It’s Time For A Scott Kazmir Comeback
5:28 PM EST on February 23, 2021
One of the defining neuroses of the floridly dysfunctional organization that drafted Scott Kazmir in the first round of the 2002 MLB Draft was its insistence on no longer believing in young players as soon as they became Mets. It wasn't necessarily that the Mets couldn't scout young players in the abstract, although that was pretty hit-or-miss even by the usual standards that apply there. It was that, at the precise moment he became a Met, the organization stopped seeing Kazmir as the dazzling high school ace they had drafted and started seeing him as the sum of the various things he was not. There are many ways for a baseball team to be bad, but it's hard to come up with one more gnawed-down and joyless than the reflexive suspicion that if any of these guys were any good, they'd already be on the Yankees.
Kazmir was just 18 then, and so by definition not knowable in any meaningful way, but even as he continued to pitch effectively in a series of ambitious minor league assignments, the Mets found ways not to believe in him. What Kazmir could do, he reliably did. But also Kazmir couldn't be taller or more physically imposing than he was, which was not especially tall or especially imposing, and he never really started throwing harder than he did in high school, which never prevented him from striking a lot of batters out but was not on the merits especially hard. He climbed up prospect rankings, into the Top 10 in the sport, and the Mets fretted and fretted and finally, with Kazmir on the doorstep of the bigs, made a trade in which they chose the undeniable present mediocrity of Victor Zambrano over whatever Kazmir might become. When Kazmir became an All-Star and a proper big league ace and led the league in strikeouts and pitched in the World Series—all the things that his minor league performance persistently and insistently suggested he was going to do—he did it in Tampa Bay.
When Kazmir was one of the best young pitchers in the American League, during the middle years of the decade before last, he threw a lot of sliders and a fastball that averaged around 91 mph. The Rays traded Kazmir before they'd have to pay him—not all defining organizational tendencies are neurotic—and his body finally failed him in Anaheim. When Kazmir mounted a successful comeback with Cleveland in 2013, nearly two years after recording his last big league out and tumbling down into the independent leagues, he was throwing just about as hard, but differently. He made his third All-Star team in 2014, with Oakland, with that same 91-mile-per-hour fastball. When his body broke down again, a year into a three-year deal with the Dodgers, Kazmir had won himself a proper back half of a career.
There was some precedent, then, for the news on Tuesday afternoon that Kazmir had signed a minor league contract with the San Francisco Giants that included an invitation to spring training. He's 37, now. You can probably guess how hard he's throwing in the workout excerpted below.
Baseball is old enough that there are precedents for just about any improbable thing, or at least one outlier fluke to point to in the absence of any other hope. Kazmir is in the unique position of being able to use himself as that precedent; as unlikely as it might seem in the abstract or difficult as it might be in practical fact, Kazmir is not really trying to do anything he hasn't done before. In a video from 2020, when his current comeback attempt began in earnest, Kazmir says the lines that pitchers say in attempting something like this—there was, as there usually is, a game of catch in which the ball felt miraculously good coming out of his hand; there are the lessons learned on the way down to be applied judiciously on the way up. But if these are The Things Pitchers Say, they are also true: Kazmir has already succeeded as two different types of pitchers—first on the strength of his powerful slider in his 20s, and then with a different approach and a newly central change-up in his 30s. "Knowing I've done it already before and kind of had the blueprint, I don't want to say it feels easy, because there's nothing easy about getting back to the big leagues, not one bit," he said. "But I feel confident that I can repeat a lot of the stuff I did."
But this is all very hard, even for people for whom it was once very easy, and it gets harder with age. Rick Ankiel said similar things when he attempted his comeback a few years ago. (His breakthrough realization came in an exhibition game against fellow ex-big leaguers, when he realized the voices that had chased him off the mound in his early 20s were no longer tormenting him.) But, even for those who have a few years as a godhead on their CV, there isn't as much room to fail at some point. In 2019, Ankiel was 40 and was recovering from recent elbow surgery and 15 years from his last big league pitch. His elbow didn’t respond to treatment, and he gave it a few weeks of rest. When he started throwing after that, he strained his flexor tendon, which required another few weeks of rest. When he tried again, the elbow still wasn’t ready for action. “Mathematically, when you add it up, [that] would have been the rest of the season if there were zero setbacks after that. There wasn’t much there.” And so Ankiel called it. “Right now, if you ask me today, I am done for sure," he said. "If you ask me four months from now, I don’t know.”
Soon, but not yet, the baseball season will begin its long process of narrowing down. In spring training, before there is anything like real baseball, is when the game is at its widest. With the Giants, Kazmir will be competing for a spot in the rotation against pitchers like Aaron Sanchez and Alex Wood, who have also been All-Stars and also been hurt. At some point, there will be numbers and game tape to compare, and then some decision will be made. In the broad sweep of whatever this season will be, that decision probably will not mean very much, at least insofar as the Giants are not expected to compete in the National League West. By August, if we are lucky and if everything goes according to tradition, everyone will be kind of happily sick of all of it.
But all of that stuff, consequential and boring as it is, is still in the future. This moment just before the narrowing starts, when the whole nascent season is nothing but a series of far-flung feats of wild belief, belongs by right to Scott Kazmir. He has already had the career he deserved, twice—almost uncannily so, as his 4.01 career ERA precisely matches his adjusted SIERA and FIP projections. He won all this for himself, and there is no real reason not to believe it couldn't happen for him again. This is not just because it has happened before in his case, but because, at this moment, any strange future might be possible. It might also be too late, but if you could believe like this, you wouldn't give it up easily, either.