The 2017 campaign has been one filled with disappointment when it comes to the Kansas City Royals, whether it be their sluggish start, the sputtering offense or even injuries to key players like Danny Duffy. But one of the surprises of the season so far would be the resurgence of Jason Vargas. Vargas sat out most of the 2016 as he was recovering from Tommy John surgery, only throwing 12 innings in his three starts late in the year. Vargas was entering the final year of his contract and many were unsure just what he would be producing before he entered the free agent market. Instead, he has helped anchor the rotation, put up career best numbers and even leads the Royals in bWAR at 2.8. So how has Vargas gone from a steady arm at the back of the rotation to being one of the best pitchers in the league? That is a question that doesn’t have an easy answer.
First, here are some of the base numbers that Vargas has put up this season: 69.1 innings, 2.08 ERA, 3.17 FIP, 7.01 K/9 and 2.08 BB/9. Most of his numbers to this point are improvements on his career averages, within an obvious smaller sample size. But digging deeper finds that Vargas is posting numbers that are fairly similar to some of his better seasons in the big leagues. In fact, when looking at his performance, there are distinct similarities to his first season in Kansas City back in 2014. Let’s start with his strike out and walk rates, which have both seen an improvement this year. Vargas’ K rate sits at 19.7%, which is the highest in his career; the next closest season to that was his rookie campaign back in 2005, which sat at 18.2%. His walk rate is at 5.8%; his career best was 5.2% back in 2014, his first season as a Royal. Even better is his K-BB%, which sits at 13.9%; before this year, his career best percentage was 9.8% back in 2013 with the Angels. So this shows that Vargas is striking out more batters this year while walking less, which is always an optimal result for a player seeking success. But how is he doing it?
When looking at the contact hitters are getting off of Vargas, the numbers appear fairly normal. Line drive, ground ball and fly ball rates are all very similar to his best years, although his home run to fly ball ratio is way down, sitting at 5.8%, which is only beaten in his career by his rookie year in Florida. This would tell me that maybe hitters are not hitting the ball as hard off of him, but that doesn’t appear to be the case. In fact, Vargas’ hard hit percentage is sitting at 30.5%, the second highest of his career, while his soft hit rate is at 18.7%, which is about on par for his career average of 19.1%. Overall, there isn’t a big change in these numbers over his career and especially during his time in Kansas City:
The chart is just looking at his time with the Royals and as you can see, there isn’t a big change in his release speed…but there is a difference.
The numbers do show a slight decrease in Vargas’ velocity, which is a tad odd for a pitcher coming off of Tommy John surgery, which normally shows a slight uptick in velocity upon a pitcher’s return. Instead, Vargas is showing a decrease in every pitch across the board. His fastball was 87.9-87.3 mph during the five years before the surgery, while now it has sat on average around 86.6 mph. His slider has gone down from the 84-83 mph range to 82.3 mph, while curveball is down slightly to 73 mph, moving from 74.9-74.7 mph. Even his change-up has seen a decrease, as it has sat in the 79 mph range this year after being regularly around 81-80 mph. It isn’t a drastic decrease, but it very well could be a sign of Vargas having better control of his pitches and getting more movement on those pitches as well. In fact, the movement is very noticeable when comparing it to years past:
This chart is looking at Vargas’ horizontal movement on his pitches since 2011. Look at the curveball movement for 2017; if you want to get a better idea of why Vargas is having a bigger increase in success so far this year, the movement on his curveball might be the answer we are looking for.
Back in May Devan Fink of Beyond the Box Score took a look at Vargas’ season and one of the changes Fink saw was a difference in his arm angle, most notably with his change-up. But the effects haven’t only been seen from his change-up, but also the curveball:
In fact, his release point has appeared to help his curveball almost as much as his change-up, as pointed out by the graph. Vargas is also throwing his curve more this year than in years past, sitting at 19.4%, compared to his career average of 8% and the 14% he was averaging over the last 4-5 years. Both the change and curve have seen a big decrease in batting average during 2017:
Vargas didn’t allow a base hit against the curveball last year, but you also have to remember that he only pitched in three games in 2016. Going off his last full year pitched (which was 2014), Vargas had a .333 batting average against his curve while it sits at .227 this year. In comparison, his change-up has seen a drastic drop as well, as hitters had a .202 batting average against in 2014 compared to .135 this year. In other words, it appears the change in arm angle coupled with a slight drop in velocity has made Vargas a more difficult at bat than he was just a few years back.
So can Vargas keep it up? It appears on the surface that hitters are having a harder time seeing his off-speed and breaking pitches this year and as long as he can maintain the new arm angle it would appear he could keep it up. If that arm angle becomes less consistent though, it wouldn’t be hard to see him give up more solid contact and see his numbers trickle back to his norm. Jason Vargas isn’t going to blow much by hitters but he doesn’t have to if he is able to locate and maintain control. The continued focus on the curve and change-up appears to be a nice double whammy that hitters just have not been able to figure out. Maybe the bigger question isn’t whether Vargas can keep up his pace but whether he will be doing it in Royal blue. His value has never been higher and I wouldn’t be the least bit shocked if Kansas City dealt him sooner rather than later. When it comes to surprises on this 2017 Kansas City Royals team, Vargas is near the very top. It goes to show what a bit of deception and location can do for a pitcher who doesn’t rely on superior velocity.