Scott Kazmir is the best pitcher on one of the American League's most successful staffs.
An All-Star, he will go to the mound Sunday at Angel Stadium with 14 victories, most by a left-hander in the AL, and as the leader of an Oakland Athletics rotation that could be pitching deep into October.
But to truly appreciate how high Kazmir has climbed it must be remembered how low he had fallen.
Three years ago, he was arguably the worst pitcher in the majors. In his only big league start in 2011, he got as many outs (five) as runs given up. In five minor league starts, all losses, he gave up 30 runs, 20 walks and hit six batters in 15 innings.
He was so bad the Angels gave him $14.5 million to go away.
"It was probably the worst time of my life," Kazmir said.
Yet, it would eventually lead to the best of times. Because going away gave Kazmir a chance to reflect, rebuild and ultimately resurrect a career even his father told him was over.
"When I got released, it was almost like I let my family down, I let a lot of people down that supported me over the years," he said. "And that's just kind of how it was."
However, Kazmir was adamant that wasn't how it would stay. He knew where the problem was — it was in his delivery. But finding it among all those moving parts, the kicking legs and the twisting hips, was like trying to find a particular grain of sand at the beach.
Still there were those who, from time to time, thought they had it. Angels pitching coach Mike Butcher suggested several remedies. So did teammates and well-meaning fans.
A parking lot attendant even pantomimed a delivery solution for Kazmir, demonstrating how he could keep his front side tucked-in a split second longer.
Kazmir listened politely to all and the advice became a distraction.
"I was drained. I was mentally drained," he said, remembering how it felt when he was released. "This is years of trying to figure it out. And it just slowly started getting worse."
Kazmir was a two-time All-Star with the Tampa Bay Rays, winning 53 games in five seasons and leading the AL in strikeouts in 2007. After joining the Angels late in the 2009 season, he had two victories and a 1.73 earned-run average in six regular-season starts.
But he threw batting practice in the playoffs, losing to the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees and giving up 10 runs in 102/3 innings.
Things never got better in Anaheim, where Kazmir had career highs for losses (15) and ERA (5.94) the next season before the Angels, who had grown frustrated with the pitcher, released him halfway into the 2011 season.
His career appeared over before his 28th birthday. But in reality, Kazmir's release proved to be the first step toward finding the problem and a solution.
"It wasn't going to get better until I just went straight back to Square 1 and maybe took a break and cleared my head a little bit," he said. "When I got released … it ended up being a blessing in disguise.
"I was able to take a step back and go on my own time, focus on my own time and get back."
The road back started with rebuilding his delivery from start to finish. Kazmir began having problems with his mechanics before leaving Tampa Bay for Anaheim and a groin injury threw everything off, causing the left-hander to slouch slightly and pitch with only his arm and not the rest of his body.
So Kazmir turned to Ron Wolforth, a former college pitcher turned pitching guru who runs a baseball ranch outside Houston. Wolforth, who has worked with Angels left-hander C.J. Wilson among others, pored over video from Kazmir's big league career, the good years and bad, and found there was little resemblance between the two.
Wolforth pointed out the differences, then gave Kazmir drills to strengthen his core and legs and loosen his hips. Kazmir slowly began putting the pieces together. Last season, the Cleveland Indians saw enough improvement to offer a minor league contract, then promoted him to the majors in May.
He was 10-9 with a 4.04 ERA in 29 starts. That led to Oakland signing him in the off-season for two years and $22 million, a bargain given that Kazmir has won a career-high 14 games and, with a 3.08 ERA, is on pace for a career best there as well.
Did the Angels miss something when they let Kazmir go? Should they have continued to help him search for a solution? Manager Mike Scioscia doesn't think so and neither does Kazmir.
"They did everything they possibly could," Kazmir said, recalling the frustration he and team experienced. "They really reached out to me when everything was going on. It was something to where I needed a break."
Scioscia agrees. And even though the pitcher he once paid to go away will be doing all he can to beat his Angels on Sunday, Scioscia says he's happy Kazmir made it back.
"I don't think you can say enough for what Scott has done," he said. "A lot of pitchers, when they get into that black hole, they never get out. He did. And he worked his tail off to do it.
"It's a great story."Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times