“See yourself in your opponents. They will bring you to understand the Game. To accept that the Game is about managed fear. That its object is to send from yourself what you hope will not return” -David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest.
David Foster Wallace was writing about tennis, not baseball, but one wonders what the “Game” did to Scott Kazmir. A young, left-handed phenom leading the league in strikeouts at age 23 is suddenly out of the league by 28. Finished. He reaches back and instead of finding mid-90s heat, the ball is coming out too slow to retire big league or even minor league hitters. Instead of entering the prime of his career, he was trying to find himself in independent ball with the Sugar Land Skeeters. The who now?
Kazmir described what went wrong with his career when he told FanGraphs last year, “Basically, I ended up building bad habits. Once you do something over and over, it’s hard to get back where you were. You’re healthy, but you don’t have that feel anymore.”
Russell A. Carleton recently wrote of habits, “Baseball players grow and change like everyone else, because they are human. It’s hard for humans to change a behavior and to sustain that change — how’s that New Year’s Resolution going?”
The simplicity of that statement–It’s hard for humans to change a behavior and to sustain that change–hit me like a ton of bricks. Intuitively, that’s obvious, but there are a lot of bad habits I’ve been trying to change to no avail. I couldn’t figure out why I wasn’t able to just pick up one day and become like a perfect Buddhist or something. It turns out that change isn’t so easy for us humans. Who knew?
Back to Kazmir. He went on to say, “There were things going on in my life. I don’t want to get into it too much, but there was some stuff that became overwhelming…Things started snowballing in my life. There were a lot of questions I had to answer after I got released. What am I going to do? How am I going to go forward in life?”
What exactly did Kazmir put himself through to be able to come back with a vengeance? He posted a 4.04 ERA with solid peripherals and improved velocity last year in Cleveland. After averaging 86.5 mph on the heater in 2011, his velo was back up to an average of 92.5 mph last season. His 3.51 FIP, 3.36 xFIP, 24.1 percent strikeout rate, and 7.0 percent walk rate pointed to a pitcher who was much better than his decent ERA indicated.
A’s general manager Billy Beane rewarded Kazmir’s resurrection with a two-year, $22 million deal this winter. Thus far, Kazmir has continued to deliver. He’s given the A’s five quality starts in six tries with a 2.11 ERA and a 2.43 FIP. His average velocity is down a little from 92.5 last year to 90.8 thus far in 2014, though that could be the result of his decreased usage of the four-seam fastball.
When I saw him throw against Seattle earlier this year, he was often hitting 95 on the radar gun the A’s telecast was using, though that was his best velocity day of the season. Kazmir missed some time during the spring with a triceps strain, which is why I didn’t ultimately draft him in fantasy despite spending the winter writing open letters to Brian Sabean demanding that he sign Kazmir. Sabean never got back to me as per usual, and Tim Hudson has been exceptional, but where would the Giants be with Kazmir instead of Tim Lincecum or Ryan Vogelsong in the rotation? They’d be better right now, and I’d be even happier.
Given that Kazmir hit the market coming off a strong season at just 30 years old and had to settle for a two-year deal this winter, perhaps there’s something in his medicals to be concerned with. The spring triceps strain and early season velocity fluctuations are signs that Kazmir still bears close monitoring despite his dominance thus far.
Kazmir somehow found a way to go forward in life and get his career back on track. It’d be interesting to find out the details on the path he took. How did he put what appeared to be irrevocably broken back together? More importantly, can he sustain it?
No team has won more games over the last two-plus seasons than the A’s, who are 208-144 since the beginning of 2012. If Billy Beane’s stuff is going to start working in the postseason in 2014, having a healthy, dominating Kazmir alongside the sensational Sonny Gray at the top of the Oakland rotation will be a huge key.
The game has a way of eventually exposing you. Baseball will bring to your knees in failure. Not may players have fallen as far and as quickly as Kazmir did, but not many players have bounced back as suddenly to the heights Kazmir is reaching in his career once more. Can he sustain the changed behaviors and performance of the last season-plus?
His peripherals say yes but his bizarre career trajectory makes him an endless mystery. Did the game smooth out his rough edges and remove from him that which he hopes will never return?
Mark Reynolds graduated from Dominican University of California in 2008 with a degree in Political Science. Since graduating, he's been "blogging" about baseball and other topics.