fastball that Scott Kazmir throws, a metropolis groans. With each slider that
plummets through the strike zone like a tiny jet whose engines have failed,
thousands of fans a thousand miles north bemoan their fate. Sometimes they must
unburden themselves to the 22-year-old Kazmir, an All-Star lefthander for the
Tampa Bay Devil Rays. So New Yorkers e-mail him to say they regret that he was
traded from the Mets' farm system, to divulge they now root for the Rays and,
sometimes, to share their pain. "My wife could see TEARS in my eyes,"
wrote one fan of the deal. � Kazmir reads the missives forwarded by his mom,
Debbie, who handles much of his correspondence, and he smiles ... but not too
broadly. He understands why the Mets sent him to Tampa Bay for Victor Zambrano
on July 30, 2004, the day before the trading deadline. "It was just part of
the game," says Kazmir, New York's first-round pick in 2002, who was then
in Double A ball. "They needed somebody in the majors right now, a fifth
starter or whatever, and I wasn't ready yet."
He is, of course,
being diplomatic. Kazmir and everyone who wasn't employed by the Mets (as well
as many who were) knew then that the trade could turn out to be lopsided.
"Someday," said Red Sox pitcher Josh Beckett, "that might be the
worst [deal ever]." Beckett's comment came on July 3, after Kazmir had
thrown a complete game, two-hit shutout against Boston. At week's end Kazmir
had a 10--7 record for a last-place team and a 3.36 ERA (seventh in the
American League) with 139 strikeouts (second). The 30-year-old Zambrano? He has
won 10 games since the trade while losing 14 with a 4.43 ERA--and he's out the
rest of this year with a torn elbow tendon.
Kazmir is a
fuzzy-cheeked cautionary tale for those G.M.'s who, desperate for an immediate
playoff payoff, might be tempted to trade a prospect such as pitcher Philip
Hughes ( New York Yankees) or pitcher Humberto Sanchez ( Detroit Tigers) second
baseman Howie Kendrick ( Los Angeles Angels) for an established veteran before
the 4 p.m. July 31 deadline. Such short-term thinking has frequently had dire
long-term consequences (page 44). It can also present a golden opportunity for
a team that has a marginally desirable player--like, say, Zambrano--to swap.
"In the next phase of great big league pitchers, [Kazmir] is going to be on
top," says Toronto Blue Jays manager John Gibbons. "[He'll be] the
first name everyone mentions."
It's hard to feel
sorry for the Mets, who through Sunday had a 12 1/2-game lead in the National
League East. Besides, Kazmir would be one of many stars at Shea; in Tampa he is
not a star so much as a savior. Consider the scene during a Kazmir start
against the Yankees on July 8: Nearly 35,000 fans filled the awkward bubble
that is Tropicana Field, which is crisscrossed by catwalks and lit by an eerie
electric sun--the giant, neon Tropicana orange that rises above rightfield.
There were plenty of Yankees fans, but a large chunk of the crowd had come out
for Kazmir; average attendance has spiked 22% during his starts this season.
Number 26 jerseys dotted the stadium, and down the first base line eight
shirtless men sucked in their guts to better display the k-a-z-m-i-r 2-6
spelled out upon them. (The Kazmir Krazies, as they call themselves, surfaced
at Kazmir's first home start this year; he now pays for their tickets.)
This type of
enthusiasm is new to Tampa. In their nine seasons the D-Rays have neither won
more than 70 games nor given the city much reason to think they ever will. Last
October a new ownership group headed by former Goldman Sachs exec Stuart
Sternberg took over, intent on wooing fans. The result: free parking, cheaper
tickets, $1-dollar hot dog nights, $10 million in ballpark improvements,
contract extensions for cornerstone outfielders Carl Crawford and Rocco
Baldelli, and a new, relentlessly positive manager, Joe Maddon. The batting
order is young and well-stocked. The pitching is, well, not so good (excluding
Kazmir, Tampa Bay had a 5.34 ERA at week's end), but every fifth day it's
formidable. "The kid is special," Yankees manager Joe Torre says.
"It's scary how much he's improving."
As a rookie last
season Kazmir was 10--9 with a 3.77 ERA, but he was wild (100 walks in 186
innings) and relied too much on his fastball. No longer. In training camp new
pitching coach Mike Butcher worked with Kazmir on two elements of his delivery:
his windup and his release point. Rather than keeping his hands locked
chest-high during his windup, Kazmir learned to bring them up, down and back
up, giving him a consistent rhythm. To better disguise his pitches, he
performed drills in front of a mirror, making sure that his release point was
the same for his 94-mph fastball--he can throw 97 but has better control at
94--his 85-mph slider and his 84-mph changeup. "Last year I'd rush into
everything with my changeup and my breaking ball and slow it down on my
fastball," Kazmir says. "Hitters picked up on that."
Kazmir has also
improved his control, especially on his slider, which he throws from the same
arm slot and with the same arm speed as his four-seam fastball. A conventional
slider is thrown off the middle finger, but Kazmir uses his index finger, so
the ball has more tilt. This season Kazmir has been able to spot it better; he
has only 46 walks in 128 2/3 innings. "Before, he threw everything to his
glove side," says Butcher. "So everything went in to a righty and out
to a lefty. Now he can throw the fastball away, the slider down and out. He's
opened up a whole new part of the plate."
His changeup has
also become a formidable weapon. Last year Kazmir dreaded using it, which is
not surprising considering he'd never thrown a change until he got to the
majors. "I don't think I'd even gripped one," he says. Now, he
explains, "instead of babying it, I feel like I can really throw
Having good stuff
is one thing; knowing how to use it is another. Most young power pitchers have
three favorite pitches--all of them fastballs. Kazmir blends strategy with
blunt force. In the fourth inning against the Yankees, for example, he set up
Alex Rodriguez with a fastball inside so he could then throw two sliders to the
same location. A-Rod swung a good foot above the second slider for the first of
his two strikeouts that night. "He's got probably the best head I've seen
on a pitcher that young," says Devil Rays catcher Josh Paul, an eight-year
veteran. "He almost thinks like a catcher. He gets guys looking in one
spot, goes to a different spot, then comes back to where they are looking, but
at a different speed."
There is no more
acute student of Kazmir than Paul, who is writing a book (tentative title: The
Tools of Intelligence) about the science of working with a pitcher. After the
gem against Boston, Paul sat down with a tape recorder and reviewed the game,
pitch by pitch, with Kazmir. "We go over strategy," says Paul. "If
we get a guy out with a pitch, the next at bat we try to work off that pitch,
knowing he thinks it's coming." It's a collaborative effort during games;
Kazmir shakes off Paul often. As Paul puts it, "That Crash Davis stuff
doesn't work. Plus, Scott doesn't see the game like a 22-year-old."