Kazmir continues resurrection with the A's
PItcher lost his way after disastrous outing with Angels in 2011
PHOENIX - Scott Kazmir is starting to look like Tommy John without having had to go through Tommy John surgery to get there.
"It's quite a resurrection he's had," said Bob Melvin, Kazmir's new manager with the Oakland Athletics, on a calm, warm Monday morning at Phoenix Municipal Stadium, the team's Spring Training facility.
That's the perfect word for it: resurrection. When he threw his last pitch for the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim on April 3, 2011, in Kansas City, the pervasive feeling around the game was that we'd seen the last of the once-great talent from Houston.
Getting five outs that day with a batting-practice four-seamer, Kazmir yielded five hits, two walks and five runs. He hit two batters, gave up a home run and two steals. Of his 63 pitches, 35 were strikes.
It got worse. He was handed his release on June 15, after going 0-5 with a 17.02 ERA at Triple-A Salt Lake, walking 20 in 15 1/3 innings. Kazmir looked done at 27. Nobody expected to see him on a big league mound again.
"I had to learn how to fix myself," Kazmir said, getting to the moral of the remarkable story.
So, here he is with the reigning American League West champions, armed with a two-year, $22 million contract. He's a pitcher born again at 30 after a 2013 season in Cleveland that included a 10-9 record, 4.04 ERA and 162 strikeouts against only 47 walks in 158 innings.
Manager Terry Francona and his Indians teammates certainly played roles in Kazmir's comeback, but the real answers are found in the athlete's resolve, his no-surrender attitude.
"Tito put on that vibe in Cleveland," Kazmir said. "I loved playing for him. I thought the whole team was awesome. Almost from game one everyone came together. Looking back, everyone had a blast."
A free agent, Kazmir weighed the offers and decided the East Bay and an exciting young club on the rise fit his needs to a T. All the numbers checked out for A's general manager Billy Beane, who signed off on another former Angels pitcher, essentially replacing 40-year-old ace Bartolo Colon (28-15 in two years) with a man 10 years younger.
"I hope you're right -- I'm paying the guy $22 million," Beane said when a longtime Kazmir watcher predicted he'd get a nice return on his investment.
Kazmir's resurrection is of the storybook variety, rivaling any in the game.
Signed to a $2.15 million bonus as the Mets' first-round pick (15th overall) out of Houston's Cypress Falls High School in 2002, he was dealt to Tampa Bay two years later for pitcher Victor Zambrano. Kazmir soared in Florida with his 95- to 98-mph heater and a killer slider.
An American League strikeout champion at 23, he was the winning pitcher in the final All-Star Game at old Yankee Stadium in 2008. Not a big man by pitching standards, carrying 185 pounds on a 6-foot frame, Kazmir was showing some signs of wear when the Rays sent him to the Angels at midseason 2009.
Effective in the beginning, going 2-2 with a 1.73 ERA in six outings, he made two postseason starts for the Angels. It began to unravel in 2010 when he was 9-15 with a 5.94 ERA. Then came the crash.
"I don't want to go there," Kazmir said when asked what he takes from his Angels experience.
What appeared to be the end of the road actually was the start of a new journey -- one of self-discovery.
"It was nothing physical," he said, dismissing the notion of a dead arm. "My arm felt great."
So how does a guy go from throwing 98 mph to 84? A two-pitch pitcher whose heater is no faster than his slider isn't going to survive.
"I was in great shape," he said, "but it wasn't the shape I needed to be in. It was me. I had to figure it out."
He looked at video and threw in his backyard. He attended Ron Wolforths's Texas Baseball Ranch in Montgomery, Texas. He did drills, "hoping something would click." He spent 2012 with mixed results for Sugar Land of the Independent Atlantic League.
What Kazmir finally discovered was that "everything had to do with flexibility. Doing one repetitive motion over and over, I lost my flexibility. It's something so small you can't see it on video. It's lower body, lower back, arm flexibility, hip flexibility -- everything I use to pitch. I wasn't able to raise my [right] leg nearly as high [in his delivery].
"Everything I do in life is left-handed. Once I identified the problem and learned how to balance myself out, everything began to come back."
He started practicing yoga, a discipline the A's introduce to players during Spring Training. Unlocking the keys, Kazmir figures he's embarking on a second career, in effect.
"I was throwing 94, 95 again last year," he said. "My slider came back in the second half. I developed a change almost by accident; I was deadening the ball without even realizing it. It became my best pitch. I developed a curveball, a cutter.
"These things are so easy to do now, with balance and flexibility. They aren't perfect pitches, but they can get better."
He paused, in thought. A five-pitch repertoire clearly beats two pitches.
"I think I'm for sure better than I used to be," Kazmir said. "Now it's a matter of how consistent I can be."
He had banked about $38 million when he left the Angels.
"It definitely wasn't about that," he said. "I could have easily folded, stayed home. It was about competing; that was the motivation. I couldn't even turn on the TV and watch a game. I missed it."
Scott Kazmir is back. Resurrected.
Lyle Spencer is a columnist for MLB.com, This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.