Sports is full of players who overperform and underperform in varying degrees, based on the expectations of the majority. If that weren't the case, fantasy sports would be pretty cut-and-dry and, frankly, fairly boring after draft day. That said, for every sleeper or bust, there are at least a few people whose expectations were correct, for one reason or another. Let's take a look at Scott Kazmir, a player who is not performing to the majority's expectations, ponder whether or not we really should have seen it coming, and discuss if and how we should adjust our expectations.
Kazmir currently ranks third in the majors with 139 strikeouts and 13th in the league with a 3.36 ERA. Other season stats include 10 wins, 128.2 innings pitched, and a 1.31 WHIP. He was on average the 48th starting pitcher taken in this season's drafts, but is presently the 12th-ranked pitcher in the Yahoo! game and the 34th-ranked player overall. Why are Kazmir's numbers so much better than anticipated, and should we expect that to continue?
Kazmir was drafted by the New York Mets with the 15th pick of the 2002 draft despite being, arguably, the best pitcher available in that draft. As a high school senior in 2001, he had struck out 172 batters in 75 innings while allowing just 19 hits and three earned runs. He was named Baseball America's High School Player of the Year, but his slight frame and possible signability issues caused him to fall to the middle of the first round.
He caused a stir immediately in short-season low Single-A in 2002, striking out 34 and allowing five hits and one earned run in 18 innings over five starts. Kazmir spent 2003 between Single-A Capital City and high Single-A St. Lucie, totaling 109.1 innings and 142 strikeouts in 25 starts while posting a 2.63 ERA and 1.13 WHIP.
Kazmir began the 2004 season in St. Lucie ranked as the Mets' No.1 prospect according to Baseball America. He totaled 50.0 innings in 11 starts, striking out 51 and registering a 3.42 ERA and 1.42 WHIP before being promoted to Double-A Binghamton. He made just four starts (26.0 innings, 29 strikeouts, 1.73 ERA, 0.96 WHIP) before he was inexplicably dealt to the Tampa Bay Devil Rays at the trading deadline for Victor Zambrano and Bartolome Fortunato. He then made four starts in Double-A Montgomery (25.0 innings, 24 strikeouts, 1.44 ERA, 1.00 WHIP) before being called up by the Devil Rays. In eight games and seven starts in the big leagues, Kazmir totaled 33.1 innings and 41 strikeouts, posting a 5.67 ERA and 1.62 WHIP. Kazmir was a mainstay in the Devil Rays' rotation in 2005 at the tender age of 21, going 10-9 in 32 starts with a 3.77 ERA and 1.46 WHIP, totaling 186.0 innings and 174 strikeouts.
Durability has been a question during Kazmir's meteoric rise through professional baseball. The Mets were so concerned with overusing him that he was limited to 75 pitches per start while in their system – he averaged just 4.2 innings in his 45 starts as a Mets farmhand. The concern has generally been more on speculation than actual circumstance; Kazmir dealt with an oblique strain in early 2004, but has otherwise remained injury-free. The kid gloves have come off since becoming a full-time major leaguer – he averaged 103 pitches in just under six innings per start in 2005, and so far in 2006 has averaged 102.7 pitches in just over six innings per start. The concern will remain, however, for this young lefty who has now logged 573 professional innings while still six months shy of his 22nd birthday.
Control has been the only question regarding Kazmir's on-field performance. According to various scouting reports, his high number of free passes have generally resulted from a tendency to try to pick his spots instead of remaining aggressive once he gets ahead of a batter.
He typically had above-average walk rates in the minor leagues (3.67 per 9 innings), but more than offset those numbers will brilliant strikeout rates (11.17/9), hit rates (6.43/9), and home run rates (0.36/9). Kazmir led the majors in walks in 2005, issuing 100 in 186 innings (4.84/9). While his WHIP certainly bore the brunt, he was once again able to temper that imposing number by limiting opponents to a .247 average, striking out 174 batters (8.42/9), and allowing just 12 home runs (0.58/9).
Kazmir appears to have adjusted his approach this season and is challenging more hitters – his walks are way down (3.22/9), his strikeouts are up (9.72/9), and his home run rate is up (0.98/9) despite an improved ERA and WHIP. By staying aggressive and not wasting pitches, Kazmir is sacrificing a few more home runs for 1.41 less baserunners per nine innings (13.16 in 2005, 11.75 in 2006). This maturation and specific change in his approach will be paramount if he is to take his overall numbers to the next level.
Kazmir's immense talent has never been in question. It just appears that he is making strides towards becoming one of the elite pitchers in the game at least one season earlier than most fantasy owners thought he might. I could warn you that he may fade a bit down the stretch, but Kazmir's splits from last season (pre-All-Star break: 4.59 ERA, 1.49 WHIP; post-break: 2.79 ERA, 1.43 WHIP) suggest that might be folly. Couple that with the fact that Kazmir's BABIP is .325, well above the league average of .300, and it may not be too much of a reach to anticipate some improvement down the stretch. Kazmir owners should enjoy the extraordinary return on the investment this season, because next year he will be in high demand.