One postseason award this year is already and done and over. You might as well engrave the trophy and mail it to the guy today, June 24, a good three months before the season is over. Scott Kazmir is the American League Comeback Player of the Year (henceforth, “CBPY”).
Yes, one can make an argument for Cy Young, and while it’s entirely possible let’s not get too ahead of ourselves just yet. But CBPY is his. In fact, the guy should get more than just an award, he should get a movie deal. I totally see Topher Grace playing him on the big screen. Just think of the story.
He comes up as a heralded, young phenom and then gets dealt in one of the worst trades of all time. Here in NYC they still talk about the day Kaz got dealt for Victor Zambrano — the wrong Zambrano — as everyone originally thought it was, and wanted, Carlos Zambrano. He goes on to have four really successfully years with the Devil Rays, as they were known back then, posting a 45-34 record with a 3.51 ERA and 9.68 K/9 IP. After that he started to fade, got dealt to the Angels where he completely imploded, and left baseball altogether early in 2011. In 2012 he staged a comeback with the Sugar Land Skeeters in Independent baseball and signed a deal with the Indians last year. This year he’s absolutely tearing it up. He leads the American league in ERA and WHIP with stellar 2.08 and 0.95 marks, respectively. That goes along with his 9-2 record. Things like this don’t normally happen in baseball.
So how is he doing it? The key to Kaz’s success this year is what he is able to do against right-handed batters. Take a look at his BA against over his career:
Forgetting 2011 (he threw under 2 IP that year), you can see a steady rise in his BAA against RHB until this year where it cliff-dived to a microscopic .181 this year. How has Kazmir, an ex-Independent League player, dominated righties so thoroughly? He has learned to perfect his change-up to righties to the point where it’s basically untouchable. It’s turned into his out pitch. Take a look at the difference from last year to this year in his usage frequency (table below).
Kazmir is throwing his change-up more in all counts but especially when he gets ahead in the count or with two strikes. Of the 65 AB where he had two strikes on a RHB, he has 38 K. That’s an unreal 58% K rate.
But wait, there’s more. If you are lucky enough as a RHB not to whiff on his change-up in a two-strike count, chances are you’re not doing much with the pitch. Kaz has given up just five singles and one double in those situations for a .091 BAA. Basically, if he has two strikes on the hitter he might as well just drop the bat, grab his glove, and get ready to play the field because the at-bat is over.
I would not be telling the full story if I only mentioned the great results and left out the good luck Kazmir has enjoyed. First, there’s his 81.8% strand rate, 10 points higher than league average, and his .247 BABIP, also well below league average. While these numbers will normalize, they undoubtedly are better than the norm because Kazmir is pitching better than the norm. As long as he continues to fool righties with his change-up, which by the way has a 13 mph difference from his four-seam fastball, Kazmir will continue to succeed.