In 2007, Scott Kazmir made 34 starts for the Tampa Bay Rays and led the American League with 239 strikeouts. While he was handled carefully by manager Joe Maddon, he still finished with the fourth-most pitches thrown in the majors that year.
He was 23 years old, he threw the snot out of the baseball, and he looked like a guy who could be contending for Cy Young Awards. Since 1950, only five left-handers had struck out more batters through their age-23 season than Kazmir -- Frank Tanana, Sam McDowell, Fernando Valenzuela, Mike McCormick and Vida Blue.
Four years later, his baseball career is jeopardy. The Angels released Kazmir, eating $14.5 million in salary, after another poor outing in Triple-A, where he's 0-5 and has allowed 30 runs in 15 1/3 innings. He's just 27 years old and while some team will give him a chance to rediscover his mechanics and wicked slider, it's quite likely his major league career is over. It will take high levels of mental strength and patience for Kazmir to stick with it.
Baseball history, unfortunately, is rife with stories like his, from Don Gullett to Mark Fidrych to Steve Avery. In Kazmir's case, he was a small lefty who threw with maximum effort. His elbow just couldn't handle the long-term wear and tear of throwing 95-mph fastball and knee-buckling sliders.
What can be done? Baseball has made vast improvements in the past decade in protecting young pitchers. Even in 2007, Kazmir never threw more than 118 pitches in a game. Felix Hernandez has topped 120 pitches seven times in his career, but six came in the past two seasons, after he had matured. He wasn't allowed to threw his slider early in his career. Clayton Kershaw, the Dodgers' 23-year-old power lefty, topped 120 pitches for the first time this year, but he's done it just once.
Compare that to the old days. Sandy Koufax, in 1957 when he was 21, threw 162 pitches in a game, striking 13 and walking seven. In 1958, he had games of 159, 144, 143 and 141 pitches. He somehow made it until age 30. I can only imagine how many pitches Tanana and Valenzuela must have thrown before turning 23.
As for Kazmir, we wish him luck. He was the first great player in Rays history and started the first World Series game in franchise history. But he's a reminder that, for pitchers especially, baseball fame can be fleeting.