How Scott Kazmir got his groove back

Everyone knows who Scott Kazmir is – or rather, was. The high school flamethrower who threw four straight no-hitters, a cameo in one of the funnier baseball trade jokes (Scott Kazmir for Victor Zambrano), the tough luck guy stranded in Tampa Bay, and the guy who just lost it all.

Plenty of baseball writers have picked up the story of Kazmir in 2013: the guy who came back from it all, the guy who found his fastball again. The guy who threw 95-96-95 mph heaters straight past Luke Montz to cap off a 10-strikeout performance on May 9.

But scant few have actually picked up on the “how.” This is interesting—for a field of study that is so obsessed on creating value in the thinnest areas, how has so little attention been paid to how Scott Kazmir did it?

In December of 2012, I gave a talk at Ron Wolforth’s Bootcamp about the power of collecting and presenting data on pitching mechanics, training pitchers, and other equally thrilling subjects. While giving my presentation in front of representatives of 18+ major league teams and countless college and high school coaches, I was able to talk to Ron about Kazmir—after all, he had been working with him all offseason in addition to the guys at Dynamic Sports Training.

Ron told me what he was doing with Kazmir and impressed upon me how hard a worker he was—and not only a hard worker, but one who thought critically about things. Ron joked that nothing was his idea—it always had to be Scott’s idea. Scott had to fully internalize the idea and own it before he would implement it. This applied to anything from pitching mechanics tweaks to training philosophies.

After then, speaking to scouts in the room about his performance in indy ball as well a winter league, I was very impressed. After he signed with the Cleveland Indians later in December, I was very happy. In February, I had this Twitter conversation with Adam Burke of The Cleveland Fan:

In the follow-up to that Twitter conversation, I said that baseball didn’t believe that such a thing could be done:

Kazmir Tweets

As I said above, no one in baseball thinks velocity development can happen in the professional ranks. In 2012, I wrote an article titled “Making the Sabermetric Case for Increasing Fastball Velocity.” (This article was actually about Kazmir. I loosely used him as a baseline for my comparison.) I had a few conversations with front office staffs as a result of it, and here are some snippets out of the emails I received back:

“You can’t change [a pitcher's] arm action.”
“if his (ed note: referring to Ron Wolforth) or your methods worked, you’d be working in OB already”
“That sounds interesting but how would you even begin to roll it out in an organization? Trainers don’t think that way.”

In 2008, Paul Nyman outlined this problem on this very website:

Recently I was asked by an MLB team’s baseball operations person to look at one of its pitchers, a player who last year was consistently 92-94 mph and who this year is throwing in the 86-88 mph range. My first question: Do you have good video of this player? The answer was no; they had had what commercial television footage was available. I then lectured this person on the necessity to create and maintain a player video library where camera angles are carefully chosen and the videos maintained to be used in situations like this.

The pitcher (and organization) in question have been revealed by Paul, though that information no longer is accessible on his website, so I will keep it quiet for now. (Astute readers can probably figure it out by looking around.)

Importantly, the fact that this organization did not keep a video archive on its players from various angles—especially ones who are losing velocity— shows how little they believed such a thing mattered. I wish I could say things have changed in five years, but not much has. Organizations still don’t really believe in player development from an actual player development standpoint.

Enough talk, more GIFs

Before I show you the differences from 2011 to 2013, I want to show you what Kazmir looked like when he was dominating high school hitters with a fastball that reportedly reached the 97-98 mph range.

The Kazmir of Old

Such rotational violence had Kazmir finishing with his body completely turned to the hitter—the after-effects of trying to throw the ball as hard as possible, with maximum intent.

Here’s what he looked like in 2011 compared to 2013, synchronized to release point:

Kazmir 2011 vs. 2013 Pitching Mechanics

Obviously the differences from high school to professional baseball are huge. However, 2011 vs. 2013—and thus 85 vs. 96 mph—is not that readily apparent. But a few things stick out, even with the parallax error introduced by the horrible Kansas City Royals center field camera circa 2011.

Pushing the baseball

Simply put: Kazmir was pushing the baseball. This sequence illustrates the problem perfectly:

image

For comparison, here’s a right-handed pitcher who has a strikingly similar arm action to that of the high school Kazmir. He works out in my velocity training program, and he has thrown a baseball 97 mph (and a two-ounce ball 107 mph, which is always fun):

image

What do you see?

Kazmir of 2011 has fully rotated hips and an early-rotated torso. His shoulders don’t start closed, and his arm gets into the high-cocked position very early. He is afraid to throw the ball as hard as he can, because he was struggling with command and control. That’s when pitching coaches tell you to slow everything down—to just “throw strikes.” Slowing down leads to less rotational momentum, which isn’t what you used to do, which means the ball comes out 5 mph slower and with LESS command, since you aren’t kinesthetically tuned to pushing a ball, and the spiral continues downwards.

The athlete in my video has a similar load/unload action— very violent. His torso stacks late, his hips rotate early, and he has extremely closed shoulders that turn fast. The advice he gets when he misses his target is no different than what Kazmir got when he was struggling: Just slow down, just take it easy.

“Throw 85-87 mph and throw strikes!”

The truth is that even if it worked, it wouldn’t have been useful. Kazmir wasn’t Jason Neighborball. Kazmir was a 5 WAR pitcher with his “wild” and “violent” delivery. To take him and try to turn him into Barry Zito (on his best day) shouldn’t make sense in the slightest, yet this is the advice guys get when they struggle.

Both the athlete in the video and the new Scott Kazmir have a big glove pull, yet another “red flag” that has little to no basis in research. The truth is that the glove pull/yank is an after-effect of elite torso rotational movements (it explains a huge percentage of the variance around fastball velocity when compared to other kinematic factors) and you see it in guys who throw very hard who don’t have freakishly huge levers.

Now, I’m not saying that I’m in love with Kazmir’s mechanics, because I do think there are things that could be improved. However, if the choice is “slow down and throw strikes” vs. what he’s doing now, the latter is far, far better.

And Kazmir may very well fail, get injured, or be ineffective throughout 2013. But he’s proven people wrong in the one area that scouts and front offices can’t understand: Fastball velocity can be regained and improved.

How baseball failed Scott Kazmir

For the million dollar question that I ask on a regular basis: Why did Kazmir have to go outside professional baseball to figure this out?

Turning a nobody (Scott Kazmir, 2011) into a somebody (Scott Kazmir, 2013) is worth a lot of money to professional teams. So why don’t they believe it can be done?

When it comes to player development, I firmly believe we are in a worse place now than when Bill James was writing Baseball Abstracts in-between his shifts as a security guard. At least back then we had guys like Pete Palmer designing the very ground floor for all metrics we use—the concept of linear weights.

You may think that organizations are rolling stuff out like this in secret and not telling anyone. But aside from one club that uses weighted baseballs for rehab/recovery (and its track record for developing pitchers is ridiculously good, I might add), I know of no other that even looks at this stuff—and I work with pitchers from many major league organizations and know plenty of people inside baseball.

I hope Kazmir (and his teammate Trevor Bauer) will throw some light on the subject.

But I’m not holding my breath.

“No one wants to hear about the labor pains, they just want to see the baby.”
Lou Brock

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Comments

  1. Brad Johnson said...

    It’s rare for non-injured MLB pitchers to add velocity, but every year there are a few. Ryan Madson and Cole Hamels are two that immediately come to mind.

    I’m surprised to hear that MLB teams are skeptical about pitchers adding velocity from mechanical changes. It’s extremely common. At this point, we basically know that increasing degrees of rotation will lead to increasing velocity. This is the same theory that athletes in every other explosive sport leverage.

    I do have some quibbles about the “glove pull.” As a result of an explosive delivery, I see no problem with the glove coming through. Emphasis on “coming through.” In fact the video of the righty above is a great example, he’s not pulling his glove arm, it just happens to come through as part of his violent delivery.

    Where I’ve seen the concept do harm is when a coach advises a mechanically inefficient pitcher to pull the glove. The glove comes through as a result of extreme torque up the kinetic chain, not because the pitcher keys on pulling it. The concept of pulling can sometimes produce immediate results (I assume the body makes adjustments elsewhere in the delivery to allow for that pull action), but over time, keying on “pulling” will almost certainly produce suboptimal outcomes.

    Basically, I’m warning against mistaking correlation with causation. Explosive deliveries may tend to feature glove pulls (or however you want to phrase it), but glove pulls don’t make explosive deliveries.

  2. Paul said...

    This was really well done. Never really thought of this as possible before, the concept of adding velocity. I agree teams should be looking to actually develop their guys, pitchers specifically. I wonder how many guys are there are like Kazmir who lost velocity but never got the shot to come back like he did. If teams knew how to develop velocity it could be great untapped market for small market teams.

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