PORT CHARLOTTE — Manager Joe Maddon laid out an interesting theory Monday morning, explaining that the key for Scott Kazmir to cut down his pitch count and get deeper into games is regaining the ability to throw his slider effectively.
"He's going to work on that all the time," Maddon said. "It wasn't as good last year. He struggled with it. He just struggled with the overall break and command of it."
Then after Kazmir made a solid two-inning exhibition debut Monday afternoon, he said the slider isn't a concern at all and that with his left arm "the best it's ever felt," the improvement will come naturally.
"To be honest, it seems like it really is not going to be that big of a focus," Kazmir said. "It kind of felt like I was having trouble extending (my arm) and that's why I wasn't throwing it as much. Now that everything feels good and it feels like I'm getting out there with my fastball … it's just going to kind of come back to me."
Semantics aside, it's clear the key to a better season will be for Kazmir, 25, to throw a better slider, a key complement to his fastball and changeup.
Because the slider wasn't sharp when Kazmir returned in May from a spring elbow strain, he threw it less often, and the dropoff — from 17 percent of his pitches in 2007 to just 11 percent — made life more difficult batter by batter.
"The slider is more his strikeout pitch, and he can end at-bats a lot quicker if he gets a swing-and-miss at a slider vs. a fastball or a changeup that's a little more vulnerable to a foul ball," pitching coach Jim Hickey said. "And that would be key for him to shorten the inning and allow him to pitch a little deeper into games."
That has been a recurring problem. Kazmir threw 95 or more pitches in 23 of his 27 starts last season yet worked more than six innings only six times.
Maddon's theory is that Kazmir lost the feel for the slider, and the necessary adjustments may not be as much physical (such as refining his delivery or changing where he stands on the rubber) as mental.
"Maybe through different moments when his arm hasn't felt well … sometimes you come back and you're doing something slightly different that you just don't quite get, and the feeling evades you," Maddon said.
"I think you're going to see it again. I just don't know when that epiphany is going to be that permits him to find that actual or absolute release point that permits him to do what he wants to do."
Kazmir's theory is different. He said the slider isn't a feel pitch (whereas the changeup is) and the problem was that even though he recovered from the elbow strain, and went on to go 12-8 with a 3.49 ERA, plus 1-1, 4.21 in five postseason starts, his left arm was never completely right.
To throw a slider effectively, he has to get his arm completely extended. Last year, he said it was tight and he felt like he was "cutting off" his delivery, making the slider loopy, like a bad curve, and much more hittable. (And a likely reason he went from allowing one homer every 11.6 innings in 2007 to one every 6.6.)
"I really wasn't comfortable throwing it, and it was so frustrating," Kazmir said. "I would get to a situation, 0-2 and have a chance to sit down a hitter, and I felt like I just didn't have the pitch."
After an offseason stretching and workout program, Kazmir says he again has full extension. And after throwing three sliders in his 33-pitch, three-hit, one-run debut Monday, he said the improvement was obvious.
If so, the difference can be huge.
"I guess the best description is that he was a little bit restricted, whether that was a physical restriction or a mental restriction or a combination of both," Hickey said. "I think with what he's done so far in camp that we're past that, which would be really nice.
"If he does get the slider back in order, and he has the fastball and changeup going, you're seeing probably one of the top five left-handers in the game. CC Sabathia, Johan Santana, there's no reason he can't be there. And if that stuff does happen, he will be."
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]