Eighteen months. That’s how long pitcher Scott Kazmir went without a job in affiliated baseball before the Indians took a chance on the left-handed veteran by signing him to a minor-league, free-agent contract in January.
Kazmir, 29, was coming off a humbling stint in an independent league while away from major league baseball, but the recommendation to sign him came from a trusted source.
Veteran manager Edwin Rodriguez, in his second year in the Indians’ minor-league system, was coaching Kazmir on a winter ball team in Puerto Rico. He sent back positive reports on Kazmir to the Indians.
“We knew Scott was on his team and he gave us a favorable report on how he was throwing,” Indians General Manager Chris Antonetti said. “[Rodriguez] was talking to [Indians farm director] Ross [Atkins] about a number of things and said ‘hey, Kazmir’s throwing the ball really well, so he’s somebody to keep an eye on.’ There’s a lot of credibility there coming from a guy like Edwin.”
Before signing with the Tribe, Kazmir’s last stint in the major leagues was an injury-filled two years with the Los Angeles Angels that ended June 15, 2011, when he was released.
Kazmir had become a household name during five seasons with the Tampa Bay Rays. He was an All-Star in 2006 and 2008. The Rays traded Kazmir to the Angels for a three-player haul in late August of 2009.
Kazmir landed on the disabled list three times (strained hamstring, left shoulder fatigue and left elbow strain) while with the Angels.
With still no major-league offers, Kazmir signed with the Sugar Land Skeeters of the Independent Atlantic League midway through the 2012 season. He made 14 starts from July through September for the Skeeters.
Feeling strong, he hooked up with Rodriguez’s Carolina team in the Puerto Rican Winter League and gained the Indians’ attention by striking out 27 batters in 22⅔ innings.
“We’d heard he was pitching well in Puerto Rico, but then what we saw in spring training was even better than [Rodriguez] expressed,” Indians pitching coach Mickey Callaway said. “I remember watching him play catch early in spring and I was like, ‘whoa!’ the ball was just coming out of his hand so well. Here he was just playing catch, but his stuff was electric.
“The way he was playing catch in spring training early, before we even started throwing bullpens, the ball was coming out good, he seemed healthy and his mechanics were really good. He did a tremendous job to get back to where he was [in his prime].”
Although the Indians offered only a minor-league deal with an invitation to major-league camp in spring training, Kazmir was thrilled to have another shot at the big leagues. It was a second chance for which he could thank Ron Wolforth’s Texas Pitching Ranch.
Not many people outside of baseball insiders are familiar with the ranch, billed as “A place where you can dream as big as your work ethic will allow.” Wolforth’s Montgomery, Texas, ranch near Houston is also known for being “the home of the Elite Pitchers Bootcamp.”
For teenagers looking for an edge on the competition to professionals like Kazmir and Indians minor-leaguer Trevor Bauer, Wolforth is a Yoda of pitching coaches who analyzes an athlete’s motion, detects their problems and then develops an approach (albeit sometimes a bit outside of usual convention) to fix it.
“The ranch has been around for a while, but it’s just kind of caught on the past couple years,” said Kazmir, who routinely throws 91-92 mph but reached a max of 96 mph this season, which is as hard as he’s thrown since the 2009.
“I brought video, all kinds of stuff for Ron to look at,” said Kazmir, who lives nearby in Cypress, Texas. “I was like, ‘let’s figure this out.’ ”
Among other things, Kazmir said one main point Wolforth singled out was his need to stay strong on his back leg during his pitching motion.
“We ended up doing a drill where there was more of an elevated incline to make sure I stayed back,” Kazmir said. “That was one of the main things I took away from [Wolforth’s training] that really helped me.”
Even with Kazmir’s rejuvenation this season, Callaway doesn’t believe he is a finished product.
Although Kazmir’s had highs this season, such as his 10-strikeout game on May 9 against the Oakland Athletics (when his fastball topped at 96 mph), there’s also been outings he’d like to forget. Kazmir’s last start was a disaster. He allowed five runs — including three home runs — in just 2⅔ innings against the visiting Washington Nationals.
He will make his 12th start tonight ,when the Indians host the Minnesota Twins for the first of three games after Thursday’s off day. Kazmir (3-4, 5.89 ERA) is still searching for some consistency.
“I think Scott’s still trying to figure out what kind of pitcher he is now,” Callaway said. “He might not quite be the guy he was in Tampa where he can just elevate fastballs and get strikeouts. He kind of tried that early in the season and it ran his pitch count up because now, when he tries to throw that elevated fastball [usually in the low 90s], they get a little piece of it and foul it off.
“Like any pitcher who gets a little older or whose had injuries throughout his career, he kind of goes from more of a stuff, thrower-type pitcher to more of a smart, location pitcher. Like Ubaldo [Jimenez], that transition takes some time. Right now, I think [Kazmir] is going back and forth, even in a game, from being a pitcher to a thrower at times. But we have no doubt that at some point, it’s all going to finally come together. He works too hard for it not to.”
Stephanie Storm can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Aeros blog at http://www.ohio.com/aeros. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/SStormABJ and on Facebook www.facebook.com/sports.abj.