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Trend Spotting: The case for retaining Scott Kazmir

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The Indians have a plethora of offseason decisions which are of seemingly equal importance, each one creating specific options or paths. The offseason is a lesson in path dependency, each decision opening and closing different doors.  This means that there very well may be a path that I prefer which no one could conceive of before the Winter Meetings begin.

Perhaps, the last paragraph was an opportunity for me to hedge my bets or maybe, just maybe it is sufficient reasoning. Another important piece is that every option must be explored meaning that every player is worth signing for the right price or dealing for the right value, something benevolent editor, Jim Pete asserted in his Wednesday column. Meaning that there is always value to be found even in surprising avenues, thus almost any Indian be it Drew StubbsUbaldo Jimenez or Scott Kazmir is worth signing semi-long term if the price is advantageous.

With this Hume like treatise of disclaimers (probably not fair to Hume), I will now digress to my argument in this piece. Retaining Scott Kazmir for two or possibly three years is an absolute necessity which could offer the Indians front office huge, huge dividends.

The Indians season was one marked by surprising performance after surprising performance which causes players who performed admirably most recently to outshine those who themselves were equally impressive. The level at which Ubaldo Jimenez and Yan Gomes performed this season was so unforeseen that it feels nearly impossible not to be swept into a trance that ignores other important performances.

In my opinion, Ubaldo’s second half brilliance overshadowed an impressive season by Scott Kazmir and perhaps a good omen, that points to what Kazmir can do moving forward.

Kazmir’s return season leads us to the following questions:

  • How good was his 2013 season?
  • What can it tell us about his future?
  • If the Indians pursue a contract what should it look like?

First is Kazmir’s season line:

10-9 158 9.23 2.68 .324 73.4 4.04 3.51 3.36

An impressive line no doubt, which features the 11th highest K/9 among those with 150 innings pitched as well as the peripherals suggesting that he pitched even better than his already solid ERA would show.

What if we parse out the first half from the second half, how would that look?

1st 5-4 86 8.37 3.14 .305 74.7 4.60 4.42 3.84
2nd 5-5 72 10.25 2.13 .348 71.8 3.38 2.42 2.79

Well that looks a little different, doesn’t it?

To put something in context, the second highest full season K/9 in MLB this season was 10.08 (Some guy named Scherzer). Yeah, he was special in the second half. Yes, as much as we lauded Danny Salazar down the stretch run, Kazmir may have been more impressive.

Indeed, if he had not been so unlucky surrounding his BABIP and in a connected manner strand rate, we would have talked about his second half much the way we gush about Jimenez.

So what do these splits tell us about Kazmir and how might they affect how we project his future production?

The first piece that is clear, is that some of his first half struggles can be tossed aside as we saw a pitcher who used the first month plus as extended spring training. Once in awhile we saw a glimpse, flashes of what could be but we also saw the work in progress, the prodigious talent, searching, fighting for his long awaited return home like Odysseus.

Then it clicked. Two specific pieces were involved in his second half transformation. First, control including both his fastball and his secondary offerings. This can be seen in his massive decrease in walks per nine as well as an increasing first pitch strike percentage in the second half.

The second piece was that his velocity improved, which allowed him to better use his secondary offerings off of his fastball and sinker. The continual improvement in velocity is worth looking at so I included it below.

(Courtesy of Brooks Baseball)

The increasing velocity serves two uniquely important purposes to making my case surrounding Kazmir. First, it validates his K/9 increase, or more accurately that the spike is sustainable rather than a fluke entirely based on quality of opponent, although that is a small piece.

Second, while prognosticating arm strength and predicting injuries is a near impossibility at this point, it shows a starter who became more consistent, mechanically. Furthermore, while he skipped a start because of fatigue the velocity suggests that he did not have any sort of arm issues that would suggest a return to his struggles in Anaheim.

Pitch usage also offers some interesting insight surrounding Kazmir in 2013:

(Courtesy of Brooks Baseball)

There are two minor things which we can pull from Kazmir’s pitch usage, both of which speak to his willingness to adapt as well as his improvement occurring as he grew more and more comfortable with using the entirety of his repertoire.   The first was the implementation and later expanding usage of his cutter, helping him to increase success against right handed hitters.

The second part is Kazmir’s decrease in curveball usage. Scott stopped sprinkling them in almost entirely, increasing his usage in the cutter, but more importantly the slider and changeup which had K%’s of 34.3 and 27.7 respectively.

Of course, Kazmir’s curveball was just minor grip moderation on his slider but the success of his other offspeed stuff made it irrelevant.

One last graphic of interest from 2013:

(Courtesy of Brooks Baseball)

This interested me because it denotes where the chases outside the strike zone occurred most frequently. Immediately one notices Kazmir’s ability to create chases on pitches elevated outside of the strike zone.

The cold zones on top of the strike zone show Kazmir’s ability to successfully challenge hitters with fastballs up, above the strike zone.

Though, it may be redundant it just shows the quality of his stuff, in terms of inducing chase and creating swing-and-miss.

Which brings us back to the first question: How good was Kazmir’s 2013 season?

It was tremendous; Scott made immense strides and before it was all over, looked eerily reminiscent to the Kazmir of 2008.

What can it tell us about his future?

Unfortunately for us, in terms of arm health it tells us little. Projecting how many innings he can work, with strong arm strength over the next three years is somewhat of a crapshoot.

What if we made the following assumption: that Kazmir really rediscovered his mechanics, that his arm strength and health is sustainable for the next three years, his 30-32 year old seasons.

What if the pitcher we saw in the second half is what can be expected from a healthy Kazmir in the near future?

With his arm healthy, Kazmir has the upside of a two starter on a contending team and the floor of a four starter.

While we cannot assume the second half is a baseline of production, it shows us in detail that the upside still exists.

Sign him, but for how much?

In 2013, Scott Kazmir’s financial value based on WAR production was $12.7 million. With health it is easy to project Kazmir sustaining or improving production over the next three years. Thus, expecting to sign this guy for under at least $9 million per year is unreasonable.

I would submit the following contract as the ideal scenario for both sides:

  • 2 years
  • 10 Million per season
    • Innings incentives at 150, 175, and 190 which can raise it to $12 million per season.
    • 3rd year vesting option
      • The option vests if he does the following
        • Pitches 350 innings the two previous seasons
        • Passes a physical
  • The third year vesting option would be worth 15 million guaranteed.

The total of the deal with incentives and the vesting option could be worth $37 million over 3 years.

I like this sort of deal because it balances risk evenly on both sides. If Kazmir reaches the innings necessary to trigger the incentives, it will occur because he is healthy enough to pitch at a high level which would mean his WAR value would probably sit between 2.5-3.5, making him worth at least $15 million to the Tribe. Thus even if the incentives vest it is positive for the Tribe.

For Kazmir it provides him with enough guaranteed money to want to stay, in a situation he is comfortable, as well as with a pitching coach who has helped to stabilize his career.

Finally, it offers huge upside for the Indians. If you project Kazmir’s second half production over a whole season, he is a 4 War player. This would easily be worth over $20 million.

Thus, if he merely plateaus, the Indians gain value, if he improves as he likely could, the Indians get a steal. If he gets injured the risk was low enough that it does not destroy the long term outlook, merely tighten it a bit.

These are the sorts of bets that small market teams have to make, they have to take risks. When a risk/reward scenario has this much upside you have to take it.

For those who think these numbers are garish, remember that the Tribe gambled $7 million on Brett Myers to be an innings eating #5 starter. Kazmir has #2 or at least #3 upside.

If you can sign Kazmir for the contract I drew up, put on some Bing Crosby, buy some eggnog and kick back because that would be a great Christmas present.

As I always do, I would love to hear what everyone thinks is a fair deal for Kazmir.

Author: Michael Hattery

Currently an Attorney. I have been fortunate enough to be published at Fangraphs, The Hardball Times, The Athletic Cleveland, and Marquette Sports Law Review. Follow @snarkyhatman

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