A reader recently asked me to review the prospect background and career of Oakland Athletics lefty Scott Kazmir, who was given up for dead a few years ago but has rebuilt his game and is one of the top pitchers in the American League this year. So let's do that.
Scott Kazmir was drafted by the New York Mets in the first round of the 2002 draft, out of high school in Houston. He was considered one of the top five talents in the draft, but lasted until the 15th pick due to concerns about his bonus demands and a University of Texas commitment.
Despite those concerns, the Mets signed him fairly quickly, and sent him to the New York-Penn League, where he dominated: 34/7 K/BB in his first 18 pro innings. He drew immediate comparisons to Billy Wagner due to his mid-90s fastball, big breaking ball, reasonable control, and smallish frame. I gave him a Grade B+ in the 2003 book, impressed by his quick success in pro ball against older competition.
2003 saw Kazmir assigned to Capital City in the Sally League. He went 4-4 but with a 2.34 ERA and a 105/28 K/BB in 76 innings, leading to a promotion to St. Lucie, where he went 1-2, 3.27 with a 40/16 K/BB in 33 innings. There were many good points: a very high strikeout rate, a consistent mid-90s fastball, an improving slider, curveball, and changeup. He had good control for a young power pitcher and gave up just six home runs allowed in 109 innings pitched total. Nitpicking scouts complained that Kazmir didn't field his position well or hold runners effectively and that he would also overthrow at times, but these were regarded as flaws correctable through experience. I gave him a Grade A- and rated him as the top lefty prospect in the game. So did a lot of other people.
The Mets sent Kazmir back to St. Lucie to work on those issues in 2004. He pitched well enough to earn a promotion to Double-A after 11 starts. He was lights-out for Binghamton (1.73 ERA in four starts). . .then the hopes of Mets fans were dashed when Kazmir was shipped to Tampa Bay for veteran Victor Zambrano.
When the Mets traded Kazmir, there were all kinds of strange rumors floated from anonymous New York sources that there was something wrong with his arm, or that Kazmir was too short for success, or that he was too stubborn and had questionable makeup. The "too short" complaint was silly given his arm strength and athleticism. He did wear down physically eventually, though that took several years.
The "stubborn makeup" thing cuts both ways: Kazmir admits that there were "things going on" in his life that had nothing to do with baseball, but he also refused to give up when it looked like his career was over, working his way back through indy ball, which takes effort and commitment. The anonymous complaints about Kazmir following the trade looked to me, at the time, like spin to justify a deal that generated a lot of backlash.
After the trade, four starts for Double-A Montgomery went well, earning Kazmir a trip to the majors. He scuffled at times for the D-Rays, but still fanned 41 in his first 33 major league innings. I gave him another A- in the `05 book.
You know the story from there: Kazmir was brilliant at times in 2005, posting a 3.77 ERA (3.76 FIP) in 32 starts with a 177/100 K/BB in 186 innings,leading to a 3.8 WAR. He remained very effective in '06 and '07 (with 5.1 and 3.7 WAR), led the AL in strikeouts in '07, but began to have physical problems in '08 which cut into his effectiveness and durability. He looked finished after a terrible year with the Angels in 2011 and was reduced to pitching independent baseball in 2012. He rebuilt his career and was Comeback Player of the Year with the Indians in '13, earning his current contract with Oakland.
His current 2.66 ERA with Oakland is somewhat misleading: his FIP of 3.34 is higher, but also very similar to his 3.51 FIP last year with Cleveland. His strikeout rate is down this year, but his walk rate is down, too. We'll probably see the ERA gradually rise to match the components as the season progresses, but I think he'll remain a valuable pitcher for awhile, as long as you don't expect him to throw 200 innings.
Back in 2006, I generated a Comp list for Kazmir, using a modified version of Sim Score, which produced the following names:
Comparable Pitchers to Scott Kazmir entering 2006:
Vinegar Bend Mizell
Talk about a mixture: there was a Hall of Fame talent (Koufax, 57.9 WAR), several good pitchers who had fine careers (Mizell, 21.8; Barber 20.6; Pizzaro, 17.3, Underwood 17.2), and some guys who fell apart due to control problems, injuries, or personal demons (Falcone, Garvin, Ankiel).
Of that 2006 comp list, Kazmir's current career WAR of 20.5 puts him right there with Barber and Mizell if his career ended today. Given that Kazmir looks like he has a good season or two left in him, he could wind up as the best guy on this early career comp list not named Koufax.