Throughout spring training I’ll be highlighting “things to work on” for certain key players this year.
When I started “things to work on” I never imagined I’d be writing about Scott Kazmir. But after a shocking performance in Arizona over the past few weeks, it appears as though he’s earned himself a job as the 5th starter in the Tribe’s rotation.
Most you know Kazmir’s story well. He’s a two-time former All-Star who started Game 1 of the World Series for the Rays at the age of 24 in 2008. Four years later, he was out of baseball.
The Indians were essentially his last chance.
But Kazmir has miraculously turned it around, and it all hinges on the success of one pitch: his slider.
From 2004 through 2007, Kazmir relied heavily on the slider, throwing it nearly one-fourth of the time. In 2007, 28 percent of his pitches were sliders and it was his go-to pitch in strikeout situations.
But beginning in 2008, Kazmir started to lose control of the slider. That year he threw it just 9.6 percent of the time, and it dropped to his third option behind the fastball and changeup.
In March, 2009, Kazmir told the Tampa Bay Times: “I really wasn’t comfortable throwing it, and it was so frustrating. I would get to a situation, 0-2 and have a chance to sit down a hitter, and I felt like I just didn’t have the pitch.”
In 2009, Kazmir attempted to fight through his issues with the slider, throwing it 21 percent of the time, but the results were ugly. He posted a 5.92 ERA through August, prompting the Rays to trade their 25-year-old former ace to the Angels.
Kazmir threw 929 sliders from 2009 through 2011. The images below show the location frequency of those pitches.
During this span, only 34.8 percent of Kazmir’s sliders were in the strike zone. This may sound like a shockingly low number, and it is well below the league average, but as the images demonstrate, Kazmir wasn’t wild.
The slider is Kazmir’s strikeout pitch. He throws it just off the lower right-hand corner of the plate, hoping to induce swings.
But from 2009 to 2011, batters were no longer fooled by the pitch.
Opposing batters offered at just 29.2 percent of Kazmir’s sliders thrown outside the strike zone. Of pitchers who throw the slider for strikes less than 40 percent of the time, Kazmir’s chase percentage ranks near the bottom of the league.
It’s tough to say exactly what changed about the pitch, but for some reason batters were able to pick up the pitch and lay off it when it strayed outside of the zone.
So has Kazmir found his slider in spring training?
This Pitch F/X data is unavailable in spring training so it’s tough to know for sure, but the end results are encouraging.
Earlier this month Kazmir asked permission to pitch in a minor league game so that he could continue to work on the slider. He later told Paul Hoynes of The Plain Dealer that he’s starting to notice improvements: ”I’m definitely getting a better feel for the slider. I’ve made some adjustments that have really helped me out as far as getting what I wanted out of the break and making it a little later.”
Only time will tell if the slider becomes an asset for Kazmir again, but if it does, the Indians landed themselves the steal of free agency.