Will Scott Kazmir's Injury Demons Prevent Dominance Continuing in 2nd Half?

Jacob ShaferFeatured ColumnistJuly 3, 2014

Oakland Athletics' Scott Kazmir pitches against the Detroit Tigers during a baseball game Monday, June 30, 2014, in Detroit. (AP Photo/Duane Burleson
Duane Burleson/Associated Press

When the Oakland A's signed Scott Kazmir to a two-year, $22 million deal this offseason, they didn't know what they were getting.

They hoped they were getting the guy who had a quiet bounce-back season with the Cleveland Indians in 2013, after injuries and mechanical issues forced him out of the big leagues. A decent middle-of-the-rotation arm.

So much for that. Halfway through the 2014 campaign, Kazmir looks like the guy who led the American League in strikeouts, who pitched in two All-Star Games and a World Series as a member of the Tampa Bay Rays, who was once among the most dominant left-handers in baseball.

Through 17 starts, Kazmir is 9-3 and ranks fifth in the American League in ERA (2.61) and fourth in WHIP (1.03). He looks, more or less, like his old self.

For a 30-year-old whose career was on the ropes, it's a remarkable renaissance.

To recap: Kazmir, a high school phenom, was drafted in 2002 by the New York Mets and ultimately dealt to Tampa Bay. He made his Major League debut with the then-Devil Rays in 2004; by 2006 he was an All-Star and in 2007 he led the AL with 239 strikeouts.

The slender southpaw battled elbow issues in each of the next two seasons, but still showed flashes of brilliance.

After a trade to the Anaheim Angels in 2009, the wheels began to come off. Kazmir finished the 2010 season with a career-worst 5.94 ERA, and was cut loose by the Halos in 2011.

His confidence, along with his fastball, had vanished.

Part of the problem was physical. In addition to elbow issues, Kazmir spent time on the disabled list in 2010 with what the Angels described as "shoulder fatigue." But there was a psychological component as well.

Kazmir offered this self-diagnosis to the Los Angeles Times in 2010:

It kind of feels like I'm thinking too much about where I'm throwing the ball and things start snowballing, and the next thing you know you don't really know what's going on. You're just out there trying to throw to a spot, but then you look at your video the next day and you're like, who is this guy?

Kazmir spent the 2012 season with the Sugar Land Skeeters of the independent Atlantic League. His 5.34 ERA did not portend a comeback.

The following year, however, he signed a minor league deal with Cleveland and made the rotation out of spring training. He'd hit bottom, and was on his way up.

Nobody, possibly including Kazmir, knew how high and how fast he'd rise.

"The biggest piece of analysis we did was try not to out-think ourselves on it," Oakland assistant general manager Farhan Zaidi said of the Kazmir signing, per ESPN The Magazine. "We saw a guy who was relatively young, who had good stuff, who had good numbers, who was a good fit for our park."

Kazmir has regained some zip on his fastball, touching the mid-90s at times. He's relying more on his secondary pitches, though, including the changeup. More than anything, he looks confident. Like a guy who knows who he is.

The question is, can it continue? Can a pitcher who hasn't thrown 160 innings since 2007, who has battled nagging injuries and mental lapses, keep it up through the dog days of summer and a possible postseason run?

Is this re-invented Kazmir an oasis or a mirage?

Kazmir exited his last start, June 30 against the Detroit Tigers, in the sixth inning with what manager Bob Melvin later termed a calf cramp, according to the Bay Area News Group's John Hickey.

Duane Burleson/Associated Press

The A's insist there's no issue. Still, seeing Kazmir on the mound wincing in pain was a stark reminder of his fragility—of how quickly the wheels can come off.

Entering play Thursday, Oakland's lead in the AL West had dwindled to 3.5 games. With the Angels charging and the Seattle Mariners lurking, the A's will need a healthy Kazmir to get back to the playoffs.

The good news is that Kazmir has already proved he can overcome adversity. "He lost his way a little bit, and that might have been the best thing that could have happened," Melvin said in the same ESPN The Magazine piece. "It's a rare story."

Whether the story has a happy ending remains to be written.