It’s only 23 miles from Sugar Land, Texas, to Houston, but when Scott Kazmir takes the mound this evening at Minute Maid Park in his hometown, in front of friends and family, it will be quite the milestone in a long, tough journey back to the big leagues.
Tonight will be Kazmir’s first start in more than two years. His last appearance, allowing five runs in one and two-third innings, on April 3, 2011, with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim was one of the several low points in the decline of a two-time All-Star. Now, he’s hoping the journey finally has found smoother roads.
“It’s very exciting,” Kazmir said. “I’m proud of myself to be able to come this far over the last couple years. It’s been great.”
Kazmir, was a first round pick of the New York Mets in 2002 in the First Year Player Draft, taken just one pick in front of now teammate Nick Swisher. The Mets traded him in 2004 to the Tampa Bay Rays as part of a trade deadline deal, and he made his Major League debut less than a month later. In 2005, his first full season, the left-handed pitcher won 10 games in 32 starts. He was an American League All-Star in 2006 and 2008 with the Rays and led the American League in strikeouts in 2007. He was only 24 years old when he made his second appearance in the mid-summer classic.
In 2009, he was traded on Aug. 29 to Los Angeles Angels to aid in a playoff push. He did his part, going 2-2, with a 1.73 ERA in six starts, helping the Angels win the American League West and advance to the playoffs.
However, in 2010, Kazmir had his worst year as a big leaguer, going 9-15 with a 5.94 ERA in 28 starts. He didn’t appear to be himself and he didn’t feel like himself. At some point during the season, he suffered a groin injury, but tried to pitch through it.
“It was my drive side, so it took the ability to use my legs in my delivery,” Kazmir said. “Everything just snowballed after that. You try to fix something and maybe it wasn’t the problem, then everything started going.”
Compensating for the injury caused Kazmir to lose consistency in his mechanics. One adjustment, led to another and then another. Kazmir’s constant adjustments caused his mechanics to become a mess. At some point, he no longer knew what was working and what was not.
Feeling healthy, Kazmir reported to Angels spring training in 2011 hoping the nightmare season was behind him, but it did not take long for him to realize that things were not right. In the spring, his velocity was down and he was still ineffective.
“The beginning of 2011 spring training,” Kazmir said. “I knew something wasn’t right. Something was way off. Then, when you get to the season and you start throwing 83-84 behind right-handed hitters, it’s frustrating. At that point, you’re trying to compensate just to be able to compete. It’s tough.”
Kazmir opened the season with the Angels, pitching that one final game on April 3. After not getting out of the second inning against the Kansas City Royals, the organization placed him on the disabled list. With his velocity approximately 10 mph slower than during his time in Tampa Bay, he sought to strengthen himself.
But after gaining strength and setting out on a rehabilitation assignment at Triple-A Salt Lake, a disaster ensued. After five starts, he was 0-5 with a 17.02 ERA in 15.1 innings with 20 walks. The Angels released Kazmir on June 15. The two-time All-Star was only 27 years old and he couldn’t find his velocity or control.
“Once I got released, I had time to take a step back and go back to the basics,” Kazmir said.
Despite having offers from other teams, Kazmir decided to go home to his Houston residence and work on his mechanics on his own. He started over by himself, with little help from anyone else. The opportunity to go home and clean the slate was something Kazmir felt was imperative if he was going to rebuild his career.
“When everything started going downhill for me, it felt like information overload from a lot of guys really trying to help,” Kazmir said. “It was just a matter of the translation of what I was feeling just wasn’t right. I knew if I wanted to get out of this, I had to figure it out myself.”
“I knew it was something that wasn’t going to be overnight,” Kazmir said. “I just felt like being in my own surroundings and taking it a bit slower would help, and it really did.”
He worked with Ron Wolforth at the Texas Baseball Ranch — who works closely with Trevor Bauer — to build strength and conduct drills. Wolforth is known to help improve velocity through exercise. But Kazmir did the mechanical work at home, by himself. Kazmir studied video of himself in Tampa Bay, when he was at his best, and worked in the backyard to try and imitate the mechanics and find the same feel he had before.
“Ultimately, I had to get the feel of what came so easily for me before,” Kazmir said. “It was a lot of video, a lot of drills and a lot of work in the backyard just working on mechanics.”
After a year of studying and work, Kazmir was ready to return to some kind of competition. On July 7, 2012, he signed with the Sugar Land Skeeters, an independent team in the Atlantic League. It was close to home and gave Kazmir the opportunity to continue to work on his mechanics from the comfort of his home. With former major leaguer Gary Gaetti managing the team, Kazmir was assured he would be able to pitch without the pressure of results. He worked to find that feel that left him in 2010. In his 14 starts, Kazmir was 3-6, with a 5.34 ERA against professionals not good enough to be signed by an affiliated team.
But while the statistics did not look good, Kazmir was beginning to find himself and the free and easy mechanics he once had. Eventually those small glimpses began to grow.
“It started toward the middle of independent ball,” Kazmir said. “There would start to be flashes of my old self. I knew there would be bumps along the road, that’s why I went to independent ball. I knew I would be able to go out every five days because no matter what happens I could still get my work in. It went from just a couple flashes, to some more consistency. Then going into winter ball, it got a little better and heading to the offseason, I really took off.”
Kazmir found his velocity and location while pitching in the Puerto Rican Winter League in December 2012 with the Gigantes de Carolina. His manager, Edwin Rodriguez, was impressed. Rodriguez, the former Florida Marlins manager, recognized Major League ability. Now, the Indians’ manager at Double-A Akron, Rodriguez contacted the Indians and encouraged them to watch Kazmir.
“He was changing speeds and locating, that was the big thing,” Rodriguez said. “He was throwing strikes with all of his pitches, he was holding runners, he looked like a veteran. He looked like a Major League pitcher.”
Kazmir was 0-2, with a 4.37 ERA in five starts this winter, pitching 22.2 innings, while walking only eight and striking out 27. He found his control and also his velocity. He was again throwing 94 to 95 mph when he left Puerto Rico. But even with the rebirth of his velocity, he has been forced to utilize his secondary pitches more.
“He’s a pitcher now, before he was a thrower,” Rodriguez said. “He could get guys out with his fastball and blow guys away but now he has to pitch.”
The Indians scouted and eventually signed Kazmir to a minor league contract, with an invitation to spring training, on Dec. 21. Once Rodriguez made the call to the Indians, things progressed quickly. Indians pitching coach Mickey Callaway and manager Terry Francona spoke with Kazmir directly about the possibility looming for him this spring.
“It seemed like the rest was history,” Kazmir said. “Tito reached out to me while I was down there and told me the situation. It seemed like a no-brainer once all that unfolded.”
The situation was a rotation in shambles at the end of the 2012 season in need of new blood. The Indians would have an open competition for the fifth starter’s spot in spring training, with Kazmir having a chance to compete for a big league roster spot.
Now, still only 29 years old, Kazmir won the fifth starter’s spot with the Indians in spring training. The openness and ability to easily communicate with Callaway and Francona this spring about how he was feeling made his comeback easier. Just like that time in the backyard, looking for his mechanics, Kazmir still feels he knows his body better than anyone and the Indians have respected that.
“It’s a lot of trust going forward and knowing how your body feels, especially me being a veteran and knowing what it takes to get to where I need to be,” Kazmir said. “They trust that, and it makes it even better.”
This season has presented bumps in the journey back to the big league mound. Kazmir originally was slated to start April 6 against his former team, Tampa Bay, but a strained rib cage muscle during a work out on April 1 landed him on the disabled list. He made a rehab appearance on Monday at Triple-A Columbus, pitching five innings, allowing five hits and one earned run before being cleared for today’s start.
Kazmir takes the mound tonight as a milestone accomplishment in his road back. The Indians need Kazmir to emerge as the former All-Star and help stabilize their rotation that still shows signs of inconsistencies from a season ago. However, Kazmir doesn’t feel he’s found the same dominance he had from 2006-08. Tonight is hopefully a milestone in the journey, but not the final destination.
“It’s going to be an on-going process,” Kazmir said. “It’s been a while since I’ve been in a Major League game. With all that I’ve done in the last year or so that has been preparing me, I’m still going to need reps and games in there of getting more and more comfortable. I think it is only going to get better.”
Kazmir and the Indians hope to enjoy the ride.
Photo: Chuck Crow/Cleveland Plain Dealer