Last winter, the Oakland Athletics had a decision to make. Bartolo Colon, their top starter from 2013, was a free agent. He had been so good that year that he was sure to command a multi-year deal, but he had a specific set of baggage that made the A's reluctant to give him one. They opted to pass on Colon and give a two-year, $22 million contract to a different starter, Scott Kazmir. Colon wound up getting a nearly identical two-year, $20 million pact from the New York Mets, making a comparison of the two exceedingly easy. If Kazmir is better than Colon, the A's made the right call. If not, then they blew it. One became a direct replacement for the other.
That seems like kind of a clumsy comparison, though. Just as there is more than one way to skin a cat, there is also more than one way to pitch to a Tiger (or a Ranger, or a Yankee, etc.). While measuring the big-picture results will tell you who performed better, it can be just as useful to look at the underlying numbers and see how those results were achieved. And when you do, it's hard not to be struck by the fact that Scott Kazmir is Bartolo Colon. Or at least, he's been a surprisingly similar pitcher so far.
The similarities between Kazmir and Colon are not readily apparent on the surface. They're both around six feet tall, but Colon is an obese right-hander of Latin descent while Kazmir is a slightly built left-hander from Texas; Baseball-Reference lists their weights as being a full 100 pounds apart. Granted, they each had similar breaks from Major League Baseball, followed by a rebound year and then a stint in Oakland, but Colon turned 39 shortly into his tour here while Kazmir just turned 30 in January. Colon threw his fastball around 87 percent of the time as an Athletic, whereas Kazmir has a four-pitch arsenal highlighted by his change-up and turns to his heater for just under 50 percent of his offerings. But there is one common trait that ties them both together, in the most basic and universal way that two pitchers can be similar -- they each throw strikes.
The ability to consistently pound the strike zone is both more important and more unique than it sounds. When I think of Colon as an Athletic, I think of the fact that he always hit his spots, that he almost never walked anyone, and that he set an MLB record by throwing 38 straight strikes in a game. He was a steadying presence in the rotation precisely because you knew what to expect out of him, because he was going to play his game and toss his strikes regardless of how intimidating the opponent was. And challenging hitters worked for him, to the tune of a sixth-place Cy Young finish.
Kazmir is quickly becoming the same thing. He's throwing strikes and forcing his opponents to swing their bats, and the results so far have been fantastic. He's got a 2.28 ERA with 42 strikeouts and only nine walks; his rate of 1.6 free passes per nine innings is just a hair above the rate of 1.4 that Colon posted each season in Oakland. The team has won seven of the eight games Kazmir has started, and he's put up a quality start in six out of eight. Although everything about him is different than Colon, his ability to throw strikes has allowed him to pick up exactly where Big Bart left off.
Nowhere is this similarity more apparent than in the percentage of their pitches which hit the strike zone. Colon ranked second in baseball last year by placing 50.6 percent of his offerings in the zone, and he's at 54 percent so far this season. Kazmir's rate of 52.9 percent (not counting Sunday's start) currently ranks 10th in the Majors, and he would have been 10th last year (48.1 percent) if he hadn't fallen four innings short of qualifying. (Note: Jesse Chavez ranks eighth at 53.7 percent.) And lest you question the usefulness of strike percentage, here is a look at the top 10 from 2013:
Four of those pitchers have won Cy Young awards (Lee, Colon, Dickey, Kershaw). Two more (Fernandez, Sale) are extremely likely to do so in their careers and each finished in the top-five in last year's voting. The rest are all good starters; Arroyo is the worst, and he is virtually the definition of league-average. Going back a few years, the names at the top of the list change but the general level of quality does not. Only good starting pitchers hit the strike zone a lot.
The fact that Kazmir is channeling Colon's success is good, but the news gets even better. The southpaw has one major advantage over his predecessor in the arena of strike-throwing -- far more of his pitches miss opponents' bats. Colon managed to induce swinging strikes on only 6.3 percent of his pitches last year, which is about normal for him. Kazmir, however, is at 10.2 percent, which is also right around his career mark. The league-average rate is currently at 9.3 percent, so, while that variance between the two hurlers seems small, it actually represents the difference between being comfortably above-average or far below-average.
By getting hitters to swing and miss, Kazmir can become even better than Colon was as an Athletic. Bartolo always relied on his opponents making contact on his tempting pitches, which meant he was always at the mercy of the batted-ball gremlins who like to sneak grounders through holes and drop flares in front of outfielders. Kazmir can take control of the strike zone like Colon did and avoid handing out free baserunners via walks, but he's earning more of his outs himself and relying less on the defenders behind him. He still makes other teams earn their runs by swinging the bat, but fewer of those swings bear fruit. A strike-thrower who can also miss bats is a scary thing indeed.
The departure of Colon left a giant hole in Oakland's rotation. There's no rule that says Kazmir has to directly replace him just because the team chose one veteran over the other and they signed similar free agent contracts, but it's natural to look at the situation like that. The good news is that Kazmir has not only pitched as well as Colon did here, but that he's become a nearly identical presence in the rotation as a reliable strike-thrower who makes his opponents earn everything. When I was thinking of best-case scenarios for Kazmir before the season, "Colon with more strikeouts" didn't really enter my mind. So far, though, that's what he's been.
Epilogue: Wait a minute. Colon has a 5.36 ERA this year and has given up a ton of hits and homers. He stopped being good right after he left, and Kazmir got way better right in a very similar way when he got here. Is it possible that Colon's talent was harnessed in some kind of vessel, like in Space Jam, and then transferred over to Kazmir like a Nerdluck? Given the Nerd connection, this seems like the most likely explanation. Makes more sense than Billy Beane just always picking the right pitchers every single time, every single year.