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Scouting Pitchers: Scott Kazmir and A.J. Burnett

James Benkard

James Benkard

James Benkard writes about fantasy sports for RotoWire.

Scott Kazmir and A.J. Burnett

This edition of Scouting Pitchers looks at two AL East hurlers whom the Mets drafted and then traded away. Kazmir is battling elbow soreness and is scheduled to make his first spring appearance on Sunday. Burnett slammed his hand in a car door three months ago, lost the nail on his right index finger, and hasn't been able to throw his curveball.

I scout these pitchers personally, recording their velocity, pitch selection and motions by watching their games. Please feel free to post your comments below on these columns. I use the standard 20-80 scouting scale to rate pitchers. These velocities are suggestive and not determinant of a pitch's rating. For example, a 75 MPH curveball might rank as a 60 because of its movement and/or deception.

80 Outstanding (96+ MPH fastball, 88+ MPH slider, 82 MPH curveball)
70 Well above average (94-95 FB, 86-87 MPH SL, 80-81 MPH CB)
60 Above average (92-93 MPH FB, 84-85 MPH SL, 78-79 MPH CB)
50 Average (89-91 MPH FB, 82-84 MPH SL, 75-77 MPH CB)
40 Below average (86-88 MPH FB, 79-81 MPH SL, 73-75 MPH CB)
30 Well below average (83-85 MPH FB, 76-78 MPH SL, 71-72 MPH CB)
20 Poor (80-82 MPH FB, 71-75 MPH SL, 69-70 MPH CB)

The Mets took the left-handed Kazmir (6-0, 190, Born 1/24/1984) in the first round (15th overall) of the 2002 draft out of a Texas high school where he broke Josh Beckett's state record for strikeouts. Kazmir was brought along slowly and had minor elbow trouble in 2003. He dominated when he was on the mound, striking out 179 in his first 127 innings. Regrettably for the Mets, they traded him in July 2004 to get Victor Zambrano. The Rays promoted Kazmir to the majors that August and he has largely been in their rotation since.

Kazmir battled wildness in 2005, walking 100 men but straightening out his season in the second half (7-2, 2.79 in his last 14 starts). He had a very good first half in 2006 (10-6, 3.27 with 125 strikeouts) but shoulder soreness cut his season short after August 22. Kazmir reported to spring training in 2007 healthy, but he walked 58 in the first half before settling down and dominating (8-3, 2.39) after the All-Star break.

Scott Kazmir: (G/F 0.92)

		Rating:  %Thrown:
Fastball	70		65
Curveball	N/A
Slider		60		20
Changeup	60		15
Control	50
Delivery	50
Composure	55

Kazmir's 90-94 MPH fastball rates as a 70 because it has above-average run. Batters don't get a good look at it, as he hides the ball well during his slightly funky delivery. Kazmir works the inside corner to right-handers well, and regularly saws them off with his fastball or his 80-87 MPH slider. Kazmir's 77-80 MPH changeup has good fade and deception, as batters often can't pick it up until after they've committed to it.

Kazmir is effectively wild. He'll make crucial pitches just when hitters think he has no chance of throwing a strike, and sometimes when he's cruising along he'll start to melt down. Batters don't know what to expect from him and become impatient. Kazmir's fastball has enough movement that hitters often can't square it up even when they know it's coming. While he is a moderate groundball pitcher, he often seems to induce them in game situations.

Kazmir's delivery requires some maintenance, as he sometimes gets out of whack and can't throw strikes. He credited turning around his 2007 season to moving back to the third-base side of the pitching rubber. Pitching inside as much as he does is risky when he doesn't have his best stuff, as batters start to cheat and look there. He could throw his changeup for strikes more consistently, as he often floats it.

After being diagnosed with a mild strain of his elbow in February, Rays fans will hold their breath as Kazmir takes the mound on Sunday. Tampa Bay hopes to be competitive in 2008 as a ton of pitching talent reaches the majors and matures. With his good stuff and moxie, Kazmir will win 15 games as long as he is healthy.

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The right-handed Burnett (6-4, 230, Born 1/3/1977) was drafted by the Mets in the eighth round in 1995 out of an Arkansas high school. After a couple of years in short-season ball, they dealt him to Florida to get Al Leiter. The Marlins promoted him to Double-A in 1999, and despite posting a 5.52 ERA there he made his major league debut in August. A ruptured thumb ligament set him back in 2000, but he spent the second half in the majors after a brief minor league rehab. Burnett tossed a no-hitter on May 12, 2001 while walking nine. When he struck out 203 in 204.1 innings in 2002, he appeared well established. Yet he needed Tommy John surgery in April 2003 and was sidelined for a year.

Burnett regained his velocity after the surgery, and he parlayed a very good year in 2005 (12-12, 3.44) into a big contract from the Blue Jays. Elbow soreness delayed the start of his 2006 season, and he went 10-8, 3.98 in 21 starts. Last year, a strained shoulder sidelined him for the middle third of the season, but he still managed to strike out 176 in 165.2 innings.

A.J. Burnett: (G/F 1.76)

		Rating:  %Thrown:
Fastball	75		60
Curveball	70		30	
Slider		N/A
Changeup	50		10
Control	50
Delivery	50
Composure	50

Burnett's 93-97 MPH four-seam fastball and 80-85 MPH spike curveball rank among the best in the majors. He keeps his four-seamer down in the zone well and generates a lot of ground balls, making him the rare power pitcher who can coax a double play. Burnett also throws a 90 MPH two-seamer, but since his four-seamer has so much movement he rarely needs it. He is at his best when he keeps the ball down early in the game. Like a lot of power pitchers, the opposition had better get to him early: he has a 5.27 ERA in his first 15 pitches.

Burnett records more than half of his strikeouts with his curveball, and can be unhittable when he controls it well. It has such a sharp break that hitters can't tell when it's going to drop in the strike zone or into the dirt until after they commit. Hitters also aren't used to seeing a curve thrown at the speed of a slider.

Burnett's finger trouble this spring has enabled him to work on his 86-89 MPH changeup. He said about this pitch after throwing well on Wednesday: "It's a lot like a split. That's what a lot of guys say. Today it was diving down and to the right. I just clicked on it every time and kept throwing it. "Hopefully I can keep that when I get the other pitch back."

Burnett has long been rumored to be headstrong, and wore out his welcome with the Marlins at the end of 2005 by popping off about management. His history of injuries is worrisome. Burnett goes through stretches when he struggles to throw strikes, and his deliberate motion can cause him to leave the ball up in the zone. Batters who can take the ball the other way have more success against him.

Burnett is like Rickey Henderson or Paul Molitor: great when he is healthy. He makes an excellent #2 starter but might not have the makeup to be an ace.

In two weeks: Scouting Pitchers: What is it? (Season preview)

 

Article first appeared 3/14/08