4 May 2008: Offense Explosion!

Sunday, May 04 2008 @ 08:45 AM EDT

Contributed by: Alex Obal

Five runs? Break up the Jays!

1. Jays 5, White Sox 2. Good news all over. Jesse Litsch goes 7.1 efficient innings. The offense explodes for five runs. This is the second time since April 20 the bats have reached that lofty threshold. Marco Scutaro hits his first homer of the year. John Danks' record against the Jays in the post-Overbay incident era falls to 0-1. B.J. Ryan pitches a scoreless ninth for the Cheap Save, running his scoreless streak to 7.0 innings with 10 strikeouts, 3 walks and 6 hits. In that scoreless ninth, Alex Rios makes a pretty freakin' sensational catch to rob Jermaine Dye of a triple.

2. In Boston, the Red Sox are two-thirds of the way to avenging last weekend's sweep at the Trop and opening a three-game lead over everyone in the AL East. The Rays entered the series tied for first in the division, which is pretty impressive in light of the rash of injuries they've battled to this point. Tampa's 15-day DL has played host to Dioner Navarro, Matt Garza, Al Reyes, and, most cripplingly, Scott Kazmir. But they've fought through it to stay in second place.

Today, as they look to avoid the sweep, the Rays get Kazmir back.

This is a big deal. Scott Kazmir is a pretty good pitcher. Once his strained elbow is totally healed, he may even be - gasp! - the best pitcher in the American League.

Heresy? Maybe. Yeah, Kazmir may not eat innings like Roy Halladay does, so he's unlikely to be as valuable. But if you take efficiency out of the equation, the 2008 edition of Scott Kazmir may give Doc and the rest of the AL's aces a run for their money.

Here is how Scott Kazmir's ERA+ over the last three seasons has compared to some of the AL's best. The average is a three-year average weighted by innings pitched. 2007 counts double.

2005 2006 2007 Average
Kazmir 116 142 130 128.8
Sabathia 104 140 143 133.5
Halladay 184 143 120 137.4
Lackey 123 128 151 138.6
155 161 130 144.4
Beckett 118 95 145 125.8
Wang 124 121 138 130.7
Bedard 108 121 146 131.1

Consistent and respectable. Just going by the ERA - which, of course, depends heavily on external factors - Kazmir has not been out of his league here. And - big and! - those are his age 21, 22 and 23 seasons. Scott Kazmir is 24. His best days are likely ahead of him.

And there are a couple of mitigating factors which make Kazmir's 128.8 look even better and indicate that greater success may be on the horizon.

Mitigating factor #1 is Tampa Bay's defense. Over the past three years, it's been a joke. Due to various combinations of inexperience, instability and ineptitude, the Devil Rays finished 25th in defensive efficiency in 2005, 29th in 2006, and 30th with a bullet in 2007 with a stunning .662. This year? The Rays are 3rd in the majors with a .731. Huge improvement.

As you might expect, this has had a profound impact on the Rays' run prevention. They've allowed 4.07 runs a game, fourth-best in the AL. Without one inning from Kazmir. The improved D has affected all of their starting pitchers except James Shields:

Tampa Bay Starting Pitcher BABIPs, Pre- and Post-Desatanicization (Note: Only stats accumulated with Tampa Bay count; I left out Edwin Jackson's numbers with the Dodgers.)

Devil Rays (05-07) Rays (08) Differential BIP% Hits/100
James Shields .307 .330 .023 73.6 -1.7
Andy Sonnanstine .329 .267 -.062 77.8 4.8
Matt Garza (Twins)

Edwin Jackson .350 .291 -.059 71.3 4.2
Jason Hammel .347 .300 -.047 73.8 3.5
Average .333 .293 -.040 74.1 3.0
Scott Kazmir .328 ??? ??? 63.5 ???

The column on the right is how many hits per 100 batters faced the defensive improvement so far will save each pitcher, if they keep putting balls in play at their current rates. If Kazmir receives a 40-point downward bump in his BABIP, which is the average of the other starters' decreases, he figures to lose about 2.5 hits per 100 batters - or 20 hits over 800 batters.

When the pitcher receiving that 20-hit assist is a strikeout machine who happens to have posted 3.77, 3.24 and 3.48 ERAs in the past three seasons in the AL East, that's a pretty scary proposition for the rest of the league.

You might also expect the effect to trickle down to Kazmir's middling walk rate and pitches per PA, helping him to go deeper into games than the 6 innings he averages now. Kazmir has had every reason to shy away from contact in the first 3+ seasons of his career. This year might be a bit different.

Mitigating factor #2: Age. Did I mention he's 24? It's worth repeating. He's probably going to get nastier and smarter himself, as the defense around him improves.

Kazmir is returning from an elbow strain, so there's always the possibility that the injury lingers and dents his effectiveness. If he does return to full strength quickly, though, watch out. Halladay and Chien-Ming "6-0" Wang are the early frontrunners for this year's AL Cy, but a healthy Scott Kazmir is a very intriguing dark horse.

3. Doc and Contreras, 1:07 at the RC. Jays go for four in a row, Doc goes for his fifth straight complete game. Like Rakim says, light 'em up, blow 'em out like candles.