Kazmir looks for redemption with Indians
Once considered a promising young arm, the lefty is now vying for a roster spot
GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- Scott Kazmir is tired of the past tense. Conversations always center around who the left-handed pitcher used to be: one of the most promising young arms in the American League.
On one of his first days in camp this spring with the Indians, Kazmir was summoned to Terry Francona's office for a chat. Seconds into this introductory meeting, there it was again -- Kazmir's past -- perfectly summed up in three words.
"I hated you," Francona told the pitcher.
Kazmir smiles when recalling the exchange, just as he probably smiled standing before Francona. The manager's comment was a sign of respect. At one point in time, several years ago, Kazmir was the kind of pitcher that ate hitters up and tested managers.
Kazmir's fall from baseball's spotlight was rapid and unrelenting. It began with minor injury issues, snowballed into messy mechanics and lost velocity, and ended with him out of baseball at an age most players hit their prime. Cleveland is giving Kazmir a chance to bring his story back into the present tense.
Francona made that clear with what he told the pitcher next.
"He said, 'I'm happy you're on our side,'" according to Kazmir.
This spring, the Indians have thrown Kazmir into the mix for the fifth rotation spot. There are five other candidates -- Trevor Bauer, Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, David Huff and Daisuke Matsuzaka -- and no clear favorite.
Then there is Kazmir, who at 23 years old led the AL in strikeouts and at 27 was without a job.
So far, Kazmir has posted four shutout innings in two Cactus League appearances. He has scattered two hits with no walks and four strikeouts, with a 90-92-mph fastball, all of which is encouraging.
"I think, right now, with the stuff he has, he can pitch and win," Francona said.
It has been nearly two years since Kazmir pitched in a Major League game. That last outing, on April 3, 2011, for the Angels, was a 63-pitch meltdown. The lefty took the hill against the Royals and allowed five runs on five hits in 1 2/3 innings. Kazmir walked two batters, hit two others and was sent to the Minors.
Kazmir was released that June after going 0-5 with a 17.02 ERA in 15 1/3 innings for Triple-A Salt Lake City.
It was as if he hit rock bottom, and then the ground gave way again.
"Mentally, I was completely drained," Kazmir said. "When you kind of get booted from the game, where you're out of the game, the game that you love, the game you've played your entire life, you've got a lot of time to think and a lot of time to mature. It was a tough situation for me.
"I couldn't even turn on the television and watch any baseball games.... I just had like a sickening feeling in my stomach. All in all, it's made me a stronger person."
Kazmir has trouble explaining precisely what happened.
It began when he pulled his triceps in 2008 Spring Training with the Rays, and then worsened with a groin injury. Kazmir tried to pitch through it, and ended up negatively altering his mechanics while compensating for the discomfort. That initiated a chain reaction that threw Kazmir's pitching style out of whack, and he struggled to regain his former feel.
"I knew my delivery was just out of control," Kazmir said. "I was a pitcher that I didn't even know kind of who I was out there, because of everything that I tried to change throughout the years. When you're a competitor like me, you just try to compensate or do whatever you can do to be able to compete out there.
"And then when you don't have it, it's very frustrating."
When Kazmir had it, he was one of the game's best.
Between the 2005-08 seasons with Tampa Bay, Kazmir went 45-34 with a 3.51 ERA and 742 strikeouts in 689 2/3 innings. Over that four-year time period, he led the American League in strikeouts and was first in the Majors with a rate of 9.68 strikeouts per nine innings.
Francona managed the Red Sox when Kazmir was on top of his game.
"He tore us apart," Francona said. "It was one of those days where you'd tell [David] Ortiz, 'You've got a day off,' and he didn't complain. We didn't have anybody that had any good numbers against him."
Things began to unravel for Kazmir in '08 and the Rays dealt him to the Angels in August of '09 when the pitcher's ERA climbed to 5.92. In 2010, Kazmir went 9-15 with a 5.94 ERA in 28 starts for Los Angeles and, by '11, the lefty's fastball was down to about 86.5 mph.
Along the way, Kazmir sought help and advice from anyone willing to listen.
"I knew something was wrong, but I didn't know what it was," Kazmir said. "Any person I've got, I brought them over to the video room and I was like, 'Check this out. Tell me something I'm doing wrong.' It didn't happen.
"Once I got released, I was like, the only way I'm going to be able to find this out is if I get it done [myself]."
Last summer, Kazmir suited up for the independent Sugar Land Skeeters in the Atlantic League, posting a 5.34 ERA in 64 innings while focusing more on his mechanics than his results. Over the winter, he headed to Puerto Rico, where he pitched for Gigantes de Carolina and put up a 4.37 ERA with 27 strikeouts in 22 2/3 innings. Kazmir's fastball was also topping out at 93-94 mph.
Carolina manager Edwin Rodriguez, who is also a Double-A manager in Cleveland's system, put Kazmir in touch with the Indians. Francona gave the pitcher a call to gauge his interest in coming into camp on a Minor League contract.
"Getting a call from Tito, that doesn't hurt," Kazmir said. "That goes a long way."
So does the chance to shift his story into the present tense.
"I've definitely found a comfort zone with myself," Kazmir said, "and that's where it all starts."