Player highlight: Scott Kazmir

I’m sure you all know the story behind Scott Kazmir, so I won’t bother retelling it (although that’s mostly because, as a Mets fan, I’ve had enough heartache lately). The bottom line is that the Devil Rays got one of the top prospects in baseball for a pitcher who can’t even secure himself a 25-man roster spot these days. Kazmir, on the other hand, has shown tremendous promise since the trade and subsequent promotion to the majors, although there are several question marks surrounding him.

Question marks

The first of these question marks is his control. In his debut 2004 season (8 games, 7 starts), his BB/9 was a very high 5.40. He followed with a 32-start 2005 and a 4.84 BB/9. It further improved in 2006 to the tune of a 3.24 BB/9, the first time he posted a mark better than league average. This led many people, myself included, to predict big things for Kazmir in 2007. But with three and a half months in the books, Kazmir’s owners were very disappointed as he posted a 4.41 ERA and 1.58 WHIP.

Many people were claiming Kazmir’s “inefficiency” on the mound was the cause for his sub-par numbers. They said that his high strikeout rates caused him to throw too many pitches in the early innings, leading to early exits. Back on July 5, right before the All-Star break, David Gassko tested out this hypothesis in what he called “The Kazmir Conundrum.”

David found that Kazmir’s strikeout rate has — essentially — no effect on his pitch count. He did, however, conclude that his walk rate would cause that pitch count to increase. This makes perfect logical sense, and since Kazmir’s first half BB/9 was 4.65, we can easily see why some people were getting scared about his “inefficiency.”

Something else that might scare some fantasy players off is Kazmir’s injury potential. There have always been whispers about how injury-prone Kazmir could become due to his high velocity and relatively small frame. Some will point to the injury to his throwing shoulder he suffered at the end of last year as evidence of this. I’m not a medical expert, so my thoughts on the matter would only be speculative.

In the same vein, notice that his workload from 2006 to 2007 increased by 62 innings. Also take note that David Gassko refuted this “Year-After-Effect” last November, so this alone is probably nothing to worry about, especially considering that he threw just 20 more innings this year than he did in 2005.

Numbers

Let’s take a look at Kazmir’s numbers since being called up in 2004. I’ve included all the regular stats in addition to Kazmir’s Pitches per Inning. This seemed appropriate to include given the “inefficiency” discussion. Notice how well it matches up with his varying BB/9 rates.

YEAR AGE LAST FIRST TEAM G GS IP ERA LIPS ERA WHIP DIPS WHIP K/9 BB/9 K/BB xGB% LOB% BABIP HR/FB LD% PIT/IP
2004 20 Kazmir Scott D’Rays 8 7 33.3 5.67 3.78 1.59 1.44 11.07 5.40 2.05 38.64 68.83 0.345 10.26 15.9119.47
2005 21 Kazmir Scott D’Rays 32 32 186.0 3.77 4.18 1.46 1.44 8.37 4.84 1.73 42.13 76.92 0.315 5.97 19.2517.73
2006 22 Kazmir Scott D’Rays 24 24 144.7 3.24 3.66 1.27 1.23 10.14 3.24 3.13 41.45 81.21 0.314 9.93 18.5816.82
2007 23 Kazmir Scott D’Rays 34 34 206.7 3.48 3.58 1.38 1.28 10.41 3.88 2.69 41.11 79.46 0.339 8.07 15.2217.46
07-1H 23 Kazmir Scott D’Rays 19 19 112.3 4.41 4.09 1.58 1.44 9.21 4.65 1.98 42.45 76.74 0.347 9.60 16.0518.39
07-2H 23 Kazmir Scott D’Rays 15 15 94.3 2.39 3.02 1.14 1.08 11.83 2.96 4.00 38.74 83.82 0.327 6.12 14.0416.36

Note: The 2004 and 2005 rows have been updated to include the LIPS ERA numbers now that I have them working. A big thanks goes out to David Gassko for this. — D.C. 10/10/07

2007 season

As you can see, Kazmir has pretty consistently shown elite strikeout rates. As this is the single most important isolated stat for a pitcher, it gives Kazmir a huuuge advantage over every pitcher not named Erik Bedard (and even he has only shown this ability once).

The problem with Kazmir, as noted earlier, is his control. On the surface, it seemed to regress this year back above league average. If we look closer, though, we see that it was a very good 2.96 in the second-half. Maybe something clicked for him. His strikeout rate shot up as well in the second half to an astounding 11.83.

When you put the two together, you get a league-leading 3.02 LIPS ERA, better even than Josh Beckett, Johan Santana, and (!) Aaron Harang (and their 5.00+ K/BBs). Essentially, Kazmir had an amazing second half.

Rays defense

What is surprising, though, is how well he did given the (fill in synonym for absolutely and utterly atrocious here) defense behind him. Let’s look at the defensive numbers of the Devil Rays. Alongside each stat is how the team ranked among the 14 American League teams.

TEAM+/-RKRZRRKOOZRKIF RZRRKIF OOZRKOF RZRRKOF OOZRK
Devil Rays-142140.78714328110.76211169140.850121576

Absolutely terrible. So how did Kazmir manage an ERA better than his LIPS ERA? Check out his LOB%. The Devil Rays team figure this year was 70%, league average was 74%, and Kazmir’s was 79%. He posted an 81% LOB% last year, but I wouldn’t consider this a trend. Expect some regression next year.

Kazmir’s defense did him no favors in the way of WHIP. His WHIP was higher than his DIPS WHIP in both halves of the year. This can be attributed to his poor BABIPs. League average was .306 this year, while the Devil Rays team BABIP was .338. Kazmir fell right in line with his team at .339. His first half numbers show what happens when you combine a poor BABIP with a poor BB/9. His second half numbers show how you can overcome a poor BABIP with good control and lots of strikeouts to post a very solid WHIP (even if it is higher than your DIPS WHIP).

2008 peripherals

What we want to know, however, is how Scott Kazmir will perform in 2008. This is no simple question, but I think we have enough information to come up with good answer.

With a strikeout rate under 10.00 and a walk rate near 5.00, Kazmir still managed a 4.09 LIPS ERA in the first half of this year. I’d have to think that is the basement for Kazmir in 2008, although I really don’t see him doing nearly that poorly.

He’s shown that he can strike batters out as well as (or possibly better than) anyone in the game. Even when he was having an off first half, he was still 9th in K/9 among guys with more than 7 starts. I see a 2008 K/9 over 10.00 as pretty likely.

His expected ground ball rate has been pretty consistent over the past few years, hovering just below league average. I suspect it’ll remain in this area. His HR/FB will regress towards 10.00 next year, but it shouldn’t be a cause for concern.

The hardest peripheral to predict for Kazmir is, obviously, his walks. I would be shocked if it goes over 4.00 like it did in the first half of this year, but would also be surprised if it stays below 3.00 like it did in the second half. I think a BB/9 around league average would be a good guess. Let’s put him down for a 3.30 BB/9 for now.

With a 10.20 K/9 and a 3.30 BB/9, Kazmir’s K/BB would be a very solid 3.09. Those extra strikeouts, however, make him an even better pitcher than his K/BB indicates.

2008 defensive support

The question now is, do we see the Devil Rays defense performing any better for him next year? Unfortunately, I don’t. Carlos Pena and his .763 RZR are here to stay, and the rest of the infield doesn’t look to shake out much better Rays are talking about moving Akinori Iwamura and his third base RZR of .624 (eww!) to second base in order to make room for Joel Guzman at third. I don’t see the rookie Guzman doing exceptionally well, and Brendan Harris posted a very low .777 RZR at short this year. So, what do you get when you put it all of this together? Quite simply, the worst defensive infield in baseball.

The outfield is better than the infield for the Rays, but seriously, doesn’t it have to be? I mean, the infield had a combined .762 RZR this year. Carl Crawford posted a decent .872 RZR in left field this year. B.J. Upton topped him with a .869 RZR, and I think there’s room for him to improve. Delmon Young‘s .865 RZR was only alright, but I think there’s room for him to improve as well. It’ll be interesting to see what they do with Rocco Baldelli, who had a .901 RZR in 2006 and a .903 RZR in 2007 out in center. He looks like their best defensive outfielder, but there doesn’t seem to be room for him.

Overall, the outfield defense of the Devil Rays look like it could improve, but the infield isn’t as promising. I would continue to expect higher-than-average BABIPs for Kazmir and the rest of the Tampa Bay pitchers.

Final 2008 outlook

Scott Kazmir is clearly a very talented pitcher. The biggest knocks against him are his control (which he or may not have figured out in the second half of the year) and the defense behind him. I see him doing pretty well with his control in 2008, but I don’t see the defense doing much to help him. Luckily, he’ll give up fewer balls in play than just about any other starter in baseball.

With the peripherals mentioned earlier (10.20 K/9 | 3.30 BB/9 | 41% xGB%), Kazmir would be capable of putting up a LIPS ERA around 3.40-3.45, but the defense might knock his actual ERA down to around 3.50-3.55. His DIPS WHIP might end up in the 1.25-1.30 range, but — again — that defense will force his actual WHIP down to maybe 1.35.

According to Baseball Prospectus, Kazmir’s expected win total was 13.2 this year. Since we think his ERA will remain relatively unchanged (though he should get there via a different route), we need to examine the other factors. The Devil Rays bullpen was basically awful this year, and I’d have to think they will do something to improve it — at least a little bit — next year. The Rays were mediocre in scoring runs (15th in baseball), but the potential for them to become a little better is there (letting Jonny Gomes play more, improvements from guys like Delmon Young, etc.), so I don’t think it is unreasonable to think Kazmir could get 14 or 15 wins next year.

Of course, not to be forgotten, Kazmir’s biggest contribution to a fantasy squad will be those strikeouts. He was second in baseball in K/9 this year (behind Bedard, whose K/9 was three points higher than his previous best) and should continue to be one of the best sources of strikeouts for fantasy owners. As long as he’s healthy, he should log over 200 innings and would surpass 250 strikeouts with 220 IP and a 10.30 K/9.

All that being said, I have a good feeling I’ll be including Mr. Kazmir in my Top 15 starting pitchers for the 2008 fantasy baseball season.

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