Surprisingly durable Kazmir's Dodgers deal a win-win
92 starts since 2013 are tied for 25th-most in baseball
The Dodgers just gave 8 million and an opt-out to a pitcher notorious for his fragility, thanks to eight disabled list trips and an age-28 season spent completely out of professional baseball. They also just signed one of the most durable pitchers available on the market this winter, one who has never had any kind of surgery and who has made more starts over the past three seasons than Chris Sale or Corey Kluber. Welcome to the dichotomy that is Scott Kazmir.
It's been a long and strange road for Kazmir. Originally best known as the prospect sent to Tampa Bay for Victor Zambrano in one of the most controversial trades in Mets history, Kazmir led the American League in strikeouts in 2007 for the (Devil!) Rays before declining velocity completely sidetracked his career. Kazmir struggled badly for the Angels in '10, then pitched only one game in '11 and none in '12 before resurfacing with Cleveland in '13.
In the three seasons since, Kazmir has been durable and solidly above-average, if far less than elite (all rankings of 89 pitchers with at least 400 IP):
Games started: 92 (tied for 25th, with Zack Greinke and Bartolo Colon)
Innings pitched: 531 1/3 (36th)
ERA: 3.54 (34th)
FIP: 3.61 (36th)
K%: 21.8 (24th)
BB%: 7.1 (51st)
Exit velocity: 87.9 mph (2015 only -- 97th of 268 pitchers with at least 1,000 pitches)
Disabled list trips: One, for a ribcage strain, in 2013
In a world where the top guys like Greinke and David Price are making over 00 million, this is a fair deal on both sides. The Dodgers included an opt-out after the first year to lessen the overall dollar amount, and in return, they get a good mid-rotation starter in a rotation that badly needed one. (They also save themselves a Draft pick, unlike what would have happened if they'd completed their aborted negotiations for a similar price with Hisashi Iwakuma.)
In fact, it's pretty interesting to compare Kazmir's 2013-15 performance with the other similarly aged members of the non-Greinke/Price/Johnny Cueto second tier of the pitching market this winter:
Scott Kazmir: 3.54 ERA / 3.61 FIP / 21.8 K% / 7.1 BB %
Wei-Yin Chen: 3.61 ERA / 4.03 FIP / 18.4 K% / 5.4 BB%
Mike Leake: 3.59 ERA / 4.03 FIP / 16.3 K% / 5.9 BB %
Jeff Samardzija: 4.09 ERA / 3.73 FIP / 21.4 K% / 6.3 BB %
And the contracts they received:
So from that perspective, the perception of Kazmir as fragile may have worked in the Dodgers' favor, as extremely similar performance was acquired for a much smaller contract. (Or so fans hope; after all, early-season injuries to Brandon McCarthy and Hyun-Jin Ryu last year nearly crippled the rotation.)
Still, this isn't the Kazmir we saw all those years ago with Tampa Bay, the one who threw fastballs more than half the time and got his whiffs with a deadly slider. The new Kazmir has added a curve and a cutter, and he actually threw six different pitches last season. The new Kazmir does something exceptional with his changeup, which beat out the slider for his top strikeout pitch in 2015 for the first time in a full season.
It's not just that Kazmir throws the change slow, though he does do that. Over the past three years, among pitchers who have thrown at least 150 innings total, there have been 261 pitcher seasons from players who use a four-seamer and a changeup. An overwhelming majority -- 198, actually -- have the change coming in between six and 10 mph slower than the fastball. A few get that difference into the 10-11 mph range. Kazmir, well:
Biggest difference between change and four-seam velocity, 2013-15
1) Kazmir, 2015, 15.3 mph
2) Kazmir, 2014, 13.8 mph
3) Erik Bedard, 2013, 13.5 mph
4) Kazmir, 2013, 12.2 mph
5) Dallas Keuchel, 2013, 11.9 mph
That change, which comes in at a below-average Statcast™ spin rate of 1,358 RPM (where the MLB average is 1,746) actually mirrors Keuchel's in some ways. Though Keuchel's has slightly more vertical movement, their horizontal movement is both above-average and nearly identical (8.8 inches apiece), and each induced swings in the 55-56 percent range. Over the past three years, batters have hit just .210 against Kazmir's change, easily his most effective pitch these days -- in part because his release point is less than an inch apart for both, and the huge velocity difference puts hitters off-balance.
Kazmir isn't around to replace Greinke, because no one could. He's not around to go deep into games, because like most pitchers, he's less effective the further he goes. (He allowed a .634 OPS in 2015 the first time through the order as opposed to .787 the third time.) He's probably not what the Dodgers had in mind when this offseason began.
But for the Dodgers, who kept watching players fall through their fingers, this isn't a bad consolation prize. Kazmir is arguably underpaid compared to the competition, and if he opts out, the Dodgers will get a compensation pick for him. A rotation that needed some certainty got that from perhaps the unlikeliest source: Kazmir, of all people, traded away by Dodger baseball czar Andrew Friedman more than six years ago when both were in Tampa Bay, dispatched to independent ball as his career flamed out, and now being counted on by the sport's richest team. As the saying goes: you can never predict baseball.