If you’ve read this blog with any frequency, you’ll know that I am enamoured with lefty pitchers. Can’t get enough of ’em*. I am also a sucker for a good baseball ‘underdog’ story. 239048th round draft pick who goes on to win MVP? It just got a little dusty in here. Born club footed, but persevered to not only play, but win a stolen base title? YES.
Old lefthander, back in a big league camp, and making waves? OH YES.
While spring training is normally a bit of a slog, this preseason has been a bit more interesting to follow due to the stories of redemption for four lefthanders – 3 former MLB level pitchers and a former outfielder making the conversion to a pitcher. All have had varying levels of success in the past, but find themselves years removed from their last big league appearance, and wearing a high double-digit number in spring training, as non roster invitees. Let’s meet our old friends, shall we?
Scott Kazmir, Cleveland
A 2-time All Star while a starter for the Tampa Rays, Kazmir is easily the most high-profile return from oblivion story of the 2013 preseason. Having made a nice splash in spring training with Cleveland as one part of the Indians plan of trying to catch lightning in the bottle one last time with a former AL East starter (the other being Daisuke Matsuzaka) in an effort to bulk up their starting rotation, Kazmir has already been given the #5 slot in the rotation. While his early 2013 numbers are impressive – a 13 K/BB ratio against 9.2 OppQual opponents per Baseball Reference – his propensity to give up his share of hits, as evidenced by his 12.5 H/9 ratio and 1.46 WHIP, apparently remains from his Tampa and Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim days. In spite of this, it is the return of his fastball velocity this spring that has people hopeful that Kazmir can make a triumphant return to the MLB, after 5 IP with the Angels in 2011, and a sojourn to the wilds of Independent League baseball with the Sugarland Skeeters.
Nate Robertson, Texas
A former starter for the Florida Marlins and Detroit Tigers with ‘meh’ results (career 89 ERA+ and 1.85 K/BB ratio), Robertson nonetheless provided consistent and serviceable innings, to the tune of an average of 31 starts and 191 innings per season, until being released by the Marlins in 2010. While already asked by the Texas Rangers to accept a minor league assignment, the reassignment shouldn’t be misconstrued as a demotion, as Robertson pitched well in spring training, and did so free of the elbow problems that plagued his previous career, and also with a more sidearm delivery. While stats are sparse on Robertson with his new delivery, it can be expected that the opportunity to pitch a few innings as a LOOGY a la Javier Lopez or Clay Rapada, and be a low BABIP, high ground ball rate pitcher is ripe, and that it is simply a numbers and waiting game that is between him and a spot in a MLB bullpen.
Mark Hendrickson, Baltimore
No stranger to the Oriole bullpen, Hendrickson finds himself back in Charm City, which was where we last saw him in a major league uniform, in 2011. Your textbook lefthanded journeyman, Hendrickson, much like Robertson, is looking to make a return to the MLB after a couple of years away, and a revamping of his delivery to a more sidearm release point. Historically, Hendrickson has been a low K/9, pitch to contact type of pitcher, who greatly depends on his defense to hoover up any would be hits, and things are no different now. However, he does look to add more deception and a little more movement to his mid to high-80s fastball and curve combo with a drop in his release point; with this and his 6’9″ stature, Hendrickson has the potential to become a more effective reliever than what he has been historically, inducing ground balls at a rate greater than his career 44% clip, and making lefthanded hitters a little more uncomfortable in the box while facing him. This will come more than likely after a stint in the minor leagues to further hone his delivery, and become more consistent with the new release point. If this spring has shown anything, it’s that Hendrickson is still not completely comfortable with the lower release point, and does tend to drift up to a more 3/4 delivery at times, making him more hittable and prone to a big inning.
Jason Lane, Minnesota
Probably the most intriguing of the four, Lane looks to come back not only at a different position, but also from the longest amount of time away from the big leagues. When we last saw Lane, he was patrolling the outfield for the Houston Astros, primarily in right field. Somewhat overlooked due to the success of teammates at the time, who included Lance Berkman, Craig Biggio, and Jeff Bagwell, Lane’s most prolific season was the NL Championship 2005 season, hitting 26 HR and enjoying a 109 OPS+. After a couple of at bats with the San Diego Padres to finish up his 2007 season, Lane was granted free agency, and went on to bounce around the minors for a couple of teams, notably the Toronto Blue Jays. While with the Jays, Lane was occasionally called upon to toe the rubber when he wasn’t playing in the field, with mixed results. After spending the 2012 season with Arizona AAA affiliate Reno, again splitting his innings between the field and the mound, the Minnesota Twins offered him a minor league deal and an invite to spring training. While his professional successes have come from his bat, Lane has always had a good, live arm, and was actually the winning pitcher in the championship game of the 1998 College World Series, as a USC Trojan. This spring training has been a mixed bag for Lane, who shows a good, low 90s fastball with a serviceable curve ball, as he continues to make the transition to a full-time pitcher, and gain command of the strike zone. If his limited minor league numbers are any indication, look for Lane to be an above average K/9 guy, who will give up his share of hits, but will do so without having too many leave the ballpark. Out of sheer coincidence, Lane’s traverse back to the bigs also included a stop in Sugarland, much like Kazmir.
While the odds are against them to fully regain the glory of their younger years, each of these four portsiders are a testament to the resilience of their spirit and their willingness to persevere. Their spring training stories are also a testament to the notion that if you’re lefthanded and have a pulse, you’ll always have a job in baseball.
Cynicism aside, you can’t keep a good man down, handedness be damned.
*Except for Norm Charlton