlantic League, joined because the team was 20 minutes from his house and what the hell.
The Atlantic League is an independent league, unaffiliated with a major-league team. Out there. As far out as you can get and still be a baseball player. Some other Atlantic League teams are the Lancaster (Pa.) Barnstormers, and the Bridgeport (Conn.) Bluefish. You get the idea.
The Skeeters’ owner called Kazmir and said, “You can get your feet wet again. You don’t have to get thrown to the wolves right from the get-go.”
Kazmir began to regain the feel with the Skeeters. “I was slowly progressing,” he said. “There would be one or two good games, then a slip. Then one or two good games and a slip. It seemed like I was progressing more and more.”
He played winter ball in Puerto Rico and said hello to an old friend, his fastball which had taken a powder years before. It was clocking in at 97.
“I had been down to, oh, 83, 84 tops,” he said. “It’s a huge deal. I mean we’re talking not even a pro-ball-caliber fastball when it’s 83, 84. But going through that whole process taught me how to pitch. When I don’t have my best stuff, still being able to get hitters out, just finding a way, relying more on location and deception than on pure stuff. I am a lot more accurate than I was even in my best years in Tampa.”
Before spring 2013, he signed a minor-league contract with the Cleveland Indians, went to spring training and made the team. He won 10 games for the Indians, became a free agent, went to the A’s.
Here is manager Bob Melvin on Kazmir.
“Our front office does a great job trying to target guys we feel have resurrected themselves. His numbers the second half of last year were terrific. A lot of other teams bid on him as well. He was a hot commodity. You want to make sure you can replace (Bartolo Colon), and Kazmir was the guy we felt was the right guy.”
What kind of pitcher is Kazmir?
“He’s reinvented himself,” Melvin said “I would still consider him a power pitcher if you look at the walks and strikeouts in the second half of last year. His velocity was back up. I think his velocity plays a little better — he hides the ball well. Now, he’s got a repertoire which makes him a little more unpredictable. He used to be fastball, slider and now he’s legitimately a four-pitch guy. He’s able to speed them up, slow them down.”
Back to Kazmir. Did he ever feel he’d never get back to the big leagues?
“I get asked this question a lot,” he said. “I felt it was going to happen. I was going to figure it out. The question was, ‘When is it going to happen? Is it going to be too late?’ I’ve gone through a lot of emotions. It’s a game I played from when I was a little kid. Sitting at home for two years and having to watch games on TV — I couldn’t even watch games on TV. It would just kill me.”
How does it feel to be in a big-league clubhouse?
Kazmir looked around, saw Josh Reddick to his left, A.J. Griffin across the room going through their routines. “Oh, it feels great,” he said, emotion in his voice. “When I first came to spring training (Cleveland in 2013), knowing I was a long shot to make the squad, I couldn’t stop smiling just being with the guys, being back in baseball. I’m not going to let it go.”
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