NEW YORK -- Virtually every pitcher in major league history loses velocity on his fastball as he ages. This is about as constant as driving a new car off the lot and seeing it lose value.
The aging process, the impact of repeating a delivery hundreds and then thousands of times, all takes a toll on the human body. The secret to succeeding, then, is figuring out how to do more with less. It is rare to restore a pitcher -- to get him to once again throw the kind of lightning bolts he regularly challenged opposing hitters with, the kind Scott Kazmir threw en route to becoming a top pitching prospect with the New York Mets, and to fulfilling that promise after an ill-advised trade to the Rays with a pair of All Star appearances and a trip to the World Series for Tampa Bay.
So when the fastball disappeared, first with the Angels after Tampa Bay dealt Kazmir in 2009, then failed to reappear during an extended series of struggles that landed Kazmir in independent baseball in 2012, it wasn't just that teams were skeptical Kazmir could ever return to the kind of success he had with the Rays at least five years ago. It was hard to imagine Kazmir, throwing in the mid-80s, ever appearing on a major league mound again.
So take a moment to appreciate what Kazmir has done so far in 2013 for the Cleveland Indians. Through eight starts, he's striking out better than a batter per inning. His walk rate of 3.3 per nine is the lowest he's managed since 2006. And accordingly, though his raw E.R.A. is 5.13, his x.F.I.P. Is 3.96, better than his 2008 mark of 4.07, when he was an all star and member of a World Series rotation.
Sure, Kazmir has a more refined and nuanced approach to pitching than he did five years ago. But he's also managed to reverse the ravages of time on his fastball: he's averaging 92.5 miles per hour with his four-seam fastball, essentially identical to the 92.7 from 2008, and he's throwing his two-seamer, at 92.3 miles per hour, is the fastest it's been since 2007.
So when Scott Kazmir says he thinks he can be even better now, at age 29, than he was before he suffered a dramatic fall that ends most pitching careers, it isn't crazy. With the tools still at his disposal, and superior knowledge, it actually makes sense.
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Take the way Kazmir got out of trouble in the third inning of his most recent start, May 30 against the Cincinnati Reds. In a scoreless game, with the bases loaded and one out, Joey Votto stepped to the plate. Kazmir had thrown a pair of his four-seam fastballs, one 94, one 93 to retire Votto in the first. But the idea behind this wasn't for Kazmir to rely on power alone to win the game, as it had been in the past.
"In '08, it was more like, grip it and rip it," a smiling Kazmir said in front of his locker at Yankee Stadium, prior to Monday's Yankees-Indians game. "I wasn't really thinking too much about location. I knew that I wouldn't be able to get there consistently, so all I really relied on was stuff."
Fast forward five years, and Kazmir deployed his four-seamer, rather than his lone weapon, as a setup pitch for a more critical time against Votto. Moreover, Kazmir was thinking about strategy, not only within an at-bat, but within the game, and hit spots to turn that strategy into success.
"I think I kind of set him up with the four seamer the at-bat before," Kazmir recalled. "Being able to throw a four-seamer in, then a four-seamer away. So then, first pitch [of the second at-bat], I ended up throwing him a two-seamer in, which looks just like a four-seamer, then tails into him a little bit more. And I was able to get it in on him."
Votto hit into an inning-ending double play. Threat over. And Kazmir went on to pitch seven innings, allowed a single run on five hits, and earned the victory.
"I like to start games by throwing my fastball," Kazmir reflected. "And then adding pitches, each at-bat."
Kazmir can't help but reflect on what kind of career he might have had if he'd pitched like this back when he was regularly hitting 97, 98 miles per hour with his fastball as a phenom.
"It would have been a whole different story," Kazmir said. "It's just something where, these past couple years, I was able to grow up and actually mature as a pitcher. It's two years where I had time to really polish my delivery a little bit, and be more consistent. And with that, I got so much better location. And you realize, once you have that, that's really all you need. You don't need that extra fastball, or that extra effort, to try and get that extra few miles per hour on the fastball. It's gonna be a bad location, it's gonna get hit."
That's not to say that Kazmir ever thought he could succeed with the mid-80s fastball he was throwing in 2011 and 2012. Somehow, Kazmir knew a plus major league offering remained in his arsenal, even though he didn't know how to find it.
"I knew something was wrong," Kazmir said of his compromised velocity. "I wasn't using any of my lower half. And that's why everything was so erratic, why I was throwing balls behind right-handed batters, just because everything turned side-to-side, I couldn't get behind the ball. There was so much strength that wasn't being used at that point in time."
Kazmir ultimately experienced his eureka moment not with a major league pitching coach, or even with the Sugarland Skeeters, but pitching by himself in a bullpen session behind his house in Cypress, Texas last summer. But it came simply through trial and error.
"It was not like I had a person that I would go to, or some video to say, 'Okay, this is what I need to get back to'," Kazmir said, since he'd never had a unifying strategy. "It was all knowing that I was capable of doing what I'd done in the past years, but at the same time, knowing that I'd have to start very slow, from square one, put the pieces together, and know it's not going to happen overnight."
Repeating that new delivery started to come more easily to Kazmir over the second half of 2012, and by this winter, he knew he was ready to try with a big league club again. The Indians gave him that opportunity, and Kazmir won a spot in their rotation out of spring training. His manager, Terry Francona, who faced the phenom Kazmir for years when managing the Boston Red Sox, has been impressed by Kazmir's new approach.
"When he was younger, he'd just kind of let it rip, grip it and rip it," Francona said in the tunnel from the Indians' dugout to their clubhouse on Monday, using the identical phrase as Kazmir. "He's throwing consistently in the mid-90s. He was the kind of guy where you'd give [David] Ortiz the day off, and he wouldn't complain.
"Now, we saw it first day of spring training, it was coming out of his hand nice and easy. His delivery was under control. And he's held it. In fact, not only held it, the more he's pitched on a consistent basis, he's actually gotten stronger. And it's been fun to watch."
The challenges for Kazmir now are different ones. Ideally, he'd like to be throwing his slider around 82-84 miles per hour, and his changeup at 76-78, to give hitters three separate speeds. So far, the slider and changeup have been coming in at right around 81-82 miles per hour each. So Kazmir, still tinkering, has decided to add a curveball for the first time in his career, which has been checking in at 76 miles per hour.
"I want to give them a different look," Kazmir said of his new pitch. "Something that's not necessarily tailing inside to righties. Just to give them a different look. You've always got to be working on some new pitch. And I feel like, if I could really get that down to where I can be consistent with it, especially early in the count, it will help me out a lot."
But the luxury of adding pitches to his repertoire while still relying on his vintage four-seamer is something Kazmir knows is a relatively rare occurrence for a pitcher as he attempts to stay ahead of hitters while he ages.
"It's really odd, to be able to go through what I went through the past couple years, throwing 84, 83, trying to get hitters out," Kazmir said. "Then, all of the sudden, you figure some stuff out, and you're throwing 94, 95, with two or three secondary pitches. I mean, you feel very confident out there. I feel fortunate to get this opportunity. And I'm gonna make the best of it."