Jason Vargas was named to his first All-Star team this year, but his numbers suggest he may not be the same pitcher down the stretch.
Where did that come from? A second round pick in the 2004 draft, Royals SP Jason Vargas had earned a reputation as a dependable innings-eater over the course of his 11-year career. Coming into 2017, Vargas owned a career ERA of 4.18 with a 1.31 WHIP. Those numbers are respectable, but in his 12th Major League season Vargas has suddenly managed to put everything together.
Vargas has dominated, carrying a career-low 2.62 ERA into the second half after earning his first All-Star selection at the ripe age of 34. He’s turned heads by accruing an AL-leading 12 Wins, and what has made Vargas’ sudden resurrection even more unexpected is that this career year has come on the heels of a grueling 14-month recovery from Tommy John surgery. Pitchers often struggle to return to the form they had before surgery, but not only has Vargas managed to reclaim his prior status, he has returned better than ever!
As The Kansas City Star’s Rustin Dodd reports, Vargas dropped his release point 2-3 inches during his recovery, and the results have been impressive. However, while Vargas’ ERA is strong, his peripherals suggest that the lower arm slot may not be enough to sustain his success in the second half.
Vargas may be releasing the ball two inches lower, but there is little evidence it has revolutionized his identity as a pitcher. Typically, a lower arm angle leads to more downward movement which, in turn, causes the ball to be hit on the ground. This is why submariners are often used as specialists who can induce a well-timed double play ball. However, Vargas’ lower arm angle hasn’t increased his ground ball-rate. In fact, his 37.4 GB% in 2017 is precisely in line with his career rate. He hasn’t made more than 10 starts since 2014, but Vargas is getting fewer ground balls than he did in his last three full seasons.
Meanwhile, his rate of fly balls (43.7%) is actually higher than his career mark (42.9%). So has Vargas re-branded himself as a fly ball pitcher? After all, he has managed to lower his HR/FB rate. However, Vargas is allowing more hard contact than his career average, suggesting that he has likely been the beneficiary of some good luck. Not to mention his AL-leading 84.7 LOB% (the percentage of runners that reach base but fail to score) is more than 10 points higher than his career rate, so it may only be a matter of time before his luck runs out.
While Vargas’ peripherals indicate he is more-or-less the same pitcher, there is one aspect of his post-Tommy John identity that has changed significantly. Vargas is throwing far more off-speed pitches than ever before. The 34-year-old has followed the example of aging starters before him, decreasing the percentage of fastballs in exchange for a heavy helping of off-speed pitches; and it has proven highly effective. Vargas’ changeup has been one of the best in baseball in 2017, posting a league leading 16.7 wCH. In addition, he is throwing his curveball 20.4% of the time, a massive spike when compared to his 8.4% career rate. However, while this new approach, along with the lower arm slot, has inspired Vargas’ renaissance, the results indicate he is overdue for a regression.
Vargas helped lead the bottom-dwelling Royals to a surge that has brought them within two games of the second Wild Card spot. However, if Kansas City is expecting more of the same in the second half, they are in for a rude awakening. While Vargas will be helpful in the Royals’ bid for playoff berth, expect him to skid back into his role as a middle-of-the-rotation starter.
Edited by Jeremy Losak.
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