If anyone is talking about how they were banging the Jason Vargas drum earlier this season, you should unfollow those liars immediately. He was targeted by practically nobody; a 34-year-old who has been riddled with injuries, compiling just 12 starts over the past two years. He has a career 15.7% strikeout rate, average grounder and fly ball splits, has never averaged 90 mph, and in the past two years couldn’t crack 87. All this led to zero major projection systems putting him below a 4.00 ERA, or more bluntly, a valuable pitcher heading into 2017. His best case scenario was a guy to pick up for spot starts – that’s about it.
And of course, because baseball is such a weird, stupid, wonderful sport, Jason Vargas has not just been good, he’s been awesome. He has accumulated the 13th most fWAR in the majors so far, thanks to a 2.29 ERA and 3.46 FIP. Although a game under .500, the Royals are just 2.5 games out of the AL Central lead in large part thanks to how well Vargas has performed. He keeps them in most games, and he has earned a win in 11 of 15 starts – of course this is a terrible stat for future projections, but shows how well the team has performed when he takes the mound.
But, as mentioned above, none of this was expected in any regard. Although projections do fail, and they are designed to in a way, any time a player so dominantly overcomes a bad projection, it deserves some deeper investigation. Luck is always a factor, as well as many other sub-categories of luck, so we need to strip any potential luck from discussion to see if Vargas really has become one of the better pitchers in the league, or if he’s even worth owning the rest of the way.
Initially there are always a few quick things to look at to find if regression is in a player’s future, BABIP and line drive rate for example. Pitchers have little to no control over variation from .300 and 20% league average marks on these, respectively. Vargas is sitting at .284 and 19.9%, both sustainable and within reason that he keeps up these marks heading forward. While his BABIP is a little low, the Royals have the second best defense in the majors by UZR, and are one good game away from overtaking first place. This will be discussed more in the following paragraphs.
He passes the first couple tests, but the next thing to look at is his home run to fly ball ratio (HR/FB). Again, this mark is going to stay very close to 10.0% with little variation (ballparks can affect this, as a deeper park leads to less bombs). Vargas is at 6.6% this year, actually the second lowest in the league, meaning he should be in for some very serious regression to allow for more homers coming down the stretch.
However, just like his defense helping his BABIP, the Royals play in a pitching friendly stadium, by home run park factors. Their home grounds are the sixth toughest to homer in by park factors dating back to 2015. So again, we could expect some regression, but the Royals pitching staff as a whole has been able to keep their HR/FB rates down thanks in large part to some friendly confines.
Vargas hasn’t changed his repertoire much, the biggest change coming in his curveball percentage from 14.4% to 19.8%. While this may not suggest much by itself, if we look at how his pitch movement has changed over the years, we see something more:
His curveball has been moving much different horizontally this season, and as a result it’s been a much more effective pitch. His weighted value on the pitch is 4.5 runs above average, a career best, and an astonishing number considering his career rate of -6.6. It’s only the third year in his career where he has been above 0.0 on the pitch, and it’s been a good enough pitch to allow him to throw it a fifth of the time.
It also helps explain a jump in strikeout percentage to take him from “contact pitcher” to “slightly below average”, but a jump to 18.5% strikeout rates is not something to scoff at. The curve is definitely deserving of credit for this, as the pitch gets great whiff rates (season rate on all pitches of 10.5% compared to 8.4% career), and it takes the spot of his sinker (which itself has dropped almost 10 percentage points) which is the most contact heavy pitch. In a nutshell, if you replace a pitch with no whiffs with a pitch designed to whiff, you’re going to get good results.
Something else we’re seeing is a more focused effort on pounding the zone. His zone rate of 47.2% is a big jump from career 44.8% considering the sheer amount of pitches over a season, and again leads to interesting results. By throwing so often in the zone, it is allowing him to change the eye angle when he tries and gets hitters to chase (often with his new curveball variation), which has helped tank opponent contact rates outside of the zone which has gone from a career 70.7% to 63.6%.
And, while his walk rates have always been good, Vargas now has an elite 5.3% walk rate thanks to focusing on the zone. Directly, this has helped lead to his strikeout increases, and it’s been coming from a different approach when pitching.
So now, what do we do? Vargas has pitched like he’s elite, and there are good reasons behind what he has done besides dumb luck. But it’s also hard to imagine that he has really become this good – that this is he new norm.
Projection systems buy into the strikeouts, thanks to his curve and approach, but they aren’t buying into his run suppression. His homer rate may not be able to stay as low as it has, even in such a friendly park, and his strand rate ranks as one of the best in the sport right now. His left on base percentage (LOB%) is sky-high at 85.8%, while pitchers regress down to 75%. These runners are eventually going to score unless he is better at allowing fewer, which is always a possibility, but as it stands it’s not the most expected outcome.
Vargas’ strikeouts are legit, but he’s going to start letting more runners cross the plate, to about a 3.50 ERA (provided his peripheral numbers hold). Consider this mark when making a decision. If it’s something you can live with he is someone to keep. However, if there’s someone in your league who wants to buy for a price equal to his current production, that’s a deal you can’t pass up.
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