When we get past May 15, we're beyond the point of saying, "It's still early." That's especially true when it comes to Rays starter Scott Kazmir. We're now officially at the point where we start getting really concerned, and wondering whether or not what is wrong can be fixed.
Kazmir allowed season highs of 10 hits and seven earned runs in his last start, pushing his ERA to 6.97 and his WHIP to a stratospheric 1.86 on the season. After his latest pummeling -- which pushed his ERA to 12.91 over his past four outings -- Kazmir told the Rays' Web site, "I'm just in a funk right now. That's what it is, and I'm going to get out of it. It's been a long funk. I'm just going to work my way through it in the four days I have off every start. It might not be the next start or the next start, but I'm going to get back."
That's all well and good, but his velocity is telling a story that indicates this funk might not be easy to get out of.
Where is the fireballer with the mid-90s heat and sweeping slider who led the league in strikeouts two seasons ago? He's gone, having been replaced by a relatively soft-tossing lefty with both command and control issues. Those types of pitchers get hit, and they get hit hard.
The '09 model of Kazmir often throws his fastball under 90 mph, even in the first inning, and even though part of that is because he's throwing more tailing two-seam fastballs down and away, it's a big change. Even last year, when he was throwing in the 92-93 mph range (which also was down from when he broke in), he still struck out almost 10 batters per nine innings. But the decreased velocity on his fastball this season has led to a strikeout rate under seven batters per nine over his first eight starts this season, by far the lowest of his career.
That's a problem for a pitcher who has never been known for pinpoint control. He could get by with walks here and there in the past because he could get a swing-and-a-miss to get out of a jam. That extra gear has been nonexistent, and his lack of fastball command has caused him to get hit hard. His walk rate has also risen to almost 5½ batters per nine, to boot, compounding the problem. He's just a far different pitcher when he can't get a strikeout to bail him out of tight situations.
This year was supposed to be a return to the "old" Kazmir, as he had largely dropped his slider from his repertoire last season and became simply a fastball/changeup pitcher, and he had sought to reverse that this season. Though he is throwing the slider again, and throwing it quite frequently, it's not quite the same pitch it was previously, and his command of it has been poor.
It all makes one wonder if Kazmir is hurt. Just because Kazmir's velocity is down doesn't necessarily mean there is some kind of undisclosed injury. He has been battling mechanical issues all year, and as an example, Justin Verlander's velocity was down all last season while he battled mechanical trouble and problems finding a consistent release point.
"I'm just kind of going in and out of my rhythm," Kazmir has said. "Right now it seems like I'm tweaking things. Sometimes the ball will come out good, free and easy, and other times I'm kind of working against myself."
For now, we'll have to take Kazmir and the organization at their word that there is nothing wrong healthwise. In the absence of any injury information, Kazmir obviously has a track record of performance that gives us some hope, but I'm very concerned at the moment about his ability to turn things around. I'd say to trade him, but his value in the marketplace might be nonexistent enough that it's probably worth more to you just hanging on to him, unless you can find someone to buy him on name value. Your best bet might be to just stash him away in mixed leagues in the hopes he can right the ship, if you don't find a willing trade partner.
• Let's talk about Rangers pitcher Scott Feldman. Yes, seriously, Scott Feldman. The 25-year-old sinkerballer who barely made the club coming out of spring training has been a major part of the Rangers' recent surge. Since moving into the starting rotation, Feldman has posted a 2.17 ERA in five starts.
Having watched his past few outings, there are some intriguing things happening here; Feldman isn't quite the same pitcher that posted ERAs over 5.00 the past two seasons. Granted, many people are going to look at his average on balls in play of .250 and his strikeout rate under five per nine and say that his performance is a fluke, and to a certain extent it is. He's certainly going to regress, but I don't see him regressing back to previous levels. He's a better pitcher now.
I say that for two reasons: (1) He has a different repertoire; and (2) He has improved mechanics. For most of his career, Feldman has been a sinker/slider pitcher, but last year he started toying around with a new cut fastball in the midst of a tough season. He threw it a fair amount, but it wasn't that good. This year, it is vastly improved and has become a go-to pitch that he's using much more frequently. Couple that with slightly more depth, including a curveball he started throwing a couple of years, ago and you have a pitcher who now has a legitimate three-pitch arsenal.
The cutter is also helped by the fact that Feldman's fastball velocity has bumped up 1-2 mph this season. Perhaps this is because of some of the mechanical adjustments he has made this year. Feldman works a little quicker and now goes to a full windup -- bringing his hands over his head -- which has helped him stay in rhythm. He has also made a couple of adjustments with his stride leg, helping him stay more in line with the plate, stay in tempo and get the most out of his delivery.
The other result is that he appears to be able to keep the ball down in the zone a little better. For a pitcher who gave up 22 homers in 151 innings last year, that's not a small thing. Yes, this might just be a temporary blip of good performance, and his lack of strikeout ability is going to cause some ups and downs, but don't be so quick to dismiss him this season if you're desperate for starting pitching.
I already had him rostered in AL-only play, but I saw enough in recent outings to pick him up in a deep 15-team mixed league where I was down a pitcher. His performance has made him at least a consideration in shallower formats at the moment.
• "Aarrggghh!" That's the reaction of Tommy Hanson's owners when the Braves decided to promote Kris Medlen instead of Hanson for a temporary opening in their rotation. A rainout Sunday has pushed Medlen's debut back to Thursday.
"We're looking at a small window," Braves general manager Frank Wren told the team Web site. "I think if we were looking at the long haul and there was a situation for a starter to come up and be a starter for the rest of the season, then it would probably be Tommy [Hanson]."
The small window is a period of roughly three starts before Tom Glavine is expected to make one final attempt at a comeback from his shoulder injury, and Wren intimated that the Braves didn't want to put Hanson in a position where they might be forced to send him back to the minors soon after calling him up to the majors; when Hanson comes up, it will be to stay.
But while Hanson owners agonize, let's not overlook Medlen. Though he is not in Hanson's class as a prospect, Medlen was actually outpitching Hanson at Triple-A, with a 5-0 record, 1.19 ERA, just 30 base runners in 37 2/3 innings and 44 strikeouts.
Primarily a shortstop in college, Medlen was drafted by the Braves as a pitcher in the 10th round in 2006. Give credit to Braves scout Tom Battista, who not only signed Medlen but also Hanson as a draft-and-follow. Medlen was a reliever for his first two and a half seasons as a pro before being converted to starting midway through last year at Double-A, and he posted a 3.11 ERA in 17 starts, striking out 120 in 120 1/3 innings, with just 27 walks. "When they switched me, it totally turned around my season," Medlen said.
Though Medlen can dial it up to 92-93 mph, he works better sitting comfortably at 90-91 with his four-seamer, which has a slight tailing action. He locates his fastball very well and works both sides of the plate. He's aggressive and can throw strikes with all of his pitches. His 12-to-6 curveball is a plus offering that can be an out pitch at the big-league level, but it still gets a bit slurvy at times. He has good arm speed on his changeup and has flashed a few of what scouts call a "Bugs Bunny change" (after the famous cartoon character), which leaves hitters way out in front.
Medlen's command has markedly improved over the past year thanks to a clean, repeatable delivery with effortless arm action. The one knock on him has always been his height. When you're listed at 5-foot-10 and are right-handed, some scouts are immediately going to peg you as a bullpen arm because you pitch uphill, and Medlen does go through ruts in which he will leave the ball up. He'll get out in front and not reach his balance point, causing his front side to fly open.
"I just need to focus on my mechanics and let my mechanics throw the ball for me instead of me just trying to chuck it as hard as I can," Medlen said. "It's about being fluid and hitting my spots."
While his ultimate role in the big leagues might indeed be as a quality bullpen arm, he has earned the right to fail as a starter first, especially with three potential plus pitches. Don't let the height and the stigma of short righties fool you. Medlen can pitch.