There is nothing quite like making a guess on a player’s production based off of his past numbers…and then that player going out and proving all those stats null and void. That is exactly what Kansas City Royals pitcher Jason Vargas is doing. Vargas has gone out there this first six weeks of the season and not pitched like, well, Jason Vargas. Before the season, he seemed to be a great number four or five starter, someone to knock out some innings and keep the team moderately in the game. Instead the Royals were going to use him as their number two starter, which was my real complaint. I didn’t hate the Vargas signing; I thought he was misplaced at the two slot-and I felt like a four year deal was a bit much. But I didn’t hate Jason Vargas. He was a solid pitcher who despite pitching in parks that were very pitcher friendly in the past, his numbers didn’t show the success that maybe he should of. So how is a guy who has been a very average pitcher over the years now looking like a steal this off-season for the Royals? It feels like it’s time to do some diggin’.
The first thing I was curious about was Vargas’ ground ball to fly ball ratio. My thinking was maybe he was inducing more ground balls (as he has been hurt in the past by the long ball) and that was helping his success. Nope. Vargas is showing about the same ratio(0.67) as he has the last few years, which has hovered around the 0.7 mark. Percentage of fly balls that were home runs? Not that either, as he is sitting at 7.1 %, the same as last year. Balls in play? Not a drastic change, as last year was 72% and this year is at 75%. I did find his line drive percentage was up a tad, 29% from last year’s 23%. To be honest, I don’t know how to take that. Part of me is glad that means more line drives mean less fly outs. But in Kauffman Stadium, line drives can be the death of you with the large gaps in the outfield. Even his double play percentage is down from last year, so safe to say that isn’t it.
I started noticing some differences when looking at strikeout and walk ratio’s. Vargas’ strikeout ratio looks about the same(16.5% to 16.9 last year) but the walk ratio is down. The last couple years Vargas has had a walk ratio of 6.2% and 7.1%. This year he is sitting at a cozy 4.6 %. It’s conceivable to me that he is throwing more strikes and it’s leading to less walks. Except…his strike ratio is at 64.4%, very consistent with the percentage he has had over his career. It also appears as if he is not getting himself into a hole in the count as often either, as his 3-0 count percentage is down to 2.5%, where it has been in the 3’s and 4’s the last few years. On the other side of that coin, the percentage of 0-2 counts he has had is up, 26.6% to 21.1%. Allowing himself to work ahead in the count and have the advantage is probably helping Vargas quite a bit and leading to more favorably counts.
The amount of favorable counts has to be a big part of his success this year and why he has a 78% quality start ratio, 20% higher than last year and 11% higher than 2012. Pitching ahead in the count gives the pitcher the advantage and leads the hitter to reach out of their comfort zone and maybe swing at something they normally wouldn’t. I should probably note here that I also think the Royals defense is helping Vargas out a lot. The Royals are third in the league in defensive runs saved and first in total zone total fielding runs above average(the number of runs above or below average the player was worth based on the number of plays made). The Royals are also fourth in defensive efficiency. We are all pretty aware of how good the Royals defense is and how much they help their pitchers. The Royals defense played a big part in Ervin Santana’s success last year and I think it is helping Vargas here as well.
There is one more thing that I found interesting and could be a factor into Vargas’ great pitching this year. Back in Spring Training there was a lot of talk about his consistency and how much the Royals pitchers appreciated that about Vargas. In reading the article I linked I saw something in there as I was looking to see if Dave Eiland, the Royals pitching coach, had worked with him on anything this spring. What I found was this paragraph from the article:
Vargas operates with a simple stockpile of pitches. He throws an 87-mph fastball, a change-up and a curveball. Last year he ditched a cutter he had utilized in years past. He relies on guile, location and adjustments.
Vargas ditched his cutter. That speaks volumes, as a number of pitchers over the years have tried incorporating a cutter into their repertoire with very small success. The problem is if you can’t get the cutter to gain movement it will just appear to the batter as a regular fastball, just 2-5 MPH slower. In other words, if you can’t get proper movement the hitter is going to probably hit the ball hard. If Vargas wasn’t getting good movement on the cutter, that would explain why he would have incurred trouble in the past. A few years ago former Royals closer Joakim Soria started to use a cutter…and went through a spell where he was shelled quite frequently. Most pitchers aren’t able to get the movement on it that Mariano Rivera perfected, but it’s so easy to throw that they try. Vargas dropping the cutter might explain a big chunk of his success this year and could be the smartest thing he has done for his career.
So after looking at all the numbers and looking into any changes Vargas did in the spring, it looks like we have a better idea of how he has turned into an above average starter. Between staying ahead of the count and keeping his walks down he is able to be a more proficient pitcher. Add in the Royals defense and ditching the cutter out of his arsenal of pitches and it has made the Vargas signing much better than initially thought. If he continues to pitch like this over the next few years, I can easily sit here and tell you that any concerns I had about this signing will be long gone. Jason Vargas is just fine where he is at. Let’s hope this is just the first act.