Originally written on Fangraphs  |  Last updated 3/11/13
Previously, it was Oliver Perez. Earlier in his career, Oliver Perez was a good major-league pitcher. Then he was a worse major-league pitcher, then he was a bad major-league pitcher, then he was nothing, thought to be hopeless. Perez resurfaced in winter ball, allegedly reaching his old velocity levels as a reliever. The Mariners gave him a chance, and he worked his way into a big-league bullpen. Perez will be back in that bullpen in 2013, armed with a rich new contract, and just like that, Oliver Perez has been resurrected. Now we have the case of Scott Kazmir. Earlier in his career, Kazmir was a good major-league pitcher. Then he was a worse major-league pitcher, then he was a bad major-league pitcher, then he was nothing, thought to be hopeless. Kazmir was awful the last time he pitched in affiliated ball, and he wasn’t particularly good with the independent Sugar Land Skeeters. Kazmir resurfaced in winter ball, allegedly reaching his old velocity levels as a starter. The Indians gave him a contract, and right now Kazmir is on his way to making the starting rotation out of camp. Let’s be clear: it isn’t the greatest achievement to qualify for the Cleveland Indians’ starting rotation. And Kazmir hasn’t even officially done that yet, nor has he done that and stuck around. But for one thing, Kazmir’s competing against decent options in Trevor Bauer, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Carlos Carrasco, and others, and for another thing, this is Scott Kazmir. Consider what you would’ve thought about Kazmir, say, last November or so. Now tell yourself that guy could start the Indians’ fifth game of the season. And also tell yourself that this year’s Indians are trying to contend. For Kazmir, even being at this point is a hell of an achievement. This post is going up now because Kazmir is fresh off four shutout innings against the Angels on Monday afternoon. That takes him to eight shutout innings of official Cactus League baseball, with a walk and eight strikeouts. Though Kazmir doesn’t have a job locked up quite yet, Monday’s outing surely boosted his case, and one figures Kazmir has the inside track. Right now, it’s probably his job to lose. This post is also going up now because for the first time this spring, Kazmir was televised. We heard glowing reports on Kazmir’s stuff, from Indians officials and other scouts, but until Monday we didn’t have an opportunity to witness that stuff for ourselves. All we knew was that Kazmir was being gunned in the low 90s again over short outings. How does Scott Kazmir actually look? Not that any of us are extraordinary scouts, but following, we may observe Scott Kazmir striking out Josh Hamilton swinging. Pitch 1 Kazmir throws a fastball with a speed. It’s more or less right on the mark, and it’s taken for a strike by a guy who didn’t have much interest in swinging. Maybe the bigger story here is that Josh Hamilton saw a pitch and didn’t swing at it. Pitch 2 Kazmir throws a fastball with a speed. It badly misses the mark, high and tight, but Hamilton goes after it and fouls it off. Hamilton is well behind the pitch, which could speak to some deception on Kazmir’s part, or which could be a fluke. Pitch 3 Kazmir throws a fastball with a speed. It badly misses the mark and the catcher has to stand up, but Hamilton chases and Hamilton whiffs for strike three. Once again, it looks like Hamilton is behind the pitch, and if you’re going to miss 0-and-2, this isn’t a bad spot. Now, these are just three pitches, taken from one plate appearance, against a left-handed hitter. From this plate appearance, we can’t really conclude anything, but this is also kind of Kazmir’s whole Monday outing in a nutshell. The overwhelming majority of Kazmir’s pitches were fastballs, and though we didn’t have radar gun readings, the Angels’ swings suggested Kazmir was probably around 90-92. The idea, I think, was to get Kazmir locating, but command wasn’t his strength this afternoon. Which, of course, you wouldn’t expect it to be — command has always been Kazmir’s weakness, even when he was effective. Though Kazmir issued just one walk, the Angels’ hitters were aggressive, and Kazmir missed a lot of targets. He did throw some offspeed pitches. Some of them were bad. Some of them were good. It being so early in camp, still, some mechanical inconsistency is to be expected. But Kazmir pitched over the winter and he’s fighting for a job, so he should be approaching 100%. The pitcher who faced the Angels on Monday looked like he could be effective in the big leagues, but he didn’t exactly look like a rejuvenated ace. Bear in mind, velocity is only a part of it. When Kazmir last belonged to a major-league organization, in 2011, he was working in the mid- to high-80s. But in 2010, he had his fastball in the low-90s, and he was not good. In 2009, he had his fastball in the low-90s, and he was also not good, albeit better. In 2010, Kazmir finished with a 145 FIP-. In 2009, he finished with a 101 FIP-, but a 109 xFIP-. The trouble was that, between 2008-2009, Kazmir lost a ton of his strikeouts without losing a ton of his walks. It’s not like Kazmir’s problems are solved by throwing 91 again. But Kazmir did have promising numbers over the winter, and his numbers are promising so far in the spring. Last year, a third of all starts went to guys with an FIP- of 110 or higher. The reality of fifth starters is that they’re well below-average, and Kazmir, in 2009, was a capable fifth starter. If he can get back to that level, he can serve a purpose, even if he isn’t the Scott Kazmir of old, the guy who pitched like a dominant ace. A danger of Scott Kazmir making a comeback is that whenever he looks all right, people will dream about when Kazmir was a borderline superstar. So people might end up disappointed if Kazmir tops out as a decent fourth or fifth starter. In truth, if Kazmir makes it back as a fourth or fifth starter, that would be amazing, and we’d have only ourselves to blame for potentially being unimpressed. Kazmir isn’t there yet, and Monday he didn’t have pinpoint command, but then, Scott Kazmir never had pinpoint command. He just needs to be good enough to get by, and he’s the closest to that that he’s been in a while.
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