Rays' success should boost Kazmir's status as an elite pitcher

ST. PETERSBURG —Until now, we pretty much had him to ourselves.

Oh, the seamheads, with their faces buried in record books, knew about him. And opposing teams certainly knew his name. He had made an All-Star team, and he generated a little buzz every now and then.

But, until now, he had never been anything more than an ace on a team going nowhere. Sort of baseball's equivalent of a Big Foot, often talked about but rarely seen.

Not anymore.

Be prepared to share Scott Kazmir.

The Rays are on top of the American League East on June 1, and Kazmir is leading the way. He is blowing away hitters with the kind of consistency rarely seen in the majors.

Soon, they will talk about him in comparison to C.C. Sabathia. Or maybe Johan Santana. Eventually, they will suggest he is a candidate for pitching's Triple Crown. One day, he will be a legitimate Cy Young candidate.

"Of course he will," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "I absolutely believe that."

The talent has always been evident. The mid-90s fastball. The biting slider. The developing changeup. What has changed in recent weeks is his approach, and that is largely due to Tampa Bay's success.

Kazmir has gone from a power arm looking to strike out the side, to a pitcher more interested in getting outs quickly and efficiently. And that's because he has faith in his defense to chase down everything put in play, and faith in his offense to give him enough support to win.

"There were times in the past when you'd feel like, 'Okay, I better give up one run, or none,' because we just didn't have things going," Kazmir said. "We had some young guys that were still developing and whatnot. But that's all in the past. It feels like everything is going good now."

Jim Hickey could see it coming. Kazmir was brilliant for much of the second half of last season, and the Rays pitching coach wanted his young left-hander to understand what was still in front of him.

So, late in the season, before a game in Toronto, Hickey sat down with Kazmir and reinforced the kind of success he could have if he developed greater command of his pitches and stuck to a strategy instead of trying to muscle his way past every hitter.

"It was a very serious discussion. Basically, it's time for him to become one of the elite pitchers in the league, if not the very best," Hickey said. "When you talk about left-handers, you talk about Johan Santana, C.C. Sabathia and Erik Bedard, the last couple of years. There's absolutely no reason he cannot be in that class, and even at the head of that class. That being said, it'd be awfully hard to say this guy is flat out better than Johan Santana right now, but he's absolutely one of the top left-handers in baseball."

Since missing much of spring training and the first month of the season with an elbow strain, Kazmir still has not regained his top velocity. For the most part, he has been throwing in the lower 90s instead of the mid 90s. His strikeout ratio is also down a little. And yet none of that matters. He has won five consecutive games, and his ERA is an excellent 1.22.

"He really doesn't need to throw at 95," Hickey said. "That's one of the things we've talked about in the past. His stuff is good enough that he doesn't need to go all out on every pitch."

Because he is in his fourth major-league season, there is a tendency to forget Kazmir is just 24. And because he has pitched for a last-place team the past three seasons, there is a tendency to overlook just how effective he has been most nights on the mound.

Kazmir's winning percentage from 2005-07 was .559, which placed him 23rd among pitchers who averaged at least 175 innings per season. That's not terribly impressive until you consider Tampa Bay's winning percentage was .399 during that span.

That means Kazmir was .160 better than his team for the last three years. The only pitchers in the majors with a greater disparity between their winning percentage and their team's were Roy Halladay and Carlos Zambrano.

In other words, if you put Kazmir on a winning team, he could have been a consistent 16-game winner from the time he hit the big leagues.

"In a bigger market, a more prominent market, he would already be a household name," Maddon said. "The scary thing is we haven't seen his best. If he increases his command, that's when it's going to be lights out."

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com.

Rays' success should boost Kazmir's status as an elite pitcher 05/31/08 [Last modified: Monday, June 2, 2008 4:15pm]

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