Kazmir reunited with his nasty stuff
Pitcher, back with old coach Butcher, finds way with Angels
TEMPE, Ariz. -- There are athletes and there are pitchers. Sometimes there are athletes who happen to be pitchers.
A former high school quarterback in Houston, Angels southpaw Scott Kazmir falls into that latter category. It is something pitching coach Mike Butcher is stressing as they collaborate in an effort to bring him back to the dominant form he demonstrated in his early 20s in Tampa Bay.
"Butch fixed me when I was struggling with some things in 2006," Kazmir said. "I'm confident he can do it again."
Butcher, Kazmir said, "treats every pitcher as a special case." This lefty, the coach emphasizes, is about as special as they come.
"I'm glad I do have a history with Kaz," Butcher said. "We had success together. He's a tremendous talent."
They bonded as teacher and pupil for the 2006 Rays. With Butcher serving as manager Joe Maddon's pitching coach, Kazmir, at 22, emerged as one of the game's premium starters.
He forged a career-best 3.24 ERA and was 10-8 with 163 strikeouts in 144 2/3 innings when shoulder inflammation forced him to miss the season's final five weeks.
"My reference when I watch him in workouts is a visual of 2006, a great year for him," Butcher said. "He had a dominant fastball, a dominant slider and was working on a changeup.
"He was hard in with the fastball to a right-handed hitter followed by a nasty slider. That back-foot slider to a right-handed hitter is an almost unhittable pitch."
Trouble is, that nasty slider went into hibernation the past two seasons, surfacing only occasionally. Reaching hitters in the low-to-mid 80s when thrown with force, it was the deadly complement to his 94-97 mph heater.
Butcher's aim is to see Kazmir maximize his talent -- and rediscover his killer slider -- by letting it flow naturally.
"I see a guy trying to get his feel back to get on top of the slider," Butcher said. "His arm strength is there. He can get it up there. It's a matter of getting his timing in creating that good tilt on his slider, getting good life on it.
"He got into some bad habits. Overall, mechanically, there was some athleticism taken out of his delivery. When you try to make a guy too mechanical, it takes away from his athletic ability."
Butcher demonstrated how Kazmir was cutting off his delivery, not bringing his arm all the way down and through in a natural, flowing manner as he was releasing the ball.
"Playing catch with Kaz, I'm focusing on getting him to follow through with his pitches," Butcher said. "I want him to get back to using that athleticism, doing what he can to bring his body into his delivery.
"I like to see him confident. His ball has natural life and jumps on you. He can sting your [glove] hand."
Kazmir was even better in '07 after Butcher joined manager Mike Scioscia's Angels staff, replacing Bud Black as pitching coach with Black moving down the road to manage the Padres.
Kazmir was 13-9 with a 3.48 ERA in '07 and produced 239 strikeouts in 206 2/3 innings, career highs in both departments.
His production, however, began to tail off. A biceps strain in the spring of 2008 limited his repertoire to fastball/changeup when he was spinning his slider, unable to drive through with force to snap it down on a right-handed hitter's hands.
"I was timid," Kazmir said. "Any time you have an injury, you don't want to test it and reinjure it. I ended up learning a changeup on the go, and it ended up being a great pitch."
After working only 152 1/3 innings in '08, he went to the disabled list with a right quadriceps strain last May and struggled to find his rhythm when he returned.
His ERA soaring, the Rays made Kazmir -- and his three-year, $28.5 million contract with a 2012 option -- available in late August.
Aware that they might lose John Lackey as a free agent, the Angels snapped up the two-time AL All-Star, sending prospects Sean Rodriguez, Alex Torres and Matt Sweeney to Tampa Bay.
Reunited with Butcher, Kazmir flourished with a sizzling 1.73 ERA in six starts, solidifying a rotation that had been patched together all season owing to injuries and the death of Nick Adenhart.
Kazmir started Game 3 of the AL Division Series sweep of Boston and Game 4 of the AL Championship Series against the Yankees, getting mixed results.
He continued to pound mid-90s fastballs in the strike zone along with darting changeups, but he still couldn't find any consistency with his slider. That became his mission as he returned home and went through an extensive winter training regimen to build core strength.
Kazmir and Butcher exchanged video over the winter, focusing on the mechanics and grip on the slider.
"It seems like a couple of years ago when I lost my slider, I was trying to manipulate the ball with my arm," Kazmir said. "It wasn't like I was following through like I do with my fastball.
"The slider was down to 78, 79 miles an hour. My good, hard slider was normally around 83, 84. It would come off my index finger. When I got here last year, Butch showed me the same grip but added the middle finger for me. We didn't want to use it in games in late September and October, but it was something to keep in mind."
When Kazmir reached Arizona, he was nursing a tender right hamstring, sustained in early January during his workouts.
Making up for lost time, Kazmir has begun to throw off the mound. Scioscia, who misses nothing in camp, has been impressed.
"He feels good," Scioscia said. "Kaz had a terrific season for us. Maybe he wasn't in peak form in the playoffs as far as his production, but he was a big part in us leading the world in pitching through September.
"There are some things he needs to get back to in order to make him dominate the way he was a few years ago."
Command of the hard slider that made hitters so uncomfortable is at the top of that check list.
"I faced him last year," Angels second baseman Howard Kendrick said. "He has late life on his fastball, some serious giddyup. He can get it up there with the best of the lefties.
"I saw his fastball and changeup, but not his slider. He's definitely one of the tougher lefties. I'm looking forward to seeing what he can do this year."
Nobody is more eager to see what he can unleash than Kazmir, who turned 26 five weeks ago and is just now entering his prime years physically.
Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.